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Getting Better all the Time (and incidentally much worse). The 1980s BBC Henry VI Part II.

May 14, 2017


Jane Howells’s Brechtian direction is just inspired and this version of Shakespeare’s York v. Lancaster tetralogy is not merely a highlight of the whole BBC Shakespeare series but a highlight of 1980s BBC drama.

We enjoy the same rough-hewn adventure playground set as in Part One.  But this time the playground is discernibly shabbier and you can almost feel the  splinters sticking out to hurt you.  The costumes are becoming drabber and vaguer and it’s becoming harder and harder to tell who is supposed to be fighting who – and why.  This is entirely appropriate.

Gary Taylor prefers the earlier title “The First Part of the Contention” for this play rather than the Folio title we’re familiar with.  The Duke of York is close to being the central protagonist of this play, and he gets soliloquies to prove it.   Ultimately, the tragedy for England is that York is no worse and no better than many other Plantagenet warlords infesting the land in the mid fifteenth-century.  Bernard Hill, of course,  most memorably played Yosser Hughes in Boys from the Blackstuff (1982),ensuring that Hill deserves to be crowned King of the Televisual Eighties by any rational jury.  Since then, of course, his appearances in Titanic and Lord of the Rings have made him one of the most successful film actors of our age.

York is absent for much of the third quarter of this play though, as the focus shifts to Jack Cade’s rebellion.  Brilliantly, in a true Brechtian spirit of character doubling, Cade is played by Trevor Peacock who performed the central role of Talbot in Henry VI Part One. Peacock’s Cade is terrifying, an authentic demagogue who combine utopian socialism with totalitarian absolutism, claiming hereditary royal authority while asserting himself as the embodiment of the General Will.  Cade hates writing and despises grammar.  He burns a great many books and proclaims that “my mouth shall be the parliament of England”.  Every modern day so-called “populist” who cherishes subliteracy and despises intellectual elites is an echo of Peacock’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s Jack Cade.

A one-headed Mark Wing-Davey (better known in the 80s as Zaphod Beeblebrox) is Warwick the Kingmaker.  Perhaps his best scene is the crime scene investigation he conducts over the death bed of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester.  He will have better scenes in Part III.

Henry himself (Peter Benson) is alarming in that from any Christian perspective he really does seem like God’s representative on earth, which is why he’s so useless at governance.  At once point he actually exclaims (re. the Cade rebellion) – ‘forgive them – they know no what they do’.  His whole life is one long martyrdom, and one of his most accomplished torturers is his own wife, Margaret of Anjou, lover of the Earl of Suffolk.  At one point, Henry is actually crawling on the ground in a state of despair while she rains insults down upon him.  Henry does not so much rule as offer ineffective theological commentary.  He can sleep when he’s dead.

Following the death of Suffolk, Margaret (Julia Foster) starts to put her hair up into an austere bun and take on an ever more bitter and vengeful appearance.  Queen Cersei.

And in the final scenes, Ron Cook’s Richard of Gloucester (“foul undigested lump”) starts to emerge as a central player, ready to start to dominate Part III.  It is pleasant to have the prescience that none of the cast enjoy, knowing that little crook-back is destined to be the last man standing.

All of these Henry VI plays are long in performance.   They are long, in part, because of the deal of fighting involved.  The next time you hear certain plays being arranged in order of length based on the respective number of lines in the text, think about how many of those lines are interrupted by shouting and screaming and the clash of steel on steel.   There is a great deal of fighting in the Henry VI plays.  People never stop fighting – it’s the nature of the time period and central to the story.

One of those amusing comedies of sexual misunderstanding may have a deal more words to its name, while being significantly shorter in performance.

I can’t wait to see how this ends.  I know exactly how it ends.  I can’t wait to see how it ends.

Here are a few more BBC Shakespeares from the 1978-1985 project.

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

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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