you're reading...

Television World Theatre: The Life of Henry the Fifth (BBC, 1957)

Henry V, 1957: John NevilleI am intrigued that between 1957 and 1965 BBC Television screened twelve productions of Shakespeare’s History plays. In no other nine-year period has there been as many broadcasts of these dramas. There were the major cycles of An Age of Kings (1960) and The Wars of the Roses (1965), and as a kind of curtain-raiser at the close of 1957 the BBC produced what it billed – in accordance with the First Folio title – as The Life of Henry the Fifth. (This play is more usually referred to as Henry V, which is the title I shall use in what follows.)

Peter Dews‘ studio production, which is the focus of this post, is far less well-known than the other television History plays in this period or indeed than the later small-screen productions of the play. This post aims to give it some visibility, and is at the same time part of my research for a paper to be given at the end of the week at what promises to be a fascinating conference, New Elizabethans 1953-2013: Nation, Culture and Modern Identity.

Henry V on screen and stage

Productions of the play in the post-war years, whether on stage or screen, were inevitably created in the shadow of Laurence Olivier’s lavish film version released in 1944, The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (also usually referred to as Henry V). This stirringly patriotic epic was conceived – and brilliantly achieved – as a contribution to the fight against tyranny. With far more limited resources, no small-screen version could hope to compete, and yet BBC Television has tackled the play on a number of occasions (there have been no productions from ITV or any other broadcaster).


The wooing of Katharine by the English king from Act V of Henry V was the second extract from Shakespeare (after one from As You Like It) to be shown on the pre-war BBC service from Alexandra Palace. This seventeen-minute fragment with Yvonne Arnaud and Henry Oscar was broadcast at 9pm on 5 February 1937. There were full productions of the play in 1951 (with Clement McCallin as the king) and 1953 (Colin George), neither of which was recorded.

Since the 1957 adaptation it has been presented in the 15-episode An Age of Kings series (1960, with Robert Hardy), in The BBC Television Shakespeare in 1979 with David Gwillim, in part (just Act IV) from Shakespeare’s Globe for Channel 4 in 1997 with Mark Rylance, and in 2012 in The Hollow Crown cycle with Tom Hiddleston. There has been one other British feature film version, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, which was released in 1989, and forthcoming in July is a DVD release of Dominic Dromgoole’s 2012 production of the play for Shakespeare’s Globe with Jamie Parker.

There are three post-war theatrical stagings of Henry V that should also be noted as precursors in different ways for the 1957 BBC production. A first note in opposition to Olivier’s triumphalism was struck by the young John Barton’s presentation in 1953 with the New Elizabethan Theatre Company. In The Manchester Guardian J.C. Trewin admired the ‘persuasiveness’ of the production and noted that the cast ‘seems to be working outwards from the heart of things’ (‘Present Mirth’, 12 July 1953, p. 6). It was this production that was broadcast by BBC Television that year, as the BUFVC’s invaluable Shakespeare database confirms. The entry there includes a quotation from a Radio Times article by the television producer Michael MacOwan, stressing that the broadcast

… should be thought of not so much as a television production of Henry V, but as an attempt to show on the television screen the work that is being done by a group of young actors who are trying to return to the essentials of Elizabethan playing. (15 May 1953, p. 26)

In a significant production at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in early 1957, Bernard Hepton took the role of Chorus which he reprised for Peter Dews’ television production. This too was a production that set itself against the Olivier approach, and as ‘our special correspondent’ observed for The Times,

… the lasting emphasis of this production proves to be informality, its centre a humanized King Henry (played by Albert Finney) … Rhetoric throughout is played down … It is, in fact a production without loftiness. (‘Henry V at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’, 13 February 1957, p. 3)

Finally, it should be noted that Peter Dews directed a production of Henry V for the Oxford University Drama Society (OUDS) in Magdalen Deer Park in the summer of 1957. Patrick Garland played King Henry, giving a performance that was praised by ‘our special correspondent’ in The Times for ‘a quality of truth that does not need to be rebuked or apologized for at any point by the lovely, still and spacious setting of the production’ (‘OUDS Summer Play’, 20 June 1957, p. 3).

