Tuesday, July 21, 2020


An Age of Kings Vs The Hollow Crown and Henry V #Fragments

Sixty years ago tonight, the BBC broadcast the centrepiece of their hugely ambitious, brilliant Shakespeare Henriad An Age of Kings – beginning the really popular one, Henry V.
Eight years ago tonight, the BBC broadcast the centrepiece of their hugely ambitious, brilliant Shakespeare Henriad The Hollow Crown – the really popular one, Henry V.

It’s Robert Hardy vs Tom Hiddleston as the one Official Good King of the set, fifty-two years apart.

Hiddleston looks fantastic and has glorious weight in speeches and in battle, but doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself nearly as much as Hardy, who gets his big matches with Sean Connery and Judi Dench* and whose St Crispin’s Day speech is the most rousing I’ve seen.

Mores have changed so that Falstaff was still a big draw in 1960, but he’s just drunk and unappealing in the later version to the extent you can’t see what they see in him.

*I think Dench is the one actor in both series (though not on July 21).

I’m at most a very casual Shakespeare fan. Sometimes I’m in the mood and swept away by a series like this; sometimes I run up against modern avant-garde interpretation of the sort insightfully described by Shakespearean scholar Philomena Cunk as “completely f—ing unwatchable” and founder.

What’s A Henriad and Why Do I Need To Watch Two of Them?

An Age of Kings and The Hollow Crown are both fantastic but very different takes on the same plays. They do the complete run of the two Henriads in historical order (which even Shakespeare didn’t): Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III. Two of the Kings here, and not the best ones, get multiple plays to their names; Edward IV [don’t mention V] doesn’t get his own.

These series are the only times I’ve watched all the plays as a set, though I’ve seen half of them presented solo in other versions (not counting Game of Thrones). But you might think of the two Henriads – sets of plays about the Henrys – as the original Roses Wars plus the Prequel Trilogy (OK, tetralogy, but Henry IV’s in two Parts, which is cheating).

An Age of Kings is one continuous story shown fortnightly across April-November 1960, the plays broken into hour-and-a-bit episodes.
The Hollow Crown is seven movies, shown in two series in 2012 and 2016.

“An Age of Kings” is a title fit for grandeur, ambition and six-months’-worth of TV. “The Hollow Crown” sounds bleaker and darker; less appealing, more modern. For me, it better evokes the Henriads, as they have a lot of Kings but most of them aren’t up to it (nor enjoying it).
They knew that in 1960, too. The opening episode of An Age of Kings is the first half of Richard II and takes its title from a famous line in that play: An Age of Kings 1 – The Hollow Crown.
(Sadly, no episodes of The Hollow Crown are subtitled “An Age of Kings”).

Richard II and Epic Vs Pace

Richard II in 1960 is much less fabulous than Ben Whishaw but even more all at sea than in other versions I’ve seen and Bolingbroke is just creepy, so even from the first you think ‘Neither as King, please’ (and also think ‘How can I work “insatiate cormorant!” into conversation?’).

The main things I remember from each of these series are what you might call grand historical sweeps, from how TV is produced to how monarchs are compared in Shakespeare. That, and some fantastic actors.
Richard II is the key to both.

An Age of Kings is made in small studios, in black and white, with an amazing cast of soon-to-be-very-famous actors who often pop up weeks later in different parts and wigs, like a theatre rep company.
The Hollow Crown is epic movies for television.

You’d think the 2012-2016 series is more modern than the 1960. Well, yes, by definition. Except… With grand locations and epic sweeps of the camera come actors striking poses and declaiming as seriously as their cinematography demands.
1960 is fast, and much less reverent.

While The Hollow Crown is staged far more naturalistically, An Age of Kings is played far more naturalistically.

