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They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Age of Kings: Episode One – Reviewed.

April 18, 2020


Friends have connected me with this great endeavour from 1960.  Inspired by two different recent stage productions of the two tetralogies – one directed by Anthony Quayle and the other by Douglas Seale, Peter Dews came up with the idea of taking all eight plays and turning them into a 15 episode sequence.  The result was kudos and plaudits and very respectable viewing figures all round.

The sets are nicely sparse.  Praise be – there are no ambitions to be “filmic” