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“Come Hither Hubert…”: The 1984 BBC Production of King John.

June 18, 2017


King John was not a good man.
He had his little ways.

And sometimes no one spoke to him

For days

And days

And days….

(A.A. Milne)

This was Leonard Rossiter’s swan-song.  I don’t believe he lived to see it broadcast.

Shakespeare offers a puzzling and inconsistent take on (arguably) England’s least popular monarch.   He’s a usurper, he’s arrogant, he’s brutal, he’s foolish and his nerve fails him in a crisis.  It’s often been noted that Magna Carta is nowhere mentioned in this play.  It’s also been cited as Shakespeare’s most protestant play, in part because it seems to draw from John Bale’s much earlier and far more ritualised anti-catholic play on the same theme, but mainly because of the treatment of Cardinal Pandulph.  Pandulph is realised in this production by Richard Wordsworth – the great great grandson of William Wordsworth.  Wordsworth pronounces the will of the Holy Mother Church with the desiccated voice of humourless absolutism.  He’s a chilling presence and he has a hat like an arse.

David Giles, who directed the Richard II-Henry IV-Henry V tetralogy returns for King John and pushes the lush costuming to a point of satisfying parody.  It’s as though he’s learned from the far more innovative Brechtian history tetralogy offered by Jane Howell and nudged his own instincts into a more original staging as a result.  The sets look fake and wobbly – but appropriately so.  We never forget we’re in a theatrical space.  The music, by Colin Sell, but rather unforgivably, it strikes up during the final speech of the play – the celebrated “This England never did nor never shall…” speech.  No excuse for that.

This speech is spoken by Philip the Bastard (or Richard the Bastard) who has more lines than King John and is a far more engaging character – though not necessarily a more compelling one.  He’s played by with cheery aplomb by George Costigan whom you may remember as “Bob” in the 1980s “Thatcher’s Britain” sex romp Rita, Sue, and Bob Too (1987).  Or you may not.  It is the Bastard, rather than John, who enjoys the more effective patriotic rhetorical resistance to papal supremacy.

This production features not just one but two successful sitcom stars.  Behind an enormous beard is Gordon Kaye as the Duke of Austria.  Hang a calfskin on his recreant limbs.  Also note the always emotionally involving John Castle as Salisbury and the fascinatingly ruthless looking Mary Morris as Queen Eleanor.  The very wonderful Claire Bloom (who began her career co-starring with Charlie Chaplin), is Constance – perhaps the most consistently miserable character in the Shakespearean canon.  The monotony of grief – the literal monotone of monomania is communicated not just by Bloom’s performance, but by the fact that all the other characters find her a drag to be around and will avoid her if they can.

As the King of France, we’re favoured with the incomparable voice of Charles Kay, whose tremulous operatic stylings are extraordinary.  If you really want to hear Charles Kay chew scenery in a TV drama I’d recommend going straight from this performance in King John to an episode of I Claudius, where he plays a heroic and high-minded senator being brutally interrogated by Patrick Stewart’s Sejanus.  Interestingly, Charles Kay had already played a very proximate King of France (mid 12th century rather than early 13th) in the extraordinary BBC pageant play dramatization of Angevin depravities – The Devil’s Crown, just six year’s earlier.

And then there’s John Thaw – having finished playing a cop with the Shakespearean name of Regan and not yet aware of his destiny as Morse.  John Thaw plays the hapless Hubert as one of life’s eternal losers – an “ill-favoured” man burdened with a conscience. He’s instructed by King John to kill the rightful heir – the cloyingly Christlike Arthur.  He finds he can’t kill Arthur… but Arthur dies anyway in an ill-conceived escape bid which demonstrates the young Plantagenet’s complete inability to judge distances.  You are small.  The ground is – far away.

Leonard Rossiter has some fine speeches.  His final dying speech, the performance of a man who had not long to live, actually sounds like someone dying.  And his “come hither Hubert” speech succeeds in normalising infanticide with terrifying plausibility.

When I was a student and did far too much acting.  King John was the last role I played while I was still something that could just about be called a student.  I played the role within a week or two of submitting my PhD.  It was also a successful role for Thomas Sheridan the Younger (godson of Jonathan Swift, husband of novelist Frances Sheridan and father of dramatist R. B. Sheridan).  Thomas Sheridan played the role opposite Garrick as the Bastard (and Garrick really could be a bastard).  Sheridan seemed to get better press than Garrick for this production and it’s possible that Garrick never forgave Sheridan for this.

My Bastard was not a bastard but a thoroughly nice guy and I wonder where he is?

Years later I end up writing a book about Thomas Sheridan.  What goes around…

I’ve written about some other productions in this 1978-1985 sequence.

Here’s Richard II:

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

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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