My defining scene: Bolingbroke has Bushy and Green, two of the other side / traitors murdered / executed (you get these fuzzy edges in undeclared civil wars).
In 2012, Rory Kinnear stands on the edge of a cliff and makes his self-justifying speech, the others make their self-justifications, there is a sweep of the camera and a sweep of the blade and the two heads fall. It looks real.
In 1960, Tom Fleming snaps out his orders on a cramped bit of stage, his two victims gabble across each other in a panic, he cuts off their lines and they’re dragged off to be slaughtered without him listening. It feels real.

The rapid-fire TV speech vs showing sumptuous locations might be the biggest difference between the two productions.
Another is, I think, that the statelier Hollow Crown is more kindly to its Kings, but that’s harder to crystallise.

I have to admit that one reason I adored An Age of Kings was that it was full of actors who would go on to Doctor Who – albeit most looking startlingly young, lean and hungry (to the point of undernourished, having grown up under rationing).

There’s Jerome Willis being dragged to his death – he’ll be back in many roles, most strikingly as the Dauphin.
There’s George A Cooper with a full head of dark hair and a beard! Is it a wig, or did all his go really suddenly?
Great Who villain John Ringham doesn’t get to be Richard III in this one, so he’ll play an Aztec as Olivier instead.
Most of all, my favourite Julian Glover, who gets a mass of parts and is luckily cast in his biggest last, so his repeats stand out less.

Michael Hayes directed An Age of Kings; by a strange coincidence, I’d rewatched his 1979 Doctor Who – The Armageddon Factor before seeing his epic Shakespeare, so did he put in the “This blessed plot” line, or was that in the script, or a Tom Baker ad-lib, and another huge coincidence?

Watching in historical line, the Yorks are set up as baddies from the first. At least Bolingbroke has some balls, it seems to say, but the Yorks haver from side to side (part of why Richard II is a bad king). The father even says his son – or is he? – deserves to die (mirrored in the finale when Richard III’s cursed by his mum)! So the whole line’s condemned at the root: the House of York descends from a compromised, possibly bastard, all-round traitor and eventual kingslayer, the damned son Aumerle.
Just a little weighted there.

One acting criticism for The Hollow Crown: in context, Tom Hughes needs to be a scene-stealing proto-Richard III as Aumerle. He’s adequate for a smallish part, but if you’re looking through the line he ought to be compelling (no match for Ben Whishaw’s deserved BAFTA).
[To be fair, I realise that I only thought of this deficiency in the character while watching The Hollow Crown and I don’t remember anything about Aumerle in An Age of Kings, which probably comes to the same criticism.]

OK – big skip, because although I was enthralled I didn’t make a lot of notes, and I’ve already told you all I had on the most popular King and play. So onto the Henry VIs, which aren’t much celebrated and each of which are cut down but in interestingly different ways…

More Failed Kings and Three Cheers For Richard

An Age of Kings keeps the common rebellion at home but loses most of the noble battles in France; The Hollow Crown is mostly the reverse. Although both versions rush through the three Henry VI plays to get to Richard III, I preferred this second half.

Henry IV’s a more coherent story than VI, but I’m less keen on Falstaff and on patriotic conquest as the punchline – and of the two big, popular plays here, the Hollow Crown season finales, I’m always for Richard III over Henry V.
The Henry VIs aren’t very satisfying unless you add Richard III – or, as in McKellen’s Richard III (my favourite Shakespeare), just do the brilliant one and pillage extra bits from Henry VI.
But it really works when you see Richard on the rise through someone else’s plays.

Paul Daneman’s 1960 Richard (III to be) is terrific, a slow build, then leaping to seize it. I remember thinking, thank god! when he makes his electric speech, miming seizing the crown, lines I knew from McKellen.

Intriguingly, it’s not that Richard III forswears love for power, but goes for power because love has forsworn him from his mother’s womb. Not least juxtaposed with Henry VI’s long and whiny self-pity, you can respect Richard!

The Hollow Crown deftly simplifies the story (dropping the rabble, shortening the conflict), but it also makes all the would-be kings here more sympathetic – bar Cumberbatch’s powerfully vicious Richard.
An Age of Kings really critiques the whole idea of kingship.

