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 this final contribution about the two episodes of Richard III originally appeared here on 6 October 2009.
The concluding two episodes of An Age of Kings are dedicated to Richard III. This is the play that I also saw a fortnight or so ago at BFI Southbank in The Wars of the Roses three-play cycle produced four years later by the BBC and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Inevitably they make for a fascinating pairing to which I wish I could do justice here. But The Wars of the Roses is not available on DVD (absurdly) either here or in the States, so a detailed comparison will have to wait. But there is a handful of reflections to share.
Both versions take around 135 minutes to present the drama — The Wars of the Roses does this in three roughly 45-minute episodes (which are numbers 8 to 11 in the cycle which also takes in the Henry VI trilogy) while An Age of Kings offers two episodes (numbers 14 and 15 in a journey that started with Richard II), the first of which is 60 minutes and the second 75.
One of the most striking differences is in the visual quality of the productions. On the DVD (which admittedly is NTSC standard) the 1960 images of An Age of Kings often look fuzzy and ill-defined whereas The Wars of the Roses held the big screen in NFT2 and sometimes appeared as if shot on 35mm film. Both of course were recorded in black and white.
An Age of Kings works with the grammar of live television, alternating between (usually) two cameras to define the space of the drama. The use of the multiple cameras in The Wars of the Roses is more complex, and there are unquestionably close-ups which have been edited into sequences during post-production. Videotape editing at the time was still in its infancy, and this was far from a trivial process.
The production process for The Wars of the Roses as a whole was unconventional. The plays had originally been staged by the RSC in Stratford. In a 1966 Shakespeare Quarterly essay, Alice V Griffin explained what happened then.
At the end of 1964, at the conclusion of the Stratford season, three of the plays were re-staged and filmed for television in the Stratford theatre itself, which was transformed into a huge television studio. Seats on the orchestra floor were boarded over and the stage extended by forty feet to accommodate crowd and battle scenes with the original cast of nearly seventy performers.
BFI Screenonline has this to say about the full production in its entry about Henry VI on screen:
Although Peter Hall’s production was highly regarded as a piece of theatre, with David Warner in particular singled out for his interpretation of Henry VI, John Barton’s adaptation made extensive changes to the original text, not only cutting it by roughly half but also adding some 1,400 lines of his own devising to patch up the resulting holes.
In the parts devoted to Richard III both productions save their bravura visuals for Richard’s nightmare just before the Battle of Bosworth Field and both superimpose the heads of his victims on a shot of his anguished sleeping face. This is particularly effective in the earlier An Age of Kings as Richard’s head is inverted, and the disorientation is enhanced as at the end of the sequence the image of the crowd of those murdered by the newly crowned king begins to spin faster and faster in the frame. This is a striking demonstration of the technical sophistication of live television nearly fifty years ago.
The battle itself, however, is the finest moment of neither production — although it has to be acknowledged that it’s close to impossible to be convincing with Shakespearean battle scenes on television. An Age of Kings has the climactic encounter between Richard and Richmond (soon to be Henry VII) in a studio mudbath — it just looks a bit silly. The Wars of the Roses does better with a single hand-held camera which — in part because the rest of the filming is so controlled — makes a real impact.
He that plays the king in The Wars of the Roses is Ian Holm, who is wily, steely and impressive. But I think I prefer the broader performance of Paul Daneman in An Age of Kings; he relishes the evil of the role, bringing out the black humour of the part without ever turning the role into a caricature.
There is a raw quality to Daneman’s acting which is also to be found in a number of the other roles — and which contrasts (unexpectedly) with the more polished RSC presentations. I love his hysterical laughter during ‘Was ever woman in this humour won?’ and the relish with which he attacks a cold chicken leg as Hastings is being executed in the yard outside.
Theatre history trivia sidebar: Daneman was the first actor to play Vladimir in Peter Hall’s original production of Waiting for Godot. TV history trivia sidebar: the Duchess of York in An Age of Kings is played by Violet Carson, better known to the world as Ena Sharples in Coronation Street. She first played Ena in 1960, and so presumably swapped the robes of a dowager for the role in the dour northern soap soon after the filming of An Age of Kings was complete.
The politics of Richard III, who’s in and who’s about to topped, somehow comes through more clearly in An Age of Kings. But there’s no question that overall The Wars of the Roses is the more achieved of the productions — and this, along with the original’s place in theatre history, has contributed to its canonical place in television history. Perhaps familiarity has bred appreciation but if I was forced to choose I think I would elevate the lesser-known An Age of Kings as the ‘better’ production for television. But of course it’s great that both have been preserved — now let’s have them more widely available, please.