An Age of Kings, broadcast on the BBC between April – November 1960, was an incredibly ambitious project. All eight of William Shakespeare’s history plays were adapted in this series – across fifteen episodes – and each play (with the exception of Henry VI Part One) was split across two episodes. Broadcast live, once a fortnight, An Age of Kings served as an excellent showcase for first rate cast, many of whom (Sean Connery, Judi Dench, Julian Glover, Robert Hardy, etc) were at the start of their impressive careers.
Producer Peter Dews had joined the BBC in 1957 and one of his first productions was an adaptation of Henry V. This was a success and it paved the way towards a production of the entire cycle.
A core group of twenty or so main actors were engaged for the series. Rather like a repertory company, they would play various roles in the different plays and therefore would be central in some and more peripheral in others. Many of the actors recruited by Dews were veterans of the Old Vic and were therefore very familiar with the material. Given the live nature of the transmissions and the quick turnaround (one episode to be broadcast every fortnight, each running for between 60 and 80 minutes) this was essential.
Once production began, the actors had four days to learn their lines – and then they would have a weeks rehearsal. On transmission days there would be camera rehearsals throughout the day, before the live transmission at 9.00 pm.
Despite very favourable newspaper reviews, the series was repeated only once in the UK (in 1962). After that it remained unavailable until it was released on DVD in R1 a few years ago whilst in 2013 it was released in R2 by Illuminations Media.
Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll blog a short overview of each episode. So let’s start with episode one – The Hollow Crown.
Episode One of An Age Of Kings adapts the first half of Richard II. David William is Richard and he gives a decent performance in this first episode, as we see him move from regal majesty to arrogant petulance. His performance isn’t quite perfect though – and he’s certainly better in the second episode – although his final scene here, as he laments his misfortunes, is a definite highlight.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp
The play opens with Bolingbroke (Tom Fleming) and Mowbray (Noel Johnson) who request an audience with the King to seek his advice in settling their dispute (Bolingbroke alleges that Mowbray has squandered monies which should have been spent on the Kings’ soldiers). The two men find it impossible to resolve their differences, so a trial of arms seems to be the only course of action. But just before the duel commences, Richard announces a different plan – banishment from the realms of England. Mowbray is to be banished for life, whilst Bolingbroke is to leave the shores of England for ten years (later reduced by the King to six).
Both Fleming and Johnson are impressive in these early scenes, although the limitations of live television and the somewhat cumbersome nature of the cameras does become apparent since it’s several minutes before a camera is able to manoeuvre sufficiently to allow us a decent shot of Johnson (prior to this he’s only seen from the side).
Bolingbroke’s father, the Duke of Gaunt (Edgar Wreford) takes this news particularly badly and quickly sickens. And it’s Richard’s decision, upon Gaunt’s death, to sieze his lands and money which sets in motion the chain of events which seal Richard’s fate.
Before that though, Gaunt delivers one of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches (and it’s very well performed by Wreford). Part of it is quite famous –
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
What isn’t so well known is that the speech isn’t actually painting an idealised and romantic view of England, since Gaunt carries on to express his dismay at how the country is suffering under the reign of Richard.
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
Also impressive in this episode is Geoffrey Bayldon as the Duke of York (who skillfully manages to smooth over a line fluff – as this is live television there will be more to come over the following weeks). There’s also a certain pleasure in watching the likes of George A. Cooper (an actor who went on to have a long and varied career on television and is probably best known for playing the grumpy caretaker in Grange Hill) rubbing sholdiers with Sean Connery. Connery (like Julian Glover) only has a few lines here, but we’ll hear a lot more from both of them in forthcoming installments. Also impressive in a small role is Frank Windsor as the Bishop of Carlisle.
Act 1 Scene 2 (the Duke of Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester at the Duke of Lancaster’s palace) is excised from the adaptation. This helps to speed up the play in the early stages as well as keeping the focus on Bolingbroke and Mowbray.
The Deposing of a King concludes the story of Richard II, begun in The Hollow Crown. It quickly becomes apparent to Richard (David William) that Bolingbroke (Tom Fleming) holds such a strong position of power that he has no other course of action than to stand aside and offer the crown to him. This is very much David William’s episode – he has the majority of the speeches and he’s very impressive as he divests himself of the duties of Kingship.
Early on, he muses about his fate –
What must the king do now? must he submit?
The king shall do it: must he be deposed?
The king shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? o’ God’s name, let it go:
I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
And my large kingdom for a little grave
His best moments though, come in Act V Scene 5. Richard is incarcerated in Pomfret Castle and considers his death, which he knows will shortly come. Here, the limitations of live performance are used to the series’ benefit, as the whole scene (lasting over nine minutes) which encompasses his speech, a discussion with a friendly groom (Julian Glover) and his murder are played out with just a single camera.
