During the summer of 2009 I blogged the recently released US DVD boxset of the BBC’s 1960 cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays, An Age of Kings. I am repeating the posts here on a weekly cycle, and today’s contribution about the two episodes of Henry VI, Part Two originally appeared here on 2 September 2009.
Today we reach Henry VI, Part Two which is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, one of his least-performed and yet, with Jack Cade’s rebellion at its heart, potentially one of the most exciting. But instead of considering the whole work, I want to take just the opening scene and compare it with the opening of the same play in The BBC Television Shakespeare version broadcast some 23 years later.
Act I Scene 1 begins with King Henry anxiously awaiting the arrival of his new bride, Margaret of Anjou. She has been brought from France by the Marquis of Suffolk, who in the scene is made a Duke for his pains. By this point (in the cycle at least) Suffolk is also Margaret’s lover and — like pretty much everyone else — is scheming to take over the throne. The English lords learn that Suffolk has done what they consider a totally unacceptable deal for Margaret’s hand, but Henry blithely accepts the terms. The king and soon-to-be-queen having departed, the nobles grumble and plot before York has a final soliloquy in which he confides that, ‘A day will come when York shall claim his own’.
An Age of Kings was recorded in monochrome, while the 1983 version is in colour — and colour which stands up pretty well on the available DVD. The later production begins with greater spectacle, and with the assembly of the court, while An Age of Kings jumps straight in with the arrival of Suffolk and Margaret. In 1983 a white carpet is rolled out for them and Margaret advances through a shower of confetti. (This echoes the entrance of Joan la Pucelle in the previous play.) They did things more simply in 1960.
As throughout An Age of Kings, the text is heavily filleted, with individual lines and whole speeches omitted, while the 1983 version plays a much fuller version of the words. As a consequence in An Age of Kings the scene lasts for 9 minutes and 52 seconds while in 1983 it runs for 17 minutes and 33 seconds.
Surprisingly, however, in 1983 director Jane Howell used just 34 individual camera shots (some of which are returned to) for the action, while producer Peter Dews employed 26. That means that in 1960 the average shot length across the scene was 23 seconds while in 1983 it was 31 seconds. Now it may be that this is an anomaly, but I have always imagined that, in broad terms, shot lengths in studio drama shortened over the years as cameras and vision mixing improved and as viewers’ attention needed to be held more. This suggests not, although several developing shots in both versions last for what feels like an age, and this kind of visual grammar has all but disappeared from our screens now.
While it doesn’t quite fit with my stated focus, the difference in the opening credits is striking. An Age of Kings opens with a stone table, perhaps a funeral bier, on which are ranged five decorated crowns, onto one of which each week the camera moves. The superimposed captions are (1) the title, An Age of Kings, then (2) A Cycle of the History Plays of William Shakespeare, before finally (3) the episode title.
Literary heritage was more important in 1983 when, like all of the plays, this one opened with the famous engraving of Shakespeare from the 1623 Folio before including the legend (in the same typeface as the play’s title) Presented by the British Broadcasting Corporation, and including credits for the producer (by this stage it was Jonathan Miller) and the director. An Age of Kings wants to get us straight to the action.
The 1983 production is, perhaps inevitably, more lavish, and the earlier set remains subsidiary to the action. As far as one is aware it’s a generic court setting with some steps, a pillar or two and thrones. Jane Howell set her production of the Henry VI trilogy in a kind of stockade or adventure playground designed by Oliver Bayldon. Compared with its colourful, pristine state in Henry VI, Part One this is already beginning to show significant signs of stress, with cracking and peeling.
In her 1991 book The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making the Televised Canon (University of North Carolina Press), Susan Willis writes of the set providing an
… adaptable, open, multilevel space that could be either interior or exterior and also supported the idea that the action of the play had the nature of an elaborate, increasingly vicious and violent game, a cult game, something along the lines of American football.
There is also a strong sense of theatricality associated with this set, which is reinforced when courtiers unroll a banner with the play’s title painted on it above the main entrance. We are reminded of the technique’s of Brecht’s theatre — and of course of the fact that we are watching a play (on television). Music is more prominent in An Age of Kings, where it elaborates and explicitly comments on the action in a diegetic manner that is eschewed by Jane Howell, who resticts its use to what’s motivated, like drums and trumpets, by the action.
Neither production departs significantly from the conventions of studio drama in the manner in which the scene is visualised. In 1983 there’s a nice touch when King Henry stoops to pick up the scroll on which the French terms are detailed, which has been dropped by Gloucester in his disgust. Just before this there’s a strong framing in which Gloucester and the king, looking at this parchment, are flanked in the foreground by Suffolk and Margaret, who look longingly at each other.
Julia Foster’s Margaret in 1983 is gentle, nervous and naive (or seemingly so), overly concerned to make an impression. In An Age of Kings, Mary Morris has already established Margaret as a forceful and scheming personality, although the cuts to her lines make it hard for her to make much impression here. Terry Scully is the earlier Henry, and Peter Benson the later.
For his address to the nobles Gloucester (David Burke) in 1983 simply speaks to them standing around him, whereas his predecessor (John Ringham) hands around goblets of wine as he shares his disgust at the king’s actions.
At the top of the 1983 production it’s Bernard Hill’s York who makes the strongest impression. He delivers his solioquy pacing back and forth, ruminating to himself but also directly addressing us by looking into the camera lens. He’s more than matched in 1960 by Jack May, who sits quite still as he reflects on what had happened and what is to come. Then, very effectively, he leans into close to the camera before jumping up to threaten the empty thrones.
The Henry VI plays are rightly seen as among the strongest of the The BBC Television Shakespeare offerings. (For more on Henry VI, Part Two, see Michael Brooke’s BFI Screenonline piece.) They have a consistency and commitment that communcates from the screen, they find a satisfying mix of theatricality and the televisual, and even if they can feel somewhat undercast in parts, they hold up well across a timespan that is further from us than they were from An Age of Kings.
Pleasingly, though, An Age of Kings also still ‘works’ on the screen, or at least it does for this viewer. It could hardly be exposed to primetime today, but even in (or perhaps especially in) these relatively unfamiliar plays, it is unquestionably of more than simply historical interest. In fact I very much agree with the contemporary (and anonymous) reviewer in The Times on 9 September 1960. Noting that because this is early Shakespeare we should not expect
… the poetic riches and psychological complexities of the mature works, [but] there is much to enjoy. The enjoyment must, however, be broad and simple, and to achieve this a production has to make its effects broadly and simply. There is no room for quietness and reticence; for, in fact, the qualities that have generally marked An Age of Kings heretofore. And to do Mr Peter Dews, the series’ producer, justice he has risen nobly to the new challenge… even if he has perhaps not yet risen quite far enough.