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An Age of Kings: ‘die all, die merrily’

It seems that Saturday is the quietest day for visitors to the Screen Plays blog. Perhaps that makes it the appropriate day to release over the coming weeks the other posts in my 2009 journey through the US DVD of An Age of Kings, the BBC’s fifteen-part drama series drawn from Shakespeare’s History plays which was transmitted live in 1960. Today’s post about Henry IV Part One is the second in the series (the first is here) and originally appeared on the Illuminations blog on 22 July 2009.

While Richard II is among my favourite Shakespeare plays, the pleasures and interest of the two dramas that follow it in the Histories too often pass me by. Nor, although it contains much of interest, does the first of these, Henry IV Part One, in the BBC’s epic An Age of Kings do much to chip away at my prejudice. The cycle, which was produced in 1960, has recently been released on DVD in the USA, and this is the second in a series of weekly posts as I watch the eight plays. So the encounter today is with Falstaff and Harry Percy, and we move from the tavern to the field of battle. As I’ll detail below, neither location is entirely convincing but first I want to share some wise and still-pertinent words from Sir Kenneth Clark.

To celebrate the three hundred and ninety-first anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, Sir Kenneth Clark proposed the toast ‘The Immortal Memory’ at what The Times called a ‘commemorative luncheon’ in Stratford-on-Avon. Clark, who just over a decade later presented the ground-breaking series Civilisation, was then (this is April 1955) Chairman of both the Arts Council of Great Britain and of the Independent Television Authority. (Regular readers may recognise that I am fascinated by Clark, his complex cultural politics — and his many love affairs.) In Stratford he took time out from preparing the launch of commercial television later in the year to reflect on the Bard in the modern world. As The Times reported,

Sir Kenneth Clark said that whereas many people besides himself had felt the importance of an increased mastery in the speaking of Shakespearian verse, he, in particular, had to think about a means of communication by which the world of Shakespeare’s thought, imagination, poetry, and humanity could be brought to hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen who seldom read a book and never entered a theatre.

Using the word ‘television’, Sir Kenneth Clark said that he heard some groans. ‘My ear is trained to catch the quiet groans of cultured people on the mention of that word. But I am undeterred because I refuse to believe that the millions of our countrymen, whose sole need of mental and imaginative stimulus television is fast becoming, should be condemned, on some pessimistic theory, to what is stupid, shallow, and crude. All the great disasters of the world have taken place from intellectuals shrugging their shoulders or throwing in their hands.

‘Of course it is difficult to put Shakespeare on television — very difficult — but not impossible’. (‘Television and Shakespeare: Sir Kenneth Clark’s Words of Advice’, The Times, 25 April 1955, p. 17)

Robert Hardy in An Age of Kings: Henry IV Part OneFive years later producer Peter Dews (working with Robert Hardy, left, and many others) demonstrated triumphantly that it was indeed ‘not impossible’ with An Age of Kings. Henry IV Part One; this, like all but one of the other plays in the cycle, was first shown in two parts, separated by a fortnight. The text is played almost in full, and you can tell it was a different age then because the first, Rebellion from the North, runs for 76 minutes, and the second, The Road to Shrewsbury, 71 minutes; such unequal lengths would be unthinkable in these tidier times.

I intend to look at the production process and the series’ reception, both here and in the States, in more detail in later posts. But here are a couple of snippets from publications about the project. First, this is from Al Senter’s essay in the useful but slightly skimpy booklet that accompanies the US DVD:

Rehearsals took place on the top floor of the Drill Hall in Bulwer Street, Shepherds Bush, half a mile away from where the BBC’s palatial new premises were under construction. It had been intended that such a prestige production would have been the first to be made in the BBC’s gleaming new studios but inevitably they were not ready in time to house An Age of Kings. Therefore the first batch of programs was broadcast from the BBC’s Riverside Studios by the Thames in Hammersmith. Patrick Garland [who in Henry IV Part One is a notable John of Lancaster] remembers relaxing by the river, exchanging lunchtime talk with his fellow actors.