‘Think when we talk of horses that you see them’

Shown on the night of 29 December 1957, the BBC production opened the Television World Theatre series, an ambitious weekly strand of twelve classic theatre plays. My colleague Amanda Wrigley and I have both written on this blog about other productions in this series, including Women of Troy, Heartbreak House and Strange Interlude. Henry V was seen by an audience of 4.5 million, which was comparatively disappointing when compared with those achieved by later productions, including 8 million for Zuckmayer’s Captain of Kopernick and 9.5 million for Gogol’s The Government Inspector (with Tony Hancock in the cast) (Anon., ‘Cost to BBC of competitive television’, The Times, 13 March 1958, p. 14).

The limited means available to the production are underlined in the opening sequence. With the character of Chorus television aligns its presentation in a sparse studio setting with that of the bare stage of the Elizabethan theatre. We see first a dark doorway framed on either side by a brick wall. Bernard Hepton’s Chorus appears in the opening, finishes tying his belt and then begins to speak directly to the camera. From these first frames he is the television presenter, offering casual guidance through the action and conjuring up the missing elements in our imaginations.


As he speaks the Prologue Chorus shows us around the studio in a single developing camera shot before this comes to rest on a tableau of the king and his ministers at a conference table. Guy Sheppard’s design appears to have foreshortened the tabletop, which enhances the disconcertingly unreal quality of the scene. The characters are initially ‘frozen’ and only come to life with the blessing of Chorus who steps out of frame (at around 2 minutes 30 seconds into the production) as Henry (John Neville) asks, ‘Where is my gracious lord of Canterbury?’ This is the start of Act 1 scene 2 in the text, and so the opening exchanges between the prelates, during which they plot to divert the nation’s attentions from their finances with a war, are missing.


The whole of Act 1 scene 2 is then played in the opening shot that lasts for 13 minutes and 35 seconds. The camera closes in on Henry and Canterbury (Tony Church) over the table, reaching a BCU (big close-up) shot of the king for his line, ‘How you awake our sleeping sword of war’. It pulls back as we and the nobles listen to the archbishop expound on the Salic law (like many of the play’s long speeches, this is intelligently shortened), shifts to one side, dollies in again, and then pulls back behind the French ambassador once he has entered. This is a remarkable achievement of live camera choreography, especially as it continues after Henry leaves and Chorus re-enters. Beyond Chorus we now see Cambridge, Scroop and Grey plotting, while our ‘presenter’ explains events to us. It is as if Shakespeare wrote the role having envisaged an intimate small-screen production of his play.

HenryV3Only at 13 minutes 35 seconds is there a change of shot. ‘The scene is now transported, gentles, to Southampton,’ says Chorus, as he holds his hand vertically and moves it from his right to left ‘wiping’ onto the screen the setting of the next scene. Already the production has demonstrated a highly sophisticated use of studio camerawork, and this self-aware understanding of the form continues throughout a strikingly fluid and confident live production.


Visual style

Act II scene 3 follows, with Hostess Quickly (Della Batchelor) telling of the death of Falstaff, before the production jumps back to II:2 and the king’s discovery and despatch of the traitors. The first scene of Act II, with Nym and Bardolph, is lost entirely. Then we are in the French court, another setting suggested by only a few props set before an encompassing cyclorama. Visual richness comes from the comparatively elaborate and detailed costumes and from the succession of crowded compositions. At the conclusion of the English deputation’s visit to Charles VI (Walter Hudd), Chorus is revealed as one of the soldiers, and he breaks away from the party, sets down his helmet and starts the speech with which he opens Act III.

The final line of Chorus’ speech is ‘And eke out our performance with your mind’. As he speaks this the camera moves in on his stomach, the shot loses focus and then mixes through to an overhead shot (see image at head of post) of Henry urging on his men with ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’. All of the scene is played in this shot before, at the close, a very brief cutaway from a camera looking straight down at the troops as they march off.

In III:2 which follows the character known as ‘Boy’ (Timothy Harley) speaks his monologue directly to camera, and later the king will be the third figure to use this technique when he reflects on his responsibilities on the night before Agincourt. Elsewhere in this scene the encounters between Gower, Fluellen, Jamy and MacMorris are played out in another of the production’s ‘theatrical’ settings with camera movements helping to structure the drama.