Richard Plantagenet (father York of Edward, Clarence and Richard) is Magneto in X-Men, the best of them all in cunning, ability and even nobility. Like Magneto, 1960 Jack May must keep saying ‘I’m a villain!’ so you don’t side with him and think he has a point. By contrast, 2016 Adrian Dunbar is more blatantly noble, but rash and a bit dim (though in helmets showing only their profiles, he and Cumberbatch do look father and son).

Even with Shakespeare tilted against them, the Yorks seem much the more reasonable side. Richard Plantagenet the elder giving up his own claims for his sons is the reverse of Henry VI – saintly Henry, the exemplar of oathbreaking who would rather the land “unpeopled” by war than abdicate himself. Kill everyone!

Terry Scully’s 1960 Henry VI is a whining, petulant, entitled tosser with no ability as king and no sense of responsibility, far more of a failure than Tom Sturridge’s 2016 away with the fairies interpretation.
[From now on I’m concentrating on An Age of Kings – purely because I made notes when I watched it!]

But the real 1960 critique of monarchy is Julian Glover’s Edward IV, who steals it even from Daneman’s business with massive-I’m-king-really-look crowns and sprawling his crotch as he chats up sexy Elizabeth (like Helen of Troy, an unrewarding part for any woman). Glover’s Edward is a much loucher and far more insightful performance than any I’ve seen because you believe, yes, he really does only think with his knob, and he’s a terrible king – he wants a shag more than to do the job.

Clarence is another petulant, entitled one, and a drunk (fed by Richard, with a fabulous end credits business of saving Clarence falling into a barrel then repeated looks to camera that had me laughing aloud).
Completely changed as a character if you only see him in Richard III… Just like his brothers.

Richard III on its own is a terrific play, but it’s easy to take from it that Edward IV is a wise old King slandered by Richard, Clarence a nice old buffer who’s a bit too innocent for his own good, and Richard III an appalling villain who brings down a goodly court purely through his own ambition. None of these are true at the end of either series here.

Watched as the culmination of the Henriads, like any great series finale Richard III gains a lot more layers, just as you root even more for Richard himself getting a grip. Not only was Edward IV a bad King and Clarence a treacherous schemer, but throughout these plays England’s been mired in decades of pointless death, divided and leaderless under whichever self-indulgent waste of a king, save one brief golden moment.

So when Richard has magnetism and actual decisiveness, you might very well think that he might be evil, but at least he’s got it.
Much like the other spurned villain (through her sex), Queen Margaret, Mary Morris being amazing – she gives by far the best troop-rousing speech and is the only one who totally rocks a crown.

An Age of Kings’ finale is superb bar its women: haunted Mary Morris and Violet Carson guesting one month early in hairnet wimple, but they cut the cursing and the Elizabeths don’t even get to say yes or no to Henry Tulip (a terrible King to be, but barely in the play except as Hope).

Hardy’s Hal is in the crowd, hilariously, for a last curtain-call cameo in the ‘two priests’ (not actual priests) scene. An in-joke on the constantly rotating rep company – Glover’s so good in so many wigs and beards and fortunate in his Edward being last that he almost gets away with it, but Jerome Willis was so distinctive as the Dauphin and Jack May as York that you can’t miss them as Richmond (astonishingly pious) or Stanley (nearly as plotting) at the end.
Another cut: “I’m not made of stone!” Boo.
But though much of the scene resembles the Olivier staging, instead of the naked power at the end, Richard tips his prayerbook up to God and then tosses it down.
I don’t really like their Buckingham, though.

Which Richard III?
Iconic Olivier; devilishly charming McKellen; shockingly savage Cumberbatch…? 1960 Paul Daneman is as brilliant as any of them, from hysterical glee to bloodstained determination at the end.
And pious as Tudor may seem, he wins the crown writhing in the mud.

