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An Age of Kings: ‘this English blood’

In the summer of 2009 I blogged for Illuminations the 1960 BBC series An Age of Kings which had just been released as a Region 1 DVD in the United States, although it was (as it remains) unavailable as a Region 2 version. Over the next few weeks I’m going to transfer those posts across to the Screen Plays blog; this is the first, originally published here on 15 July 2009.

Now here’s a treat. For me at least. I fear almost all of you will have to live this one vicariously — and for up to another seven posts too. I’ve started to watch the recent US DVD release of the BBC’s series An Age of Kings, which frustratingly is currently only available as a Region 1 import from Amazon.com. Sub-titled A Cycle of the History Plays of William Shakespeare and first screened in 1960, this is unquestionably a television landmark. The BBC’s original epic Histories cycle stages the eight plays from Richard II to Richard III as studio dramas in 15 parts of between 60 and 75 minutes each. Each play, apart from Henry VI Part 1, is allotted two episodes, with Richard II (today’s focus) divided into The Hollow Crown and The Deposing of a King.

There are times when I think Richard II is my favourite Shakespeare. That’s close to heresy I know, at least in the context of our recent discussions here. But it is a wonderful play about England, about kingship and about the place of each of us in this world. I’ve also seen it in two great theatre productions, one directed by Deborah Warner for the National Theatre with Fiona Shaw as the king (which was the first of the Shakespeares that we made for television). The second featured Sam West as Richard for the RSC, and was first staged at The Other Place in Stratford directed by the late Steven Pimlott.

For the BBC fifty years ago David William created a performance that doesn’t quite measure up to either of these. Indeed in the first half of the Age of Kings production he failed to entirely convince me as he moved from majesty through petulance, both laced with too much camp for my taste, and then, faced with Bolingbroke’s revolt, to uncertainty and resignation. He’s much stronger in the second part, in the great deposition scene and as he waits for death in his jail cell.

There are, however, a host of other exceptional performances, perhaps most notably Edgar Wreford as John of Gaunt (left, with York), Tom Fleming as Bolingbroke and Noel Johnson’s Northumberland, and also some surprising ones, including a startlingly effective Harry Percy from Sean Connery and a pre-Z Cars Frank Windsor as the Bishop of Carlisle. Almost hidden among the minor parts are such later luminaries as Eileen Atkins, Julian Glover and Patrick Garland.

As recorded in 1960 — I assume as a filmed record of a studio production shot with electronic cameras — this is of course in fairly fuzzy monochrome. But the sound is clean and crisp and truly the image quality doesn’t matter. The production (and I’ll fill in more details in later posts, but there’s basic background at the BFI’s essential screenonline site) concentrates on close-ups and claustrophobic two- and three-shots, and there’s relatively little attempt at spectacle.

Combined with the cuts to the text — essentially Act I Sc 2 with the Duchess of Gloucester and the whole of the Aumerle sub-plot — the tightly-composed visuals enhance the sense of the play as a political thriller, with Bolingbroke and Northumberland succeeding in their plot to overthrow Richard. But of course it’s also a play containing far more than that, including a human tale of friendship and even love between cousins, and also a story about the formation of England as a nation. No play is more about the earth, the very soil, of this country.

The Richard-Bolingbroke relationship is comparatively underplayed here, with the king giving his cousin only a decorous touch on the arm before the joust in which Bolingbroke may be killed (and which the king then stops from proceeding). And the larger picture is to a degree squeezed out of the frame by the constraints of television at that time. Nonetheless, it’s truly wonderful to see such an effective production from five decades ago — and to know that there are seven more plays to come, including a 26 year old Judi Dench as Katharine.

The television style is also interesting because it makes great use of developing single shots, with relatively little cutting between cameras. This is most effective in Act V Sc 5 where Richard’s musings on death and then his murder are played in just one shot that lasts for nine and a half minutes. It’s a bravura piece of performance and of camerawork, not least because of the constantly changing framing of the scene which is observed through the bars of the king’s cell.

Otherwise, there are relatively few other television flourishes, although in the opening scene, when Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of plotting Norfolk’s death, the camera crash zooms in on King Richard’s face. The effect is to implicate Richard in the crime, an interpretation that is historically justified but otherwise only hinted at (if that) within the play itself. There are also effective moments when characters look straight into the lens, as right at the end of the first part, with Richard facing up to defeat by those who have chosen Bolingbroke. The ‘interval’, incidentally, comes after Act 3 Sc 2, where the king releases his followers ‘From Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s fair day’.

Each part also aspires to close with a cliff-hanger, as at the end of The Deposing of a King. Northumberland’s news that he has beheaded ‘Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt and Kent’ is on a paper that early in the closing scene King Henry (as he now is) brushes away as of little importance. Right at the end, however, when the king has exited Northumberland again reads over his paper, lays it on the table and angrily stabs a knife through it. Cue credits and, in days of old, a wait of a fortnight (for the shows were transmitted every two weeks) before the next episode.

What’s not to like? Well, some of the incidental music is too close to a kind of tinkly ‘cool’ jazz that can seem completely inappropriate. There are a few occasions too when the actors mis-speak lines, as when the new king says ‘I see some better sparks, which elder days may happily bring forth’ instead of ‘I see some sparks of better hope, which elder days…’ But these are minor concerns in what remains an astonishing and truly historical achievement. The campaign to get a UK release must surely start here.

In the deposition scene, before he is hauled off to be executed as a traitor Frank Windsor’s Bishop of Carlisle rails against Bolingbroke’s illegitimate seizure of the throne

If you crown him, let me prophesy
The blood of English shall manure the ground

Which is what we’ll see (or at least I will) unfold across the two parts of Henry IV, Henry V, the Henry VI trilogy and finally Richard III. Such is the interest and significance of An Age of Kings, and my pleasure in having it available again, I’m planning a weekly post until I go on holiday and then in late August to return to it. Falstaff, Agincourt, Joan of Arc, the Wars of the Roses, Bosworth Field. Bring it on.

All images screengrabs from An Age of Kings, © BBC.

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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