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It’s not really about Henry. The 1979 BBC Henry VIII.

October 20, 2017


The Cedric Messina era of BBC Shakespeares does not have a high reputation, and this Henry VIII illustrates some of the reasons why.   The motto of this particular production seems to have been: “We’ve only got Leeds Castle for the weekend so dammit, we’re going to make it count – can we see some more ceilings?”   The BBC were also able to get Hever Castle and Penshurst Place for strategic lengths of time as well.   What they weren’t able to get hold of were enough people to actually populate these settings.  A crowd that would have filled a stage set impressively enough look very meagre in the open air. Also cold.

This “filmic” realism has a predictable consequence.  Instead of feeling that you are watching a grand theatrical pageant, you feel that you are watching a low budget movie.  It looks like an undistinguished entry in a line of 60s and 70s Henrician romcoms.   The camera work is less impressive than Anne of a Thousand Days.

The glossy location shots also betray a sort of unconscious (or maybe conscious) insecurity with the source material, which is a pity.  For centuries Henry VIII was an extremely popular play.  Its falling out of favour towards the end of the nineteenth century is a result of two factors.  Firstly, grand on stage spectacle itself becomes dramaturgically suspect, as theatrical revolutions in Scandinavia and elsewhere start to inform London theatre.   Secondly, the growing scholarly consensus that the play was co-written with Fletcher starts to thin its appreciative audience.

Personally, I think Henry VIII would have done better had scholars managed to prove that it was entirely by Fletcher.  If it were known as a Fletcher play, it would be a highly regarded history play by one of Shakespeare’s most interesting younger contemporaries.  As it is, people watching the play are in the awkward position of worrying about which bits they are supposed to most enjoy?  Am I enjoying the wrong bit?  Can I intuitively detect the cadences of the Immortal bard?

Bah.  This is no way to enjoy a play.  And, incidentally, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying the work of John Fletcher.  There are some very fine speeches in this play and it offers some remarkable acting opportunities.

This drama, shot in winter, and with the breath of actors visible in drafty castles and upon endless crenelations sings meanwhile because of Timothy West and Claire Bloom as Wolsey and Katharine of Aragon respectively.  As Claire Bloom defends herself in her great trial (“it’s not really a trial dear”) scene, you can appreciate why Samuel Johnson thought that Katharine was the greatest role in the Shakespearean canon.  She offers experience and common sense in opposition to sophistry and self interest.

The play itself is a sequence of dignified falls from grace.  The wonderful Julian Glover, who has appeared in altogether more stuff than even well-informed readers of this blog can appreciate, plays the Duke of Buckingham, who is sent to the tower thanks to the false testimony of a very young David Troughton.  His speech to a sorry handful of sympathetic citizens survives even the bitter weather.  Then Wolsey falls, and Timothy West gives a remarkable portrayal of the liberating eloquence that’s unleashed when you really do have nothing left to lose.  Then Claire Bloom’s Katharine is translated and even hulking great John Rhys Davies gets teary.  The final fall is the fall averted – the near-fall and rescue of Ronald Pickup’s Cranmer.  Ronald Pickup is of course possessed of one of those voices that you’d pay good money to hear recite the phone book – and he it is, as Cranmer, who is charged with the prophetic baptism speech inspired by the gurgling infant Princess Elizabeth (of blessed recent memory as far as the original audience was concerned).

It’s impossible to forget that this play was written for a protestant audience at a time of European sectarian strife.  In this historical context it is impossible for Henry to be that bad of a guy.  This Henry is broadly well intentioned and only angry in what he sincerely believes to be a good cause.

But here’s here’s my controversial proposition… I don’t think Henry VIII is particularly interesting character.  It’s not Shakespeare or Fletcher’s fault that he isn’t.  Tyrants of course can be notoriously banal, as Hannah Arendt famously explained.  But Henry VIII (however faithfully reconstructed or reimagined)  is dull by even tyrant standards.  It can be fun to see a tyrant on the way up, scheming their way to power – and it’s entertaining to see them deposed and fleeing for their lives.  But Henry the VIII inherited his power and retained it until he died.  His life is a plateau of untroubled entitlement.

Even Henry’s recorded excesses are fairly tedious.  They are mere inflations of commonplaces vices.  Henry VIII did not dress up as penguin, and nor did he choreograph Satanic rituals or make his horse a senator.  Compared to the Emperor Elagabalus or Keith Moon, Henry’s party years are somewhat “meh”.

John Stride is a confident booming but benevolent Henry VIII, but he’s not a character we’re ultimately invested in.  Indeed this play is villain deficient.  Peter Vaughan’s overplayed Bishop Gardiner cackles as though to make up for a general cackle deficit in the first three quarters of the drama.  Since Anne Boleyn is mother to the blessed Elizabeth, she cannot be written as a seductress or a schemer and is instead an almost Biblical handmaiden, plucked out of obscurity by Divine grace to be the mother of a child of salvation.

There’s a lot to be enjoyed in this play, but you leave the theatre (or switch off the BBC DVD) unclear who or what the play was about.  It’s several tragedies in one.

Watching this production has the effect therefore of offering a commentary on the possibilities and limitations of Henrician drama and Henrician narrative more generally.  David Starkey has, apparently, denounced the constant fixation with Henry’s wives at the expense of Henry himself.  Starkey of course has “form” when it comes to reacting to feminized interventions, but he’s also wrong from a literary point of view.  There’s a reason why Ford Madox Ford, Robert Bolt and Hilary Mantel have all focused on characters who orbit Henry -not Henry himself.  Henry is a star with an immense gravitational pull, but you can’t live there.  You can only really inhabit one of the orbiting planets.  Henry simply doesn’t have the hopes and the fears needed to sustain interest, but the interest you feel for those swirling around him is extraordinary.

Good grief but this production looks chilly though…


I have some thoughts about some other 1978-1985 BBC Shakespeares…

Love’s Labours Lost:

Romeo and Juliet:

The Scottish One:

Much Ado About Nothing:

King Lear:

Here is Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Here’s Julius Caesar:

King John:

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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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reposting on the occasion of Henry VIII’s birthday…

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