The Cleopatras – Episode Seven

cleopatras 07

Cleopatra has a bombshell for Caesar – she’s pregnant.  He’s obviously delighted and after the child (as she predicted, a boy) is born, she visits Rome.  Cleopatra’s self absorption is made very plain within the opening minutes of this episode.  Her two maids, who are completely sycophantic in her presence, have a very different opinion of her when she’s not around.

Ammonius (Frank Duncan) is the Roman official who’s been tasked with preparing Cleopatra’s Roman villa.  When he mentions that he was a great admirer of her father, he receives a polite but cool response.  After she’s left the room her maids tell him that he shouldn’t “harp on about her father too much, she didn’t care for him. She cares only for herself. We recommend flattery, you can’t lay it on too thick.”

It’s interesting that Caesar later tells her that “you’re an intelligent woman, you like plain speaking. And you hate meaningless flattery.”  According to her maids she loves flattery – so who is closer to the truth?  Of course, the fact that Caesar tells her to her face that she hates flattery is a form of flattery in itself.  Caesar doesn’t seem very manipulative – Hardy plays him as an affable sort of chap – so maybe he’s sincere in what he says.

The only scene between Caesar and Mark Anthony is highly entertaining.  Caesar tells him of his desire to be crowned king, but can he persuade the republican loving Roman citizens?  Neame’s Anthony is full of boyish enthusiasm for his plans and exuberantly tells him so.  Compared to Hardy’s laconic Caesar, Neame’s Anthony is much more hyperactive.  Like some of the other performances throughout the series it’s not a subtle one, but there’s a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from watching him chew the scenery.

For all Cleopatra’s self-centeredness, she did seem to be genuinely in love with Caesar – and he with her – and she takes the news of his assassination hard.  When Mark Anthony presents himself to her, she wonders why he “didn’t die protecting him? Or die with him?”  Mark Anthony’s equally as upset as her though, as is made plan as Neame full-throttles his way through the scene.

Familiar faces (and voices) who turn up in this episode include Geoffrey Chater as Perigenes, a plain-speaking Egyptian official.  Amongst his many credits he had a memorable recurring role as Bishop, opposite Edward Woodward in Callan.  John Moffatt, as Quintus Dellius, might not have been such a familiar face, but he was a highly skilled radio actor, playing the role of Hercule Poirot over several decades.

With Mark Anthony and Octavian victorious, Cleopatra should be glad that Mark Anthony is now ruler of half the world – but that’s not enough for her.  Julius Caesar ruled the world and she wants Mark Anthony to do the same ………

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The Cleopatras – Episode Six

cleopatras 06

Fluter is old and dying (although as has been observed before, people rarely seem to look older during successive episodes – there’s certainly none of the elaborate ageing makeup which was used in I Claudius).  He’s chosen Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy (Daniel Beales), as his heirs – with three people to act as regents until Ptolemy comes of age.

It’ll come as no surprise that the apparently meek and submissive Cleopatra is dazzled by the prospect of power.  In her father’s hearing she wishes that he would hurry up and die, although she’s quick to cover this up (claiming that she wished him to hurry up and get well).

After Fluter’s death, Cleopatra quickly displays the autocratic streak that runs through her family and firmly rejects the approach of her brother’s three regents.  One of them, Pothinius, played by John Righam, looks extraordinary – but despite being caked in makeup still manages to deliver his lines with conviction.  What a pro!  Daniel Beales is entertainingly squeaky as the boy king, completely dominated by his older sister.  He also has another sister, Arsione (Francesca Gornshaw) who immediately catches the eye.

As for Cleopatra, she spends her time flirting with the likes of Pompey (Philip Cade) and giggling about it afterwards with her servants.  As usual, they’re bare-breasted, and amongst their number is Shirin Taylor.  Eleven minutes in we’re told that the mob is rioting (you can almost set your watch by them).  This sees Cleopatra driven from Egypt thanks to the machinations of the wily Pothinius.

Robert Hardy returns as Julius Caesar.  When Theodotus (Graham Crowden) brings him the head of Pompey, he doesn’t react with the sort of delight that Theodotus was probably expecting.  Instead he mourns for a man who by chance and circumstance became his enemy.  How historically accurate this is is open to question, but it implies that Caesar has a greater sense of morality than the rulers of Egypt.

His meeting with the boy-king Ptolemy is another interesting scene.  Ptolemy is offended that Caesar didn’t rise when he entered the room, but Caesar – telling him that they got rid of their kings some time ago – is unabashed, offering him a cheery “how do you do” and a firm handshake.  He’s also asked for a meeting with the queen, but Caesar does wonder if she’ll manage to make it past the likes of Pothinius.  When you see one of her servants carrying a carpet it’s not difficult to imagine what’s coming next.  The carpet is unrolled to reveal ……. Cleopatra.

It’s a bit of a damp squib moment it must be said, although the expression of delight on Hardy’s face almost makes up for it.  Just as good is the moment when Caesar releases she’s Cleopatra (and not, as he originally thought, a prostitute).  Michelle Newell continues to play Cleopatra with a strange mixture of girlish naivety and ruthless calculation.  It’s slightly odd, but certainly effective, as Caesar falls under her spell and restores her to the throne.

Robert Hardy is the stand-out performer during this episode.  His Julius Caesar is both a diplomat and a soldier, who also possesses a wry sense of humour.  And Hardy’s more naturalistic performance contrasts nicely with some of the more mannered and dramatic turns that pop up during the series .