Elsewhere, Frank Windsor, who impressed in The Hollow Crown, has another good scene here, as he defends Richard against Bolingbroke and the rest of the nobles. Another small, but telling performance, comes from Gordon Gostelow as the gardener who breaks the news to the Queen that Bolingbroke has seized power.
Next Up – Episode Three – Rebellion From The North.
Episodes three and four of An Age of Kings contains virtually all of Henry IV Part One. As episode three opens, we see that Henry IV (Tom Fleming) is still unsettled from the death of Richard II. And a crusade to the Holy Land has to be postponed when trouble flares with Scotland and Wales.
The Percy family who helped him to the throne are becoming increasingly discontent, particularly Harry Percy (Hotspur), played by Sean Connery. To add to Henry’s woes, his son Hal (Robert Hardy) is content to idle his time away in the taverns, consorting with the likes of Sir John Falstaff (Frank Pettineill). But with Hotspur leading a rebellion against the King, Hal has to put aside his wastrel living and the two are fated to meet on the field of battle.
The opening line of the play is Henry’s “So shaken as we are, so wan with care” and this seems to be the case as Henry appears visibly aged and staggers when leaving at the end of Act One Scene One, holding onto his chair for support. His age and infirmity contrast with the youth and vigor of both Hotspur and Hal.
Rebellion from the North is driven by the performances of Connery and Hardy. Although he was not then, and never became, an experienced Shakespearean actor, Connery isn’t out of place here – as his charisma shines through. He has several key moments in this episode such as when he confronts the King. There’s an interesting shot as Hotspur walks around the table and blocks the King from our view. Given the somewhat frantic nature of live performance, this could be an error or it may have been an intentional move. His reply to Henry’s accusation that he failed to hand over the majority of the prisoners captured in a recent squirsish is a highlight of Connery’s performance.
My liege, I did deny no prisoners.
But I remember, when the fight was done,
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, and trimly dress’d,
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reap’d
Show’d like a stubble-land at harvest-home;
He was perfumed like a milliner;
And ‘twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took’t away again;
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff; and still he smiled and talk’d,
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He call’d them untaught knaves, unmannerly,
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.
With many holiday and lady terms
He question’d me; amongst the rest, demanded
My prisoners in your majesty’s behalf.
Whilst Hotspur dreams of conquest, young Prince Hal seems to have no further ambitions at the start of the play than purely pleasurable ones. Hardy is effective as the wastrel Prince, although his performance does undercut the text from time to time as he already seems to have grown tired of his dissolute life and the company he’s been keeping. Pettingell’s Falstaff is presented less as a close confident and more as a convenient crony since Hal is already biding the time when he will return to his father’s side.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
If Frank Pettingell is a slightly disappointing Falstaff (he lacks charm and humour and comes over as something of a bore), then Sean Connery and Robert Hardy are more than adequate compensation. Running for just under 80 minutes, the episode ends at Act Two, which leads us onto the battlefield.
The Road To Shrewsbury opens with Hotspur (Sean Connery) enduring the boastful claims of his ally Owen Glendower (William Squire). Although Glendower isn’t a large part, it’s a scene-stealing gift for any decent actor and Squire certainly takes advantage. Although Squire was born in Neath, Glamorgan, few of his more familiar roles (he was probably best known for appearing opposite Edward Woodward in the Thames series of Callan) called on him to use a Welsh accent, so this is a good opportunity for him to act broadly Welsh. Glendower is certainly a character that has, shall we say, a good opinion of himself.
Cousin, of many men
I do not bear these crossings. Give me leave
To tell you once again that at my birth
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.
These signs have mark’d me extraordinary;
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men.
Hotspur seems unimpressed with such hyperbole and Connery plays this opening section well – capturing the mocking and insolent nature of Hotspur, which still manages to earn the respect of Glendower.
On the other side, Hal (Robert Hardy) is re-united with his father, the King (Tom Fleming). Although Hal initially seems to be the same casual character we saw in Rebellion from the North, very quickly it becomes apparent that he’s now prepared to put aside his dissolute past and grasp his destiny.
I will redeem all this on Percy’s head
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it:
And that shall be the day, whene’er it lights,
That this same child of honour and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! for the time will come,
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Although Connery is more central to the episode than Hardy (at least until the closing fifteen minutes or so), Hardy is more than able to make a favourable impression during these scenes with the King, and Tom Fleming as Henry IV continues to impress.
