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An Age of Kings: ‘do I see three suns?’

During the summer of 2009 I blogged for Illuminations 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 Three originally appeared here on 14 September 2009.

Edward seducing Margaret, Henry VI, Part Three

Edward seducing Margaret, Henry VI, Part Three

We’re moving towards the close of the An Age of Kings cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays for television. I’ve been blogging about each of the plays in the compelling 1960 BBC series that in 2009 was released on DVD — although only in the States. Today we’ve reached Henry VI, Part Three, a play about ambition, insurrection, monarchy, ambition, loyalty and ambition. Henry is king twice, and ditto Edward — and halfway through, in a glorious monologue, Richard of Gloucester reveals his intent to murder all those who stand between him and the crown.

I have some specific thoughts about the production (with framegrabs) but I want also to reflect on what it might have meant to audiences in 1960 — and whether those meanings are in any way recoverable now.

There’s an awful lot of Wars of the Roses plot in Henry VI, Part Three (about 10 years of actual events) and a great deal of ‘my army is bigger than yours’ posturing. There is the moment, for example, before the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross when exceptional weather conditions were said to have made it appear that there were three suns in the sky. Edward, who was to win the fight, was one of York’s three sons. Along with the battles, however, there is also a clutch of wonderful scenes, including the attempted seduction by King Edward (a thoroughly creepy Julian Glover) of Lady Gray (Jane Wenham) which she turns to her advantage by eliciting a proposal of marriage.

Death of Warwick, Henry VI, Part Three

Death of Warwick, Henry VI, Part Three

News of the proposal reaches both Warwick and (former) KIng Henry’s queen Margaret at the French court, where it turns Edward’s ally Warwick against him and as a consequence revives Margaret’s prospects. Frank Windsor makes an excelllent Warwick and little in the series (in which he takes a number of different parts) becomes him so much as his leaving of the role on the battlefield.

Mary Morris’ Margaret is, along with Paul Daneman’s Richard of Gloucester, the other stand-out performance of the play — scary, resolute, forceful, intelligent and, in both word and deed, clearly a precursor of Lady Macbeth. She can also wear a suit of armour exceptionally well. Margaret’s Act One confrontation with York, in which she forces him to wear a paper crown before stabbing him, is a tremendous to-and-fro — and more than compensates for the desperately unconvincing sword-fighting that blights the production elsewhere (could it have been different?).

Margaret’s act of murder is mirrored later in the play when Richard of Gloucester’s hand is stayed as he lifts his dagger to plunge it into her heart. Which is a moment made all the richer, of course, by what’s to happen in the next play, Richard III. These are the ironies and complexities that emerge when you see the cycle as one piece.

King Henry in the windmill, Henry VI, Part Three

King Henry in the windmill, Henry VI, Part Three

King Henry has only a marginal role in the third of the plays that now bears his name alone (although this was not always the case; in the First Folio this drama is called The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth). On the battlefield he retreats into a windmill, up to the window of which the camera cranes to discover him reflecting, much like Richard II, on the unhappy lot of kings. He delivers his great speech…

O God! Methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain.

… tracing out the division of his time in a frosted windowpane. The cold and snow, indeed, is a constant motif throughout (once again, an effect that would have been far from trivial to achieve in a live studio transmission) and this weather contributes to the picturing of England’s sorry state. Later Henry becomes one of Richard of Gloucester’s first personal victims, but not before cursing him and warning of the terrible times to come.

And thus I prophecy: that many a thousand
Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,
And many an old man’s sigh, and many a widow’s,
And many an orphan’s water-standing eye —
Men for their sons’, wives for their husbands’,
Orphans for their parents’ timeless death —
Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born.

Shakespeare certainly knew how to set up a sequel, as he does also with the introduction of the young Henry Tudor, who here sits playfully on a throne that he will one day (and a play later) claim to once again bring peace and stability to the land. Henry Tudor, of course, was the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth whose attention and patronage Shakespeare would, even at this early stage of his career, have been seeking.

Paul Daneman as Richard, Henry VI, Part Three

Paul Daneman as Richard, Henry VI, Part Three

This is the play in which Richard of Gloucester shows his true colours — and Paul Daneman’s performance is magnetic: thoughtful, crafty, campy, shot through with humour, but believably deadly too. At the end of the first part (remember, each play apart from Henry VI, Part One was given in two roughly hour-long transmissions, separated by a fortnight) Richard shares his plans with us, supremely confident that we’ll be quite content to watch him carry out the string of murders that he plans.

