I 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.
Only 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.
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…’
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.
Following 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.
IV: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.
There 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.