Battle scenes throughout An Age of Kings are always somewhat problematic. The nature of live recording, small casts and the limited studio space are all factors which need to be appreciated. There are a few interesting moments though – initially shots of the battlefield are overlaid on the faces of Hotspur and Hal, for example.
Elsewhere, the viewer is required to use their imagination that while they can hear an army offscreen, they can only see a handful of soldiers (this, of course, is a similar experience to watching the play on the stage). Eventually, Hotspur and Hal meet and duel to the death. Their sword-fight (not overly convincing it must be said) is inter-cut with shots of dead bodies on the battlefield and it’s noticeable that Hal’s killing thrust isn’t seen. Was it deemed too violent for the times or did the camera just miss it?
Director Michael Hayes elects to end the episode on the battlefield dead, this time with snow overlaid, which is quite an effective ending. Henry IV Part One has never been a favourite play of mine and this adaptation, whilst solid enough, hasn’t really changed my opinion on it, but it’s well worth watching for Connery and Hardy.
The New Conspiracy picks up from where The Road To Shrewsbury left off. The rebellion, lead by Hotspur, has been crushed but the danger to the King is far from over. The Earl of Northumberland (George A. Cooper) and others still plot to overthrow him – but these machinations are very much placed in the background as this part of the play focuses on Falstaff and his friends.
Any scenes with Falstaff tend to be played very broadly, but Frank Pettingell does have some good actors to play off against. Angela Baddeley (best known for playing Mrs Bridges in Upstairs Downstairs) has several lovely scenes opposite him, as does Hermione Baddeley as Doll Tearsheet. George A. Cooper also manages to change performances totally (he’s the Earl of Northumberland at the start of the episode and the rampant Anicent Pistol at the end). Geoffrey Bayldon, as the Lord Chief Justice, also gets to cross swords with Falstaff. And Bayldon, like the majority of the actors, continues to impress me.
Robert Hardy, as Prince Hal, doesn’t appear until mid-way through the episode, but he still dominates proceedings. There’s a certain steel in Hardy’s performance when he believes that Poins has been ill-using him (Falstaff writes that Poins has made it known that Hal will marry his sister, Nell – much to Hal’s surprise). He also confides to Poins the reason why he isn’t outwardly grieving about his father’s ill-health.
By this hand thou thinkest me as far in the devil’s
book as thou and Falstaff for obduracy and
persistency: let the end try the man. But I tell
thee, my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so
sick: and keeping such vile company as thou art
hath in reason taken from me all ostentation of sorrow.
What wouldst thou think of me, if I should weep?
I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.
It would be every man’s thought; and thou art a
blessed fellow to think as every man thinks: never
a man’s thought in the world keeps the road-way
better than thine: every man would think me an
Although The New Conspiracy feels something like an interlude before the main action, it still moves along quite nicely – and is another step in the journey of Hal from Prince to King.
Uneasy Lies The Head concludes the tale of Henry IV Part Two. As the episode opens, a sickly Henry (Tom Fleming) is still awake in the early hours of the morning and muses on why everybody should be asleep but he.
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
As with the previous episodes, Fleming is very good and whilst he doesn’t have a great deal to do (this scene and his deathbed scene are his two main moments) he’s still compelling to watch.
But as with The New Conspiracy the focus of the piece (at the start anyway) is concerned with Falstaff’s misadventures. But he’s met his comic match when he comes up against Justice Shallow (William Squire). Squire delivers a fine performance as the fussy, reflective Shallow and he’s one of the highlights of Uneasy Lies The Head.
The heart of the piece, though, is the death of the King and Hal’s elevation to the throne. Believing the King to be dead, Hal takes away the crown, but Henry still has breath in his body and is dismayed to find his crown missing. Hal explains his actions (some quality acting here from both Robert Hardy and Tom Fleming) and they are reconciled just before Henry’s death.
Once Hal has become King Henry V there is one important matter to be dealt with – that of Falstaff. Although I can’t confess to have been greatly enamoured with Frank Pettingell’s performance during the last few episodes, he does manage to capture very well Falstaff’s shock and hurt when Henry publicly disowns him. Hardy’s delivery here is spot on – and his journey from wastrel Prince to King Henry V is completed.
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
As the credits roll, there’s one more surprise. We see the actors removing their stage clothes and talking amongst themselves whilst the camera gradually focuses on William Squire. Squire removes the white wig and false nose of Shallow and after the credits have finished he steps forward to deliver the epilogue of the play which promises the return of Falstaff (something which didn’t happen as Shakespeare obviously changed his mind – Falstaff dies off-stage in Henry V).
The breaking of the fourth wall is somehow in keeping with the theatrical tradition of the piece and it’s an interesting conclusion to the episode.