In the summer of 2009 I blogged my way through the fifteen-part BBC series of Shakespeare’s History plays, An Age of Kings. This had been recently released as a Region 1 DVD in the United States, although, as is still the case, it was not made available with Region 2 encoding for Britain. I am re-posting my thoughts here, including today’s offering, which originally appeared here (in a slightly different form) on 26 August 2009.
Uniquely among the eight plays, Henry VI, Part One occupies only a single episode of An Age of Kings (titled The Red Rose and the White), and so was drastically cut. I want to reflect on those cuts, on the performances in particular of the two actresses who dominate this part, and also on what the series might have meant to the BBC nearly fifty years ago.
Seemingly one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Henry VI, Part One usually contrasts the bickering of the English nobles at home with the military exploits — and mostly triumphs — of John Talbot in France. Here Talbot is entirely excised, as are all of the battle scenes. The scenes designated in the recent Oxford Shakespeare edition as I.5, I.6 and I.7 go, as do II.1, II.2, II.3; II.5. III.2 to III.8 have no presence here; and Act IV is reduced to the image of Henry’s coronation and just two lines of dialogue. V.2 is also cut, as are many individual lines and short speeches throughout (Henry VI, Part One, ed. Michael Taylor (Oxford: OUP, 2008)).
As a consequence, the play becomes a sequence of small-scale encounters between the factions jostling for power around the young and pious new king. The French court really only appears at the start when Joan la Pucelle is brought before the Dauphin. She quickly captivates him with her confidence and boyish sexuality. In later scenes we see her just once being carried in triumph from the field before she is facing defeat, a perfunctory trial, and (a rather scary) immolation.
The play isn’t the easiest to follow without some knowledge of medieval England, and the cuts make it more confusing. The fracturing of the English court into the groups around Richard, Duke of York (played by Jack May) and the houses of Somerset and Suffolk is well-played in what is meant to be the Temple rose brier. But the roses that each pluck, some red and some white, all appear the same colour in the grainy monochrome images. One other strand, in Act V, is played with gusto and great conviction, as Suffolk (Edgar Wreford) woos Margaret, daughter of the Duke of Anjou. He has a mission to secure her hand in marriage for young Henry (an effectively ineffectual Terry Scully), at which he succeeds, but captivated by her beauty he makes love to her on his on behalf and she is quick to respond. The concluding lines of the drama set up much of the plot for the next play.
Margaret shall now be queen and rule the King;
But I will rule both her, the King, and realm.
Margaret, who is to be a key character in the new three plays as well, is vividly played by Mary Morris, whose chiselled face and striking screen presence looked immediately familiar. Yet I knew nothing of her career, and it was only after a little research that I realised seven or so years after An Age of Kings she was a notable Number Two in The Prisoner episode Dance of the Dead (ITC for ITV, 1967). She also appeared in the 1982 Doctor Who story Kinda (BBC) and before that in A for Andromeda (BBC, 1961). IMDb says that in addition ‘she toured Britain with her own theatrical touring company’ and her performance here unquestionably makes a strong impression.
The other female lead is Eileen Atkins as Joan, a fiery, youthful, delusional figure whose strength brings the Dauphin (Jerome Willis) literally to Joan’s knees. ‘Let me thy servant, and not sovereign be’ is played with the Dauphin begging to be mastered (see the first picture above), and the scene is charged with a complex sexuality. Joan’s great moment, however, comes towards the end when, faced with defeat (and with Shakespeare throwing out the historical sequence of events), she tries to conjure up her demonic helpers, ‘ye familiar spirits’, to aid the French armies.
The camera moves in on her face, fixing finally on a very big close-up of her eyes. Superimposed on each iris is a writhing dancer, an effect that must have been immensely complex to achieve with the technology of the time and the exigencies of a live transmission. Also distinctive in technological terms is the smoky haze that engulfs Joan as she is burned for her crimes against the English. Eileen Atkins is rather wonderful in the role, reducing by contrast those playing the English nobles by contrast to a succession of bit-parts.
For all the narrative jumps and confusions about who’s who and which side are they on, The Red Rose and the White is definitely a good watch. But for many years the Henry VI plays were only rarely played, although more recently the RSC, with Michael Boyd’s cycle The Histories, the English Shakespeare Company, and Ed Hall’s Rose Rage with the all-male Propeller Theatre, have given them significantly more currency.
