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The 1979 BBC version of Henry IV, Part I.

March 28, 2017

henry iv

This is one of the earlier entries in the “Do the whole lot” BBC Shakespeare project of the late seventies and early eighties and is, accordingly, the subject of many complaints.  These Cedric Messina era productions were widely condemned for their stodginess, unimaginative staging and hyped up “heritage” signposting.

That said, this David Giles directed version is satisfyingly “stagy” in useful ways, eschewing the filmic pretensions of the earlier As You Like It and focusing on lavish indoor sets.  The costumes are perhaps tediously authentic, with rather stained efforts to make Henry IV himself and Prince Hal look exactly like their familiar portraits.

Despite the fact that Henry IV is very much about national and regional differences, there is no organised attempt to deploy different accents in this production.  Tim Piggott-Smith’s Hotspur has as posh a voice as anyone else in this production, despite references in Part II to his “speaking thick” and the obvious opportunity that most actors and directors happily embrace to give him an accent that bespeaks his Northern background. John Cairney, though Scottish, does not even try to sound Scottish as  Douglas, the martial Scot (a character who is never referenced without his Scottishness being mentioned), while Richard Owens offers us one of the worst Welsh accents you’ve heard in your entire life.

The Battle of Shrewsbury, despite being filmed on a dry-iced indoor set, is rather chilling and the single combat between Hal and Hotspur is surprisingly bloody and visceral.

Given the stolid nature of the production design, commentary focuses inevitably on individual performances.  Jon Finch (star of Hitchcock’s Frenzy and Polanski’s Macbeth) does well enough as the irritable and irritating titular monarch.  Bolinbroke never has much fun as king and, as a usurper, he’s constantly restless on his uncomfortable throne.  Accordingly Finch’s Henry fidgets continually, often readjusting a ring on his finger.  He is always ineffectually bullying and repetitively querulous, but in his longest scene with Hal, quite movingly surprised and delighted by the possibility that Hal might be something other than common report makes him.

David Gwillim’s Hal is, for the most part, very unpleasant.  Far from being “one of the lads”, he is a posh kid very conspicuously slumming it,  that kind of posh kid who never loses his sense of entitlement and innate superiority, no matter how loud and raucous the Eastcheap pub becomes.  Tim Piggott-Smith, meanwhile, is a delightfully affable Hotspur.  The key to Hotspur is the fact that he is a supremely witty and eloquent character who disdains wit and eloquence.  When, in his first big scene, Hotspur describes the foppish emissary who arrived just after a bloodbath to demand prisoners for the king, there’s a deftness and invention to the thumbnail sketch which betrays Hotspur’s rhetorical sophistication.  We love Hotspur because we love to hear him talk, and he talks best when he talks derisively about people who are all talk.

Interesting to see Clive Swift in a completely villainous role.  Swift’s Uncle Thomas has the knack of seeing straight through people with a penetrating coldness.   The Earl of Worcester is, after all,  the true villain of the play, the great misleader, the quiet instigator, and the man who could have prevented the Battle of Shrewsbury before it started, saving the life of Hotspur and thousands of others, just by communicating the King’s “fair offer” accurately.  The weary resignation with which Swift’s Worcester accepts his imminent execution at the end illustrates the reality of someone who will die as he has lived – in a spirit of cold-blooded detached calculation.

Always a little strange to see Michele Dotrice, the “Betty” of  Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em fame in a serious role, but that’s not her fault.  She offers a glimpse of a world of straightforward companionate marriage, a world in which humans have something better to do than plot ways and means to slaughter one another.  This glimpse is, of course, swiftly slammed shut.

And then there’s Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff.  Quayle knows this role back to front and inside out.  This is a particularly old and jittery Falstaff, one whose mortality seems very imminent.  Quayle has a variety of strange noises for Falstaff to make, and his growlings and wheezings help flesh out a Falstaff as a cornered beast who needs to hum and ha for a bit before giving any kind of creatively advantageous account of himself.  Quayle’s Falstaff is also as cruel and exploitative as he needs to be, particularly when it comes to embezzling recruitment funds and the pressing of the “food for powder” that will decorate the battlefield of Shrewsbury.

What is perhaps lacking from this performance, is any sense that Falstaff could move it bit faster if he wanted to.  It seems bizarre as well as cruel to expect such a dyspeptic creature to offer any kind of military service.  In short, this Falstaff is insufficiently robust to play a convincing coward.

I look forward to the sequel.

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