“An Age of Kings” is a Lesson for Our Times
Any one interested in Shakespeare especially, the English theatre more broadly, or simply how good television can be, must see the BBC Video DVD release of “Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings.” I have been waiting since 1960 for a video release of this 15-part series which set standards for televised Shakespeare that have seldom been met, even by the later BBC complete (so-called) color series that has been available on video tapes and DVDs for quite some time.
“An Age of Kings” tells the story—well, Shakespeare’s version of the story—of what happened in England from the moment Richard II unwisely banished his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, through the rebellions that followed, Henry V’s victory in France, the War of the Roses that marred Henry VI’s reign, and right up to the death of Richard III in 1485, when a family named Tudor took over the country and changed history.
Each episode runs between 1 hour and 1 hour 15 minutes. Each of the plays are given 2 episodes each, with the exception of “Henry VI, Part I,” which is reduced to a single episode by omitting the main character, Lord Talbot! Surprisingly, his absence does not affect the main story in the least. No play is free of cuts, but the continuity is excellent even without the missing scenes.
The one thing most politically oriented viewers will notice—and Shakespeare is always very careful to emphasize this theme—is that while all of the characters speak of England’s good, what most of them really want is Power. Some of them, unlike the politicians of today, take some pains admitting it. (Pol-Sci majors, take note.) Others are good men, who truly love their country, but make fatal mistakes. The huge cast of characters, aside from the lower classes who are expected to lay down their lives for their leaders but have nothing to say about it, is divided into the Power-hungry and the Patriot camps; and one cannot help notice how the latter usually are the first to suffer.
A relatively small group of actors was willing to work for minimal pay to bring this project off, and many of them play numerous parts, as was done in Shakespeare’s Globe and in any repertory company down through the ages. So a crowd scene will show an actor named Terry Scully, who will later appear as Henry VI a few episodes later—and so on.
There will be several familiar faces of British actors who were to become international stars later on. Robert Hardy is an excellent Prince Hal/Henry V, while Frank Pettingell is by far the best Falstaff I have seen. “Henry IV, Part I” has a remarkable Hotspur played by an obscure young Scottish actor named Sean Connery, who knows exactly how to steal a scene by the sheer exuberance of his style.
Other members of the cast who have gone far include Judi Dench as Princess Catherine in “Henry V” and Eileen Atkins as Joan of Arc in “Henry VI, Part I.” The very nasty Queen Margaret is played by the very talented Mary Morris, whom some might remember as the only important female Number 2 in “The Prisoner” series. I must also mention the excellent Duke of Glouster/Richard III of Paul Daneman, who plays Richard as a dangerous and intelligent man.
I have lost count of how many clever directorial touches illuminate the text; and I can only wonder why so many of the excellent leading actors did not have more prominent screen careers afterwards.
While the picture and sound are not absolutely crystal clear, they are quite good; and I was delighted to find subtitles for those who cannot quite catch the often rapidly spoken dialogue.
There is a booklet that comes with background information about the series and its making, along with some nice production photos. Unhappily, it does not list the cast—a serious omission. One has to wait for the end of each episode to see who plays whom; but real fanatics will hit the pause button and take notes.
I can only urge my readers to get a copy of this historic project, which is selling at a surprisingly low suggested price.