III:3 is one of the touchstones of any production of Henry V, with the director facing the decision about what if anything to cut from the king’s threats to the people of Harfleur. Should the lines which include the vengeful ‘The gates of mercy shall be all shut up…’ be given to a heroic king? Olivier in the 1944 film omits them, as does Peter Dews here, electing to play only lines 1-9 and from line 27 onwards, ‘Therefore, you men of Harfleur…’

HenryV22A king alone

Yet John Neville’s Henry is a very different figure from Olivier’s, or from Kenneth Branagh’s. He is, at least in part, a troubled and conflicted figure, as he shows when he turns from condemning the traitors to death at Southampton and wrings his hands in private over what he has had to do. Condemning Bardolf to hang as a thief also deeply troubles him, as a camera movement in to a close-up of his face underlines. Henry can rouse his men with the rhetoric of the text, and definite echoes of Winston Churchill can be heard in his delivery of a line like ‘Of heady murder – spoil – and villainy’. But there is little exuberance or bombast in the performance. Just before the battle of Agincourt, having delivered a powerful but controlled version of the ‘upon St Crispin’s day’ speech, Henry is left alone on screen, screwing up his battle orders as he muses, ‘And how thou pleasest, God, dispose the day.’ This is a thoughtful, responsible monarch who, as the final act demonstrates, is capable of a delicate performance to woo the French princess.

HenryV11HenryV14Following the opening of the gates of Harfleur, III:4, which is the English lesson between Katharine (Patricia Cree) and Alice (Nancy Jackson) and  is played word-for-word from the text, preserving all of Shakespeare’s lewd language games, which were presumably thought to be beyond the mainstream television audience of the day. The final scene in the act, set in the French lines before the battle, is played once again in a lengthy, static shot, with silvery-gray studio lighting giving a strong sense of nighttime. (The print that I viewed from the BBC archives was a low-grade transfer to DVD, and the screengrabs here reproduce that. I hope that there the master materials are of finer quality and that one day they can be digitally restored.)

Act IV is played in a confined space before a painted backdrop with stylised castles in the distance. Chorus wanders through the English lines with the soldiers unaware of his presence. Henry enters the camp and Chorus seats himself at the king’s feet along with his other companions. After a shortened version of the encounters between the disguised monarch and his men, Henry’s soliloquy is played initially with him looking off-camera. The shot moves closer to him, and then on ‘I am a king that find thee’ there is an eccentric cut to a camera that has almost the same position and frame but to which the king speaks directly.

HenryV23IV:5 and IV:6 are omitted and there is but a minimal sense of the raging battle, before only a compressed version of the opening of IV:7 is played. Nonetheless, we learn from Gower that the king ‘most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat’. This is quickly reinforced by Henry V’s command on his entrance that ‘we’ll cut the throats of those we have’, just before French herald Montjoy enters to surrender. So the ruthless side of Henry is strongly present, even if we have lost Fluellen’s reflection that Henry ‘turned away the fat knight with the great belly-doublet’ (which we have seen in Henry IV, part 2) and so brought about Falstaff’s death. There is no triumphalism and the scene ends with soldiers singing a Te Deum as they carry away some of the dead before Henry is once again isolated in the frame, along with the burdens of kingship.

HenryV26There is but the scene in the French court to play out, which is very prettily done. At the close henry and Katharine process in to kneel before the French king’s throne as Chorus once again enters from camera left with his tableau, echoing the one at the opening, behind him. He gives us the epilogue, explaining how ‘Our bending author hath pursued the story / In little room confining mighty men.’ Then he takes off his belt, hangs it over his shoulder and exits, whistling softly, into the doorway through which he made his entrance. ‘Our revels now are ended’ and what we have seen is only a play, a story, perhaps even a dream.

Praise from the critics

The broadsheet critics greeted the BBC’s Henry V with enthusiasm. ‘Our Television Critic’ in The Manchester Guardian wrote:

Such a performance makes some atonement for the dozens of silly little plays that trickle from the screen… I do not see how Peter Dews’s production of Henry V could fail to stir the curiosity, interest, excitement in any viewer with the normal amount of intelligence. (‘Shakespeare in New Perspective’, 30 December 1957, p. 3)

The similarly anonymous reviewer for The Times was equally impressed:

[Chorus at the close] had a right to feel pleased with it. For the story had been told in the manner that he had asked us to expect at the beginning: that is, not too seriously, with a sense of the limitations of the dramatic medium as such, but with the honest intention of exciting interest in these people and admiration for their spirit, sympathy with them in their fears and fellow-feeling with them in their laughter. (‘BBC Television Henry V‘, 30 December 1957, p. 10)

Although initially sceptical, Maurice Wiggin for The Sunday Times was also won over by the stripped-back approach:

… in the event, this strict purism, masochistic as it seemed, paid off. We are sated with ‘effects’ and ‘realism,’ and the unaccustomed effort of using the visual imagination had the pleasant result of restoring the poetry to its primacy. (‘The Eclectic Viewer’, 5 January 1958, p. 19)

BBC executives must also have been pleased, for this production was the springboard for Peter Dews to bring to the screen just over two years later the almost crazily ambitious An Age of Kings which, across 15 weeks, would play all eight of Shakespeare’s History plays in a manner and style that can be seen in many ways to be close to that pioneered in this Henry V.


