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On the Anniversary of Agincourt… Cry God for Harry, England and St George. But not too loudly. The 1979 BBC Henry V.

April 23, 2017


There’s a strong case for saying that Henry V is the most Machiavellian ruler in the Shakespearean canon – far more Machiavellian than Richard III who, after all, lost.

David Gwillim, from his earliest appearance in these three plays, strikes me as wonderfully sinister and manipulative.  The speed with which he oscillates between playful slumming and steely authoritarian detachment is terrifying and suggests he may be something of a psychopath, a diagnosis confirmed by many French historians.

Giles offers a dynamic and kinetic production, although it is a little uncertain as to its purpose and ultimate direction, as evidenced by some of the cuts made.

Two speeches are significantly abbreviated.  The first belongs to the Archbishop of Canterbury (played by Trevor Baxter who you may remember as Professor Litefoot in the classic 1977 Doctor Who adventure Talons of Weng Chiang) as he describes how and why Harry Plantagenet is rightful ruler of France as well as England.  It’s a long, tortuous and dull speech that is crying out to be cut.  Which is exactly why it shouldn’t be cut.  The longer and duller the speech, the more strained and convoluted the reason for invading France becomes.

And David Giles’ staging only emphasises the sinister conspiratorial context of the war. Bishops Canterbury and Ely are meant to be praying but actually they are worrying about money.   We should never forget that Shakespeare’s version of the Henry V story insists that the most glorious chivalric expedition in English history started off as a tax dodge.

The second speech is Harry’s ultimatum to the governor of Harfleur.  The really gory threats are cut out (“naked infants spitted upon pikes” etc. etc.).  Henry V is not allowed his full extremity of violence in this production, which is again odd, since the version of Hal/Henry that Gwillim has been portrayed for all this time is perfectly capable of such threatened and actual violence.

Needless to say, crowd scenes are at something of a premium here.  The most famous “band of brothers” speech starts off not as a set-piece formal rallying of troops, but as a friendly conversation with a few senior officers.  From a quiet beginning, the camera manages to catch a few details of varied facial reactions giving the impression of speech that swells (but never gets especially loud) to include the entirety of the (unseen) army.

I have a fondness for the final act of this production.  The humiliation of Pistol at the hands of Fluellen is followed by a soliloquy that completes the utter destruction of the Eastcheap crew.  Mistress Quickly is dead… the boy is presumed killed with the baggage… Nym (as played by Hi-De-Hi’s Jeffrey Holland) has been hanged just like Bardolph leaving Pistol all alone.  Pistol is a degraded Falstaff, with all of Falstaff’s abusive instincts but with none of Falstaff’s wit or charisma.  He’s played in this production by Bryan Pringle (that guy who did that brilliant Pygmalion themed Heineken advert where the posh one is taught how to say “the wa-er in Majorca da’nt taste like how it oughta”).

Few speeches are as ignored and yet as beautiful as the Duke of Burgundy’s description of peace and the blessings of peace.  I don’t know anything else that Robert Harris has done, but this rendition brought a tear to my eye.   And the set is delightful – a medieval doll’s house of dreamed possibility.  This final Act made me want to hug someone French.

Oddly enough, King Henry V ends up sounding a lot like his original nemesis Hotspur while wooing Princess Katherine (the exquisite Jocelyn Boisseau).  Like Hotspur, his is the lively rhetoric of one who professedly eschews rhetoric.  One respect in which I feel certain that Shakespeare’s Henry V differed from the real Lancastrian monarch was Henry’s facility in French.  In fact, were I to bother to look it up, I’d find out that Henry was very fluent in French – far better than the half remembered GCSE level French painfully excavated here.  The gentle comedy of having a language barrier to love is too good a chance to waste.  Words are precious when wrested for.

Alec McCowen strides through the play as Chorus looking like Friar Tuck, emerging from the crowd in his plain drab brown attire and sinking back into it when his speech is done.  Part of the need for a Chorus in this play is dictated by the fact that Henry himself has only one real soliloquy – the “Upon the King” speech.   And Giles, having sadly cut two of the most troubling speeches in the play – does at least offer the epilogue, which is a reminder that all of this chivalric jingoism was for nought, that the conquest of France was delusional and transient and that the very same audience that had enjoyed Henry V had already watched the Henry VI trilogy and knew of the chaos and slaughter and human waste that was to follow.  Never cut the epilogue.

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

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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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reblogging on the anniversary of Agincourt…

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