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All this and no horses either… the 1980s BBC Richard III.

June 2, 2017


Jane Howell’s Wars of the Roses tetralogy reaches its bitter and brilliant conclusion.  While the titles of the Henry VI plays are titled on deliberately childish looking banners, for Richard III we have the man himself, played by Ron Cook, stumble onto the stage and scratch “Richard III” onto a chalkboard.  This is an aspirational title, his post-it note, his “to do” list.

Nine or ten hours (or six decades) in to this protracted ordeal, the Wars of the Roses set is now a deliberate shambles, although the costumes are a little nicer, than their Henry VI predecessors.  This is a world in which people are killed with a stroke of the pen rather than with swords on a battlefield.   Perhaps the most chilling character on stage, more chilling even than Richard, is Anthony Brown’s Ratcliffe – an a largely mute Heinrich Himmler figure whose scratchy scribblings are the most sinister sound effect on offer here.

Ron Cook’s Richard has suddenly lost his Yorkshire accent.  This suits his transmogrification from battlefield warrior to slippery courtier.  The scene where Buckingham (realised by a compelling and charismatic performance from Michael Byrne) “persuades” Gloucester to assume the crown against his pious will is the most Brechtian scene of all in its creaky and mechanical verfrumdungseffekt.  This scene is a play within a play, complete with curtains that open and shut upon an exoskeletal political theatre within a theatre.

One of the great themes of Richard III (and House of Cards, not coincidentally), is that if all you care about is the acquisition of power, then the responsibilities of governance are kind of a drag.  As Ron Cook’s Richard limps towards the throne in his robes of state (which are too big and heavy for him), you know that his joie de vivre has forever evaporated.  Power is intoxicating when it it is tantalisingly just out of reach but when it actually has to be exercised it becomes itself a chore and a burden and imprisons those who wield it.

The insistence on doubling parts that runs all through the tetralogy works well here.  Peter Benson, who had played the late Henry VI reappears briefly as a priest – reminding us of how much better and happier Henry would have been as a priest than as a king.  Bernard Hill, the late Duke of York, reappears as one of Clarence’s murderers.  And Mark Wing-Davey, formerly Warwick the Kingmaker, is now back as Tyrrell, who organises the murder of the princes in the tower.  As Tyrrell, he sports a dodgy Northern Irish accent, which in the context of a BBC production from the early 1980s, “troubles” me.  In fact, if I’m prodded and pinched to name something I don’t like about this production, I’d have to say Mark Wing-Davey’s dodgy Norn Irish accent.

I must say that the young Edward V is fascinatingly unsympathetic – a snooty precocious brat of a boy who reminds me a bit of the adolescent William Pitt from Blackadder III.  Watching him sulk on the throne, the foreknowledge of his impending murder is perhaps less chilling than it’s meant to be.

Julia Foster is still around as Margaret of Anjou – a quivering figure in black, seemingly itinerant and friendless – now fully evolved into a crazed relic of a prophetess. Nobody has bothered to kill her, perhaps because nobody can quite believe that she’s still alive.  “Margaret’s Curse” is a more potent force in this production than Richard’s ambition.

The final image is the most controversial and wonderful.  Howell was anxious to demonstrate that the conclusion to this play marks not merely the death of an individual tyrant but the exhausted culmination of decades of pointless slaughter.  Accordingly, the final human voice we hear is the demented cackles of Margaret as she sits atop of a pyramid of corpses, cradling the punctured body of Richard.  It’s been called a “reverse pietá”.  The invention and utter conviction of this staging makes me hope that future generations remember quite what BBC drama was capable of when it stayed closely in touch with techniques and beliefs that are central to theatre rather than film.

Here is Henry VI Part III

Henry VI. Part Two:

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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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reposting on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth

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