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

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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

An Age Of Kings – Episode Two – The Deposing of a King (Richard II)

Richard is murdered by Exton (Robert Lang)
Richard is murdered by Exton (Robert Lang)

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.

An Age Of Kings – Episode One – The Hollow Crown (Richard II)

david william
David William as Richard II

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.

Next up – Episode Two – The Deposing of a King.