Our complicity with Richard is reinforced in the closing credits of the second part where, having clutched at Clarence to stop him from falling into a wine barrel (that same Clarence who will meet a vinicultural death) he glances up at us from behind the credit roller, challenging us to object. How much, then, are we looking forward to seeing what’s to come?

While watching the Henry VI trilogy I’ve been reading the really interesting volume about the plays by Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Carol Chillington Rutter, in Manchester University Press’ Shakespeare in Performance series. This traces the staging of the trilogy from Shakespeare’s day to Michael Boyd’s recent cycle for the RSC, The Histories (with their own useful website). The book concentrates on the plays in England since 1950 when ideas ‘about the nature and authenticity of Englishness itself’ have, in a post-imperial, devolutionary world, been thrown into crisis. Hence, perhaps, the resonance that the plays have today. These are not just plays about England, of course; these are plays that put England at the edge of chaos and contemplate questions of national identity from the marginal position of imminent disaster.

Richard in the closing credits, Henry VI, Part Three

Richard in the closing credits, Henry VI, Part Three

The authors write richly about the staging of the Henry VI cycle at the Birmingham Rep in 1951-53, productions that unquestionably influenced the producer of An Age of Kings, Peter Dews. They also offer revealing analysis of the productions by Jane Howell in The BBC Television Shakespeare (which we looked at in the previous post in this series), but I feel they give rather short shrift to An Age of Kings, devoting less than three pages specifically to the cycle.

The authors see An Age of Kings as unproblematically reinforcing the monarchy along with conservative, nostalgic attitudes to the pastoral England of a better time…

… for the BBC was, in effect, the modern-day king-maker — it had broadcast the coronation of George VI and Elizabeth II, thus legitimating the monarchy for the modern age.

An Age of Kings, the argument goes, reveals the attitudes of an age between the Festival of Britain (in 1951) and Winston Churchill’s funeral (1966) that looks back with admiration and longing to a more settled, more secure, more English world.

Both the BBC’s coverage of Churchill’s funeral and its An Age of Kings serial revealed a shared vision of history, one shaped by the politics of the postwar years of mourning and reconstruction.

Well, up to a point — but this fails to recognise the contradictions within the plays themselves (and specifically as presented in these productions), their embrace at times of anarchy (as with Jack Cade), their disdainful sense of power and their clear-eyed sense of its defects, and their dark vision of the deeds that can be done by Englishmen (and indeed, as with Margaret — although in fact she’s originally French — Englishwomen). Seeing An Age of Kings as straightforwardly aligned with the respect and deference of Churchill’s world also misses the gleeful subversiveness of performances like Paul Daneman’s Richard.

All of which (together with my speculations about Princess Margaret’s televised wedding) prompts the question of how, now, fifty years on, we can recover the ways in which audiences saw An Age of Kings, of how we can discern the meanings that they took from its fortnightly broadcasts. This is a question that I’m now fascinated by — and that I want to pursue in further research.

One way or exploring the reception of the series, of course, is through newspaper reviews of the time. We can excavate the letters written to the BBC and the Corporation’s own internal discussions as revealed in minutes of meetings and in memos. We can, perhaps, ask those who saw the series back in 1960, many of whom we know have quite vivid recollections of the imapct that it made (although given that we can now hear time’s winged chariot behind these witnesses, this is now an urgent task). And maybe there are diaries in which people recorded their thoughts and responses to watching television at the time. I hope so — and I’d love to find the right way to bring these to light. Any thoughts would be much appreciated.


One thought on “An Age of Kings: ‘do I see three suns?’

  1. My recollection of devoted watching of ‘An Age of Kings’ at the time (1960) is most chiefly that of WILLING the protagonists to bring order out of chaos, peace out of war, harmony out of division; and perpetually being disappointed by the events. At the end I could not be convinced by Henry Tudor’s victory (as a promise of peace, order &c.) The England we had been shown was too good at disrupting itself.

    I thought various actors, including Mary Morris, stood out as magnificent; and was gripped by the whole thing as other schoolboys might have been by their favourite cowboy series. (I also liked ITV’s ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘William Tell’ and enjoy old-fashioned westerns to this day, very much – again, the desire to see Good triumph over Evil.)

    Paul Daneman remains for me the most convincing Richard of Gloucester that ever I have encountered on stage or screen. He is so superbly multi-faceted, and – as you brilliantly prove, John – so good at making the audience horribly complicit with his horrible nature and designs.

    Posted by Peter Scott | 10 August 2014, 11:16 am

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