An Age Of Kings – Episode Eight – The Band of Brothers (Henry V)

band

The Band of Brothers concludes the adaptation of Henry V.  It opens with the Chorus’ description of the English camp on the night before the Battle of Agincourt.  Henry (in disguise) moves around the camp to gauge the thoughts of his men.  One of them, Williams (another fine performance from Frank Windsor), is most eloquent on the subject of whether they are right to face the French on the following day.

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of
subjection.

The next dawn dawns and Henry has one final chance to rouse his men before they do battle.  This is another of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches – the St Crispian’s Day speech – and Robert Hardy attacks it full-bloodily.

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Whilst we’ve discussed before the problems of staging battles with such limited production resources, it’s disappointing that the Battle of Agincourt is so limply presented.  There surely should have been a way to present it better than this.  We see a shot of feet walking on the spot facing right and then switch to another shot of feet walking on the spot facing left.  The shot then cuts back and forward several times – which is meant to illustrate the two armies marching towards each other.  Then there’s a tight shot of soldiers engaged in a very slow battle, whilst Henry is placed in the foreground, looking towards the camera.  The whole battle sequence lasts only twenty seconds or so.

There’s a number of cuts to the text made – some scenes with Pistol, Gower and Fluellen are excised and Henry’s reaction (“I was not angry since I came to France. Until this instant.”) now occurs immediately after we’ve seen the luggage boys killed, which is used to underscore why he is so keen to ensure that not one Frenchman is left alive.

But the battle’s over, although it takes a little while for it to sink in. When Henry realises he’s won, he sinks to his knees and accepts the congratulations of Fluellen (Kenneth Farrington) who claims Henry as a true-born Welshman. With so much of Fluellen’s role cut (including his duel with Williams in Act Four, Scene Eight) it’s difficult for Farrington to make much of an impression – but at least he manages it here.

The confrontation between Fluellen and the “turkey cock” Pistol in Act Five, Scene One doesn’t play terribly well. Fluellen seems too aggressive and Pistol (George A. Cooper) plays it too broadly. It really needed a lighter comic touch than was presented here.  And given that many of Fluellen’s lines have been cut, it probably would have been better to lose this as well, since it really only works when we’ve seen more of Fluellen.

Things improve when we move to the French court and Henry attempts to woo Katherine. As with Signs of War, Judi Dench impresses as Katherine.  After their courtship, the Chorus returns to being the play to its conclusion by resting a hand on a coffin which contains Henry.  So as the Chorus concludes the tale of Henry V, Henry VI is waiting in the wings.

Next up – Episode Eight – The Red Rose and the White

An Age Of Kings – Episode Seven – Signs of War (Henry V)

Judi Dench
Judi Dench

Episodes seven and eight of An Age Of Kings adapt Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring plays.  Possibly part of the reason for its appeal is that, like so many of Shakespeare’s works, it is open to various different interpretations.  It can be played as a straightforward heroic piece (as this adaption does) but it also contains darker sequences which explore both the folly and the bitter consequences of war.

The Henry presented across these two episodes is a fairly unambiguous character (similar to Olivier’s performance in his 1944 film) with many of the more questionable points concerning his conduct either downplayed or cut.  But although there are some trims, the bulk of the play is presented here very well – especially considering the limitations of the television studio.

Shakespeare was obviously aware of the problems that existed in attempting to re-create the battle of Agincourt on stage, so the Chorus appears at the beginning of the play to crave the audience’s indulgence in exercising their imagination.

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Given that this television play would also need to call on the audience’s suspension of disbelief, the Chorus is retained and, as played by William Squire, he is able to take us through the early action and operates as a narrator.  A more filmic dramatisation could have dispensed with this device, but the theatrical nature of this play suits the Chorus well.

Many familiar faces from previous episodes (John Ringham, Frank Windsor, Julian Glover, Jerome Willis, etc) fill out the minor roles and there are also several new faces, most notably Judi Dench as Katherine.  She has a single scene here, played with Stephanie Bidmead, and delivered entirely in French – but she manages to light up the screen even in such a short space of time.

Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most quotable plays and one of the most famous speeches comes in the middle of this episode.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

This is a speech that defines Henry and Robert Hardy delivers it with passion and relish. The staging of the scene is done very effectively – the camera is placed behind a group of soldiers and Henry stands directly in front of them.  The camera therefore acts as a member of the crowd and the tight nature of the shooting helps to disguise the small scale of the set and the limited number of extras.

By the end of the episode we have reached the conclusion of Act III and the fields of Agincourt beckon.

Next Up – Episode Eight – The Band of Brothers

An Age Of Kings – Episode Six – Uneasy Lies The Head (Henry IV Part Two)

henry iv part 2

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.

Next up – Episode Seven – Signs of War

An Age Of Kings – Episode Five – The New Conspiracy (Henry IV Part Two)

Frank Pettingell as Sir John Falstaff
Frank Pettingell as Sir John Falstaff

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.

PRINCE HENRY

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.

POINS

The reason?

PRINCE HENRY

What wouldst thou think of me, if I should weep?

POINS

I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.

PRINCE HENRY

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
hypocrite indeed.

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.

Next up – Episode Six – Uneasy Lies The Head

An Age Of Kings – Episode Four – The Road To Shrewsbury (Henry IV Part One)

hal

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.

Next Up – Episode Five – The New Conspiracy