The next quote is from a treasure trove of articles recently published in Shakespeare Survey 61: Shakespeare, Sound and Screen. (Edited by Peter Holland, this tremendous collection is only available as a Cambridge University Press hardback at the eye-watering price of £60; get thee to a library.) One of the excellent essays (and I’ll be returning to this one and others) is ‘An Age of Kings and the “Normal American” ‘ by Patricia Lennox from New York University. Working from the scripts in the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, she details the production schedule:

After a Thursday performance [which was transmitted live] the actors had four days off to learn their lines, followed by rehearsals from 10:30 to 5:30 from Tuesday to Tuesday, with a day off on Sunday and a half day on Saturday. The day before the broadcast there were camera rehearsals from 2pm to 10pm. On the day of the broadcast there were more camera rehearsals from 2pm to 7pm, a two-hour break and a performance at 9pm. [Peter] Dews was not exaggerating when he worried about keeping the energy up.

Back to Al Senter’s essay:

An Age of Kings contains a number of battle scenes [including, of course, in Henry IV Part One], hard to do convincingly even in state-of-the-art television studios. The space was effectively divided into two sets with a connecting corridor where close, hand-to-hand combat could be staged. [Michael] Hayes had four cameras and the occasional crane at his disposal and a cyclorama to suggest background details such as sky. There were, says Julian Glover [one of the regular cast], ‘a lot of fog and close-ups rather than mid or long shots’.

The crane contributes one crucial move to Henry IV Part One. Just before the battle of Shrewsbury the frame moves from a shot of Falstaff and his motley band feasting and guzzling on the ground up to King Henry, Hal, and John of Lancaster standing above them in their battle dress awaiting a date with destiny. It is a strikingly effective way of drawing together the strands of the play and the levels of England’s society while at the same indicating distance and difference.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Henry IV Part One is Sean Connery’s impressive, intelligent performance as the rebel Harry Percy. He can play hot-blooded and grand, but he is also particularly engaging in the farewell scene with his wife Kate, which is presented in a single developing shot with the two of them on a large bed. It is touching and sexy and loving.

As Percy’s nemesis, Prince Hal, Robert Hardy is also strong, although the anonymous reviewer in The Times (you can tell I’ve been in the archives this week) offered only qualified praise.

Mr Robert Hardy [what a different time this was, Mr] does not seem completely at home with the character of Hal — he offers an intelligent and consistent reading, taking his cue from the early soliloquy in which Hal foresees his own reformation to make the prince basically thoughtful, even melancholy, and never more than half engaged in his disreputable episodes. (‘An Age of Kings: Cast of Henry IV None Too Happy’, The Times, 27 May 1960, p. 18)

An Age of Kings: Henry IV Part OneAn Age of Kings: Henry IV Part OneMr Frank Pettingel as Falstaff fared little better from The Times (‘somehow lacking the right substantial personality’) and my antipathy to the merrie England scenes, set in part in an all-too-obviously under-populated inn, makes it hard for me to enthuse more. Certainly I felt that the encounters with Percy, and the exchanges between King Henry (Tom Fleming, as good here as he was as Bolingbroke) and Hal are the ones that still work vividly after nearly fifty years.

The scuffle early on to rob the transport of the king’s treasure is particularly poor and I’m afraid that fight arranger John Greenwood’s choreorgaphy of the Hal versus Hotspur clash really hasn’t stood the test of time. Set against this there’s a gloriously An Age of Kings: Henry IV Part Oneover-the-top cameo from William Squire as Owen Glendower and some very effective use of overlaid images as we see Harry Percy’s face and then Hal’s superimposed on scenes of battle.

Overall, though, Henry IV Part One doesn’t show off An Age of Kings at its best — although I’m prepared to admit that at least part of that is down to my current lack of enthusiasm for the text. On, then, from Shewsbury to — next week — Part Two, The New Conspiracy and Uneasy Lies the Head

All images are framegrabs from the BBC Warner DVD release of An Age of Kings; © BBC.


4 thoughts on “An Age of Kings: ‘die all, die merrily’

  1. John,

    I’ve elected to have new posts emailed to me, so I’ll only be clicking onto the site if I want to add a comment. I don’t know how that affects the overall count.

    I haven’t seen An Age of Kings, but I do question the wisdom of showing a play in 2 halves 2 weeks apart! It also strikes me that they should have rehearsed the whole play before filming it, even if they then split up the filming, though I suppose that would have cost more in rehearsal time. I’m not surprised some of it looks a bit weak. What a shame you don’t like the play. I’ve often found Part 2 meanders a bit too much, but I love Part 1.