8 thoughts on “Television World Theatre: The Life of Henry the Fifth (BBC, 1957)

  1. There is an Audience Research Report for this one, though I didn’t make a copy of it when I was researching my PhD. What I did do was note down all of the audience figures as percentages and Reaction Index figures for the two World Theatre series where they were recorded. Henry V got quite a positive reaction. As always, audiences were less enthusiastic about depressing plays of foreign origin:

    % RI
    1. 29 Dec 1957. * Henry V Shakespeare Peter Dews 12 62
    2. 05 Jan 1958. * The Cherry Orchard (X) Anton Chekhov Harold Clayton 15 34
    3. 12 Jan 1958. * Women of Troy (Y) Euripides Michael Elliott 13 42
    Caspar Wrede
    4. 19 Jan 1958. * The Captain of Koepenick (X) Carl Zuckmeyer Rudolph Cartier 21 65
    5. 26 Jan 1958. * The Dark is Light Enough (X) Christopher Fry Stuart Burge 15 51
    6. 02 Feb 1958. * Heartbreak House (Y) G.B. Shaw Michael Barry 17 41
    7. 09 Feb 1958. * The Government Inspector Nikolai Gogol Alan Bromley 25 60
    8. 16 Feb 1958. The Judge (X) H. C. Branner Campbell Logan 21 47
    9. 23 Feb 1958. * The Master Builder (X) Henrik Ibsen Stephen Harrison 18 49
    10. 02 Mar 1958. * Amphitryon 38 (X) Jean Giradoux Harold Clayton 12 44
    11. 09 Mar 1958 * The Circle of Chalk (X) Alfred Henschke Douglas Allen 13 52
    12. 16 Mar 1958. * The Clandestine Marriage George Colman Hal Burton 14 53
    David Garrick
    12. 23 Mar 1958. * Strange Interlude 1 Eugene O’Neill John Jacobs 18 56
    13. 30 Mar 1958. * Strange Interlude 2 Eugene O’Neill John Jacobs 18 61


    1. 05 May 1959. * Julius Caesar Shakespeare Stuart Burge 76
    2. 19 May 1959. * Danton’s Death (X) Georg Buchner Michael Elliott 8 53
    3. 02 Jun 1959. * Blood Wedding (X) Frederico Garcia Lorca George R. Foa 10 51
    4. 16 Jun 1959. * Volpone Ben Jonson Stephen Harrison 69
    5. 30 Jun 1959 * Mother Courage & her Children Berthold Brecht Rudolph Cartier 13 58
    6. 14 Jul 1959. * Henry IV Luigi Pirandello John Harrison 8 64
    7. 28 Jul 1959. * School for Scandal R.B. Sheridan Hal Burton
    8. 11 Aug 1959. * Brand Henrik Ibsen Michael Elliott 8 62
    9. 25 Aug 1959. * The Silver Box (X) John Galsworthy Michael Leston Smith

    Posted by billysmart | 11 June 2013, 8:28 am
    • These are fascinating, and it’s such a shame that the figures for World Theatre are incomplete.

      The Television World Theatre broadcasts normally began at 20:30 with only Women of Troy bucking that trend, and all bar one of the other plays finished between 21:45 and 22:15, most commonly 22:00. The play slots varied in duration between 75 minutes and 120 minutes with the mean duration being just under 94 minutes.

      It’s interesting that the broadcast slots of both series overlapped at least partially with plays strands on ITV – Television World Theatre had to contend with ABC’s Armchair Theatre, which would usually run from 21:35 to 22:50.

      By contrast, World Theatre generally aired approximately an hour later, with the most common start time being 21:30. The length of the plays in World Theatre was more consistent, with four of the nine being allocated 90 minute slots and another four 105 minutes. The exception, Danton’s Death, fell between the two. This resulted in only a marginal increase in mean duration – to just over 95 minutes – but, perhaps crucially, it meant that all bar Danton’s Death (broadcast from 21:15 to 22:50) and The Silver Box (from 20:30 to 22:00) ran until 23:00 or later.

