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“And is Old Double Dead?” The 1979 BBC Henry IV Part II.

April 8, 2017


Does any actor dream of playing Henry IV?  It’s a title role in Shakepeare with lots and lots of lines – some of them rather good.  Jon Finch is a fine Henry IV, but let’s face it, the role is thankless and miserable.  At no point in either Part One or Part Two, is Bolinbroke the usurper actually happy being king, and he is required to remain fairly consistently unhappy in a sedentary capacity while others are being more lively and interesting around him.  Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and Bolinbroke/Henry IV aptly illustrates the gap between the grandeur of power and the bathos of governance.

And watching Part II of this old production, I’m reminded that all Henry IV does in this second play is die.  He spends the entire play a-dying.  Jon Finch is made up to look as though he’s picking up that “Greyscale” disease you see in Game of Thrones.  Finch is rather wonderful in his ability to oscillate between debilitating despair and bitter rage – which are the only two emotions that the character is really afforded.

The staging, lighting, costuming, and whatnot of this production is obviously identical to Part One.  Fortunately, unlike too many of the Messina era productions, there’s no attempt at location shooting or realism.  There is no battle scene in Part II (which helps), only various bloody and cruel reprisals following the confusion of an aborted battle.  Yes, I enjoyed this – though it would have to be a very poor production indeed of either of the Henry IV plays that did not send me away yet again awestruck with a sense of the breadth, generosity, bitterness, pathos, organisation and detail of Shakespeare’s social vision.

Hotspur (played by the late Tim Pigott-Smith) is dead, but he seems to live again in the heart-rending description of him by his widow, played by Michelle (“ooh Betty”) Dotrice, in what stands as one of the finest stand alone speeches in the play.

When David Gwillim comes back with the crown to confront his notdeadyet Father, he looks a picture not just of contrition but of abject humiliation.  It is almost surprising when his speech of explanation has its intended reconciliatory effect.  Gwillim is quite a scary Hal.  The scene between Hal and Poins where Poins refuses to believe that Hal could sincerely grieve for his father (“princely hypocrite”) is chilling, especially as Hal reads the letter from Falstaff which among other things gives Hal an all too plausible sense of Poins’ parasitical cynicism.

The Archbishop of York and his confederates are, of course, defeated not in battle but by a trick – or rather – a barefaced lie.  There’s a case for saying that Rob Edwards’ portrayal of Prince John of Lancaster who perpetrates this lie, is the most villainous character of the performance, the most cold-blooded and ruthless.   Falstaff attributes John’s inhumanity to his distaste for proper drinks like sack.

Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff is most effective when most fragile, and his Falstaff is therefore more persuasive in Part Two than in Part One.   With Doll on his lap, he is effectively unmanned when she (as he reads her) speaks to him like a death’s head and bids him remember his end.  Robert Eddison (most famous as the crusader knight who says “he chose…. poorly” at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) offers a Justice Shallow who is exquisite in his querulous nostalgic pathos.  He portrays the sort of character who I will mock less and less with each passing day as each passing day I become more and more like him.

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

And the Cymbeline:

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:

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