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DVD: An Age of Kings | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: An Age of Kings

DVD: An Age of Kings

The BBC's 1960 adaptation of Shakespeare's history cycle was traditional yet visionary

Meet the Percys: Sean Connery and Patricia Heneghan in 'Henry IV, Part 1'BBC/Illuminations

Released here last month, nearly five years after it was issued in America, The Age of Kings is a five-disc glory. It comprises the BBC production of Shakespeare's eight English history plays – Richard II, both parts of Henry IV, Henry V, the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard III – which were broadcast live to three million viewers from the Riverside Studios and the then new Television Centre between April and November 1960.

The series – a repository of classical Shakespeare, made in the days before fascist uniforms became a wardrobe option for Richard III and his henchmen – was conceived and produced by the theater director Peter Dews, a 30-year-old former history teacher. It was adapted by Eric Crozier, who roughly apportioned half a play to each of the 15 episodes (60 or 75 minutes long, an hour in the case of Henry VI, Part 1). It was punchily but fluidly directed by Michael Hayes, who enhanced the drama with numerous televisual or cinematic touches, including the occasional inventive dissolve.

The odd flubbed line or stagy fight added a touch of theatrical realism

The cinematographer Bert Postlethwaite, whose team trained their four cameras on a warren of sets linked by a corridor, wasn't afraid to pan, "track," despite the restrictions of the TV frame, or peer into deep space. The electronic studios befitted the "unworthy scaffold" – as per Henry V's prologue – allowing for "imaginary puissance," to which the odd flubbed line or stagy fight added a touch of theatrical realism.

The concentrated mise-en-scène fortuitously focused attention on Shakespeare's language and its import. Consequently, the suicidal ambition and ruthlessness that characterized the elite power games of the second half of the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Roses emerged as a living creed, as did the ribaldry, sensuality, and mischief of the Boar's Head crew and their fellow commoners.

Dews enlisted many of the actors (to play 600 parts) from his Oxford days and the Old Vic. Frank Pettingell's Falstaff, philosophising windbag supreme, became the Henry IV episodes' fourth-wall-breaking anchor, crossing between the classes as he does.

Electrifying work was done by Edgar Wreford (John of Gaunt) and Tom Fleming (Henry IV), astounding death-bed soliloquists, and Sean Connery, whose Henry Percy is the most virile of Hotspurs. Robert Hardy matures convincingly from the dissolute Hal to the victor at Agincourt. Judi Dench (Katherine, pictured above with Hardy's inept wooer Henry), Eileen Atkins (Joan la Pucelle, the Maid of Orleans), and Paul Daneman (Richard III) were all stand-outs. The likes of Angela and Hermione Baddeley (happily teamed as Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet), George A. Cooper, Patrick Garland, Julian Glover, Gordon Gostelow, Frank Windsor, William Squire also excelled, some in multiple roles.

The recordings were made not from the actual studio productions, but directly from a television showing the broadcast. The picture quality of the DVD is therefore murky. Its single extra is a 14-minute interview with Tony Garnett, another of the multi-role players. He describes the process of making live television as "utterly insane" and the cycle's formal qualities as something he thereafter fought against as a BBC producer. But he admits the acting brought him joy, that the experience turned him into a pro, and that An Age of Kings was a win for culture. Dews tried to repeat its success with his self-directed Spread of the Eagle (1963), a BBC nine-parter adapted from Shakespeare's three main Roman tragedies, but the series lacked the historial continuity of its illustrious predecessor.

The suicidal ambition and ruthlessness that characterized the elite power games emerged as a living creed

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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