      The plays in World Theatre were broadcast opposite ITV’s Play of the Week, but here the positions were reversed, with Play of the Week usually getting a head start on World Theatre, a result of its scheduled slot normally being 20:30 to 22:00.

      It’s pure conjecture, but I could certainly imagine a proportion of the audience for both Television World Theatre and Play of the Week being more casual – keen to be settled down by 8.30pm in front of the television watching something which won’t eat into their bedtime.

      It certainly seems credible that the poorer ratings for World Theatre (of the available figures it averages at 9.4% compared with 16.6% for Television World Theatre) are closely related to its later start and finish and that fact that many would already be engrossed in Play of the Week by the time it started. By contrast, using the figures which are available, the average RI for World Theatre is much higher than for Television World Theatre – 61.9 against 51.2 – which may help to support the notion that those watching World Theatre were doing so more deliberately and out of a more informed choice than before.

      Also to be factored in, of course, is that for the duration of Television World Theatre the ITV network was smaller and even by the end of its run would have consisted only of the three main English regions (London, the midlands and the north) plus central Scotland, and South Wales and the west of England.

      Posted by Simon Coward | 1 August 2014, 8:25 am
      • And also ‘World Theatre’ was transmitted in the summer months, when people watch less television, anyway. I particularly like this complaint from the Audience Research Report for ‘Danton’s Death’:

        “A larger number, however, were capable only of criticism, the gist being that the play was too depressing and ‘heavy’ to appeal, a kind of ‘highbrow horror story’ that, at holiday-time, too, seemed slightly out of season. A Retired Dentist summed up as follows: ‘a most dreary play concerning a period which did not interest any of us. Especially after a wonderful day on the beach, the anti-climax following the execution scenes was dreadful to think about’.” (VR/59/273)

        Posted by billysmart | 1 August 2014, 8:46 am
  2. Thanks for this great post. I was unaware of this production, coming before An Age of Kings, and featuring John Neville. Is it available to see anywhere?

    Posted by Sylvia Morris | 11 June 2013, 10:36 am
    • If only it was available, Sylvia. I imagine that it can be accessed through the BFI National Archive viewing service, but that’s the only official way that I know – let’s discuss when we next meet. Thanks for the kind words.

      Posted by John Wyver | 11 June 2013, 1:12 pm
  3. Thankyou very much for this extensive and nourishingly informative review. I have only just discovered these posts of yours and look forward to reading them all with enormous relish.

    The whole matter of TV drama-productions from the 1930s to 1970s (i.e. what is relatively long ago) interests me very much and, I think, with some reason.

    In that period directors had not been poisoned by the contemporary obsession with clever tricks of “Daring” or “Boldness”, e.g. setting ‘Hamlet’ underwater in drag or Wagner’s ‘Ring’ in a lunatic asylum (which was actually the case, you will recall, with one major expensive production not long ago). There was not their now almost obligatory and inescapable manic urge to impress a smudgy thumb-print of personal pseudo-creativity onto fine plays old and new.

    For their part, the actors had all been taught proper voice-projection and honed that and other skills in the very demanding conditions of the live theatre, inc. repertory around the country.

    They could speak in regional accents and also clear RP or Queen’s English; not the floppy hybrid, half-Estuarine, which seems to be the only idiolect of many (not all) young performers in the present days and is wonderfully unsuitable for all manner of roles.

    I am hoping that as many productions as possible survive on film from that earlier time and that one day they will kick off their tombstones and be issued as DVDs in collections; in which event I would like to be first in the queue of purchasers.

    I think the above comments are not a case of featherbrained laudation of temporis acti, or seeing the past through unfairly rose-tinted spectacles. I remembered well watching avidly ‘An Age of Kings’ when it was broadcast in 1960, every episode; and being deeply moved by it. I was then eleven years old.

    Purchasing the DVD collection of that series from BBC America a couple of years ago and viewing it again, it struck me as not one whit less fine than I had remembered.

    You, sir, are rendering us all a great service by prising the tombstones at least a little bit free from their moorings; and there is so much to learn from and enjoy in your informed technical analysis.

    I do beg to thank you very warmly.

    Posted by Peter Scott | 31 July 2014, 1:43 pm


  1. Pingback: Shakespeare on film: Joss Wheedon’s Much Ado | The Shakespeare blog - 12 June 2013

  2. Pingback: Henry V Throughout History: O Noble Judi Dench! | - 13 July 2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
%d bloggers like this: