“Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown…” and all that smooth jazz.
Back in the day, 1960 to be exact, the BBC, under producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes, created the spectacular fifteen part black and white epic mini-series (before the term had been coined) “An Age of Kings”—eight of Shakespeare’s historical dramas chronicling the history of the British monarchy from Richard II to Richard III, including the six plays that encompassed the reigns of Henry IV, V & VI (the brief reigns of Edward IV & V are encapsulated within Richard III.) The plays tell the story of the War of the Roses, the succession of the monarchy from the House of Plantagenet, through the House of Lancaster (whose emblem was the red rose,) the House of York (whose emblem was the white rose) leading to the House of Tudor, whose last reigning monarch, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare hoped to flatter with his history/vindication of her line. When the American precursor to PBS, NET picked up the option, the US was treated to its first glimpses of Sean Connery and Judy Dench among other things.
Flash forward to 2013. The BBC is having another go at it, calling it “The Hollow Crown.” This time it is in color; this time only the first four plays are included; this time major roles are assigned to well known film actors (to date Patrick Stewart appeared in the first episode, Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston—Loki from the Marvel Comics films) promise to run rampant through the rest of the series. It was somewhat annoying that roles in Richard II are reprised by other actors in Henry IV part I, and that all the spectacular castles not withstanding, the battle scenes are strictly comic-book-to-movie caliber, with Kings going to war wearing their crowns sans battle helms, unprotected by their knights, and without surrogates to confound enemy soldiers eager to slay or capture the opposing leader. The order of battle is also sorely misrepresented. For shame.
The acting is excellent, and the writing is arguably the best in the English language. The cinematography is breathtaking, the costumes are spectacular, although the editing occasionally tends toward the maudlin and the scenes, while usually anchored in cinematic realism, occasionally wander into the metaphorical as when Richard II frolics in the surf returning from his conquest of Ireland prior to learning he is about to be deposed.
The four plays chosen for this series culminate with the high point of the Lancastrian dynasty, that relatively peaceful time in England after Henry IV’s death and Henry V’s successes in the Hundred Years War with France, especially the incredibly one sided Battle of Agincourt—this before it all goes south after Henry V’s untimely death and the ascension of his infant son to the throne in 1422. Most of “The Hollow Crown” series is clearly a showpiece for Tom Hiddleston, who plays the Price of Wales in the two Henry IV plays and Henry V in the final play.
Thus far, the first two plays have been shown. “Richard II,” for anyone living in a cave, is the tale of a weak monarch who foolishly banishes his loyal cousin and then robs him of his birthright, only to be deposed by said cousin who then usurps the throne. In “Henry IV, Part1,” said cousin, now King of England, finds those who previously supported him turning on him for slights both real and imagined. Counterpoint to the historical drama is the comedy Sir John Falstaff and the wastrel prince who will eventually become the perfect king, Henry V.
Missing, or a least glossed-over from both plays is the significant issue of the right of succession to the throne and the legitimate claim of those whose right to the crown had been ignored. As this was still a touchy issue at the time the plays were written (circa 1600,) it had to handled with aplomb for Elizabeth I had imprisoned others much closer to her for less.
Perhaps the remaining four plays will constitute a second series in the near future, although these were written first and are not as polished as those in this series, and constitute mostly tragedy, so don’t bet on it. In the mean time, enjoy “The Hollow Crown” while it plays, then find a copy of “An Age of Kings” online or at your local library and thrill to the production values of a more literary era.
A brief history of the War of the Roses may be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wars_of_the_Roses
A boxed set of “An Age of Kings” may be obtained here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/handle-buy-box/ref=dp_start-bbf_1_glance
More information on “The Hollow Crown” may be found here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/episodes/the-hollow-crown-shakespeares-history-plays/about-the-series/1747/
Am excellent review of “An Age of Kings” may be found here: http://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2009/11/age-of-kings-bbc-tv-1960.html
© Paul L. Bates, 2013