All three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI have found their way on to the stage in Station Street and, if the venture has achieved naught else, it has proved beyond doubt that the three plays belong to the theatre and not to the study; to the actor and not to the scholar.
The producer of An Age of Kings, Peter Dews w,orked with the Birmingham company on other productions and there’s no doubt that these stagings influenced his television epic. At least one cast member, Paul Daneman, played both in Birmingham and for the BBC (and he’s coming up as Richard III).
Two decades after An Age of Kings the Henry VI trilogy was one of the most successful offerings in The BBC Television Shakespeare series. In 1983 Jane Howell set the dramas in a kind of adventure playground, or stockade, which gradually deteriorates as events unfold. She eschews any attempts at realism and treats the English nobles as what she described as ‘prep school children’. But I’m going to hold off from a more specific comparison with the Howell productions until Henry VI, Part Two. The plays were also integrated into the RSC’s The Wars of the Roses, which the BBC filmed in 1963…
What I’m interested in here is what An Age of Kings meant to the BBC in 1960. Why did it mount such an ambitious and expensive production — and, in particular, why then? In the late 1950s the Corporation was feeling the full effects of competition from the still-new commercial service ITV, which started in 1955. Its aggressively populist, entertainment-led schedule was attracting the majority viewers away from the more traditional BBC. Not that a cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays would do much to counter that — but there were other considerations in play.
By 1958, when An Age of Kings must have been under discussion, it was clear that the Conservative government (which was to re-elected the following year) was planning a new commission to consider the future of broadcasting. Central to this would be the terms under which the BBC would continue to receive its licence fee, and also the possible provision of a third television channel. The BBC desperately wanted to secure any new service — which of course it did in the wake of the Pilkington Report, eventually published in June 1962. BBC2, with an emphasis on the arts, on education and minority interests, was launched in 1964.
What better demonstration could there be of the BBC’s capacities than an ambitious series of Shakespeare dramas? Especially when it distinguished the Corporation from the downmarket ITV which, seemingly, would never mount such a venture. An Age of Kings must have been in part at least addressed to a narrow audience of opinion formers who would shape the Pilkington Report (Report of the Committee on Broadcasting, 1960, Cmd 1753). And it succeeded brilliantly, because the Corporation was widely praised by Pilkington while the programmes of the ITV companies were politely castigated.
There were other agendas at work, too, and this subject feels like a rich area for further research. As is evidenced by the attention paid to it in the official 1961 BBC Handbook, the department known then as BBC Television Promotions was a growing preoccupation for the Corporation. The forerunner of today’s BBC Worldwide, this had been set up to sell BBC programmes overseas, and even then it seems to have been seen as a potentially significant source of supplementary revenue. Certainly the only mention in the Handbook for An Age of Kings, which was one of the BBC’s great critical successes of the year, is the following:
In the autumn of 1960, the fifteen episodes of Shakespeare’s historical plays An Age of Kings were sold by Television Promotions Department to commercial and non-commercial television organizations in the United States, and also to the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
(For more on the series in the USA, see the post An Age of Kings: ‘uneasy lies the head’.) One other set of ideas that’s worth thinking about is the contemporary monarchy on television, when their presence on the screen was still a significant novelty. It was a moment of import when Prince Philip introduced International Geophysical Year on the BBC in 1957, and that year was also the occasion for the first television Christmas message by the Queen. And in 1960, right in the middle of the first run of An Age of Kings, more than 300 million people around the world saw the royal wedding of Princess Margaret.
Would British viewers have kept Margaret of Anjou and Margaret Armstrong-Jones née Windsor entirely separate in their minds? What ideas about ‘their’ royal family might viewers have taken from the feuding, fighting royals of the Middle Ages. Television’s contribution to the loss of aura of the Windsors, and the growing awareness that they are in fact just another often dysfunctional family, is usually dated to the first screening of Richard Cawston’s 1969 documentary Royal Family (BBC/ITA). Perhaps, however, that story starts with the impact of An Age of Kings and the flirty, self-interested duplicity of a princess called Margaret.