    (from quite close to Shrewsbury)

    Posted by Anna | 18 June 2011, 4:13 pm
    • Many thanks, Anna – it is interesting that they must have felt that the audience couldn’t cope with the full length of a Shakespeare, although of course there had been many more-or-less complete BBC productions of individual plays before this. As far as I can discern, the BBC was keen to create a kind of television serial from the Histories; hence the decision to turn them into ‘episodes’ that lasted close (or at least closer) to an hour in length. For some plays in the cycle, I think, this works better than for others. And one day I’ll see a really great production of Henry IV Part One (with a credible Falstaff) which will make me fall in love with the play.

      Posted by John Wyver | 19 June 2011, 7:04 am
  2. There is so much to say in grateful response to your blog on this play and this wonderful series.

    Let me limit myself to three observations.

    (1) I heartily agree that Sean Connery as Harry Percy is a revelation. I have always found him in the other parts he has played (Bond; the boxer in ‘The Frightened City’; the truck driver in ‘Hell Drivers’ &c) less than wholly convincing. It’s partly his ineradicable Scottish accent, which here is the opposite of inapt. Here he conveys the essence of Harry Hotspur superbly: the freshness, the youthfulness. With W H Auden I see Falstaff as not ONLY a disgraceful Lord of Misrule and very funny with it (I mean, in the original play, regardless of Frank Pettingell’s account) but also as a transposition of heavenly values (sheer innocent goodness) into a very indirect earthly metaphor. Minus W H Auden, I also see Hotspur as being the other half of the same signpost. I.e. – Prince Hal has the profound instinct to choose for a companion and for a rival two men who point, unconsciously, the way to Perfect Kingship (indeed perfect human nature). Yet this path the Prince of Wales does not take and his strategies in ‘Henry V’, which is really a scheme of bamboozlement masquerading as patriotic heroism – nevertheless stirring and impressive – are all flops in the middle and long term. Falstaff lives in the present like a little child. Hotspur has an innocent schoolboy’s love of truth-telling (‘Speak truth and shame the Devil’ he urges Glendower). They are quite impossible persons as, respectively, exemplars of right conduct in ordinary life and in statecraft. But as metaphysical signposts they show the way. Henry of Monmouth seeks and ‘has the experience but misses the meaning’ to adapt Eliot’s phrase from the ‘Four Quartets’. I think Shakespeare offers us the insight not to make that mistake.

    (2) I watched this series when it came out, with all my eyes and ears, avidly. I was 11 years old at that date. Indeed when my family went on holiday to Elgin in the summer of that year I obtained permission, and an adult chaperone, to go to a café in the town, which café had a TV set, so as not to miss an episode. The point of this reminiscence is that ‘An Age of Kings’ struck me as magnificent then and on viewing it afresh all these decades later (on the Region 1 DVDs I obtained from America a few years ago) it still affects me as a terrific piece of work. Here is an instance of Time not having placed rose-tinted lens in front of somebody’s eyes. The series is as good now as I thought at the time.

    (3) I applaud the generally tight close-up camera-work seen throughout ‘An Age of Kings’. It seems to me wholly appropriate for all Shakespeare screen-renditions, and for two reasons. [i] TV cannot compete, in budgets, with big motion-pictures made for the cinema. Panoramic vistas on television can make a Shakespeare performance look meagre and poverty-stricken. Even 70 ‘extras’ moving about on a battlefield – as in the more recent ‘Hollow Kings’ version of ‘Henry V’ – do not really persuade one to suppose that this is indeed a reasonable representation of what was in view at Agincourt. [ii] The Elizabethan stage was helpfully bare of everything except sumptuous costumes and a few props. This meant it did not do battle with Shakespeare’s so rich text. In a film or TV production of a Shakespeare play the tendency is for more to mean less. A fully furnished picture (e.g. a battle scene with 10,000 extras) conflicts with the evocative language issuing from the characters’ mouths. The auditor is pulled two ways; by the visuals telling the story THEIR way, and the words telling the story THEIR way.

    Sorry for being a gasbag, but Enthusiasm Will Utter!

    Posted by Peter Scott | 10 August 2014, 9:36 am
  3. We have a campaign to get Robert Hardy the Knighthood that is so deserved and so overdue. We are hoping it will be the best 90th Birthday present possible ! The nomination is under consideration and we have the support of some very influential and fascinating people who have worked with Robert over the years.

    Giovanna Cresswell-Forrester

    Posted by vannamusings | 29 July 2015, 12:33 pm

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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