Though damning Richard III as the worst of villains, Shakespeare still explicitly rejects “A horse!” as Richard attempting to flee – it’s to fight on from strength, having already “slain five Richmonds”, and he refuses offers to get him away.
A bold fighter to the end – like Henry V, the only other King up to the job.
That is not an endorsement of crowns.

Finale to the whole Age of Kings: murk over Bosworth ends the brief dynasty heralded by the Three Suns / Sons of Mortimer’s Cross. And “England hath long been mad” is far more powerful as the cap to a series rather than a single play.

This 1960 production’s “Despair and die!” ghosts are so terrifically done they look like a big influence on the climax of The Caves of Androzani
I always see things through Doctor Who eyes. But Shakespeare’s sometimes pretty exciting, too.

(I started writing this as a Twitter thread this afternoon, on spotting the enticing double-anniversary where the two adaptations crossed. Then I found I’d made intermittent notes on watching some of these, and the thread grew into a yarn. So I decided that I’d simply blog it all at the same time, as that might be easier to follow.

This is the sixth of what might be a series of Fragments – not-quite-finished, not-quite-polished, from ideas I’ve written up over time and maybe I’ll share some of them anyway. If you’d like more, please let me know, and if you’d like to help, please ask me, ‘Have you at some point written something intriguing about Story / Series X, and could you find it, consider it and post it?’ You might suggest one that I can (TS;RM [Too Short; Read More]? Here). Nobody requested this one, but I got carried away.

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I wasn't aware of An Age of Kings until you mentioned it - I must watch it. (Amusingly, I note that the Amazon listing has it starring Sean Connery and Judi Dench...)

Falstaff is, in my view, the one real failing in The Hollow Crown. Simon Russell Beale is a terrific actor, but his Falstaff is fundamentally misconceived. Falstaff needs to be all larger-than-life jolly fun, at least on the surface, for the play to make sense. Roger Allam, by contrast, absolutely nailed it in his Globe performance, which is available on DVD.

For me, the stand-out performance in the second part of The Hollow Crown was Sophie Okonedo. Incredible range, power, charisma and strangeness, I was rooting for her to be cast as the next Doctor Who. Still am, to be honest.
I’m very glad to have brought it to your attention. It’s something I’d heard of for ages (usually for its Doctor Who connections), but we only got the DVD and watched it four years ago. And I’m not surprised by the Amazon billing: I shamelessly did the same thing and picked out the big selling-point actors! I’m not sure who I’d put as the stars were I trying to reflect the real ‘top cast’, though Paul Daneman would certainly be up there; probably the five named kings, for a start, but even they don’t really reflect all the leads. One of the problems is that some of the big parts have one-off actors (Connery and Dench only play the one role each, in four episodes / two plays and two / one respectively), but many of them are the ensemble cast who play several roles, meaty and minor. All of which is a long way of saying that Amazon is misleading, but the ‘real’ lead is complicated.

I completely agree with you on Falstaff, though my guess is that the misconception was wider than Simon Russell Beale’s – it seems very much of a part with the approach, but again, while I’ve never been a fan of the character, I can usually see what people see in him, and here I can’t. I’d rather like to see Roger Allam’s now you’ve mentioned him. I did enjoy Christopher Benjamin’s Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor – with horns! – though that’s a very different play for him.

And Sophie Okonedo is another reason I wish I had the time to watch all of these through again. Mary Morris was mesmerising in the role in 1960, as well.

Mary Morris is terrific. When casting was going on for Claws, my comedy about a power struggle in a cat club, I suggested her for the part of the eminence grise, Mrs Browning-Browning. She'd been living in Switzerland and out of the loop for a while so I was delighted to start off an Indian summer of tv appearances. I told her how much I admired her Queen Margaret and she said (rather sadly) no copy seemed to have survived. This was in 1986. I'm so glad her magnificent performance has after all been preserved.
That’s brilliant! What fabulous casting. It’s great you got to work with her (but such a shame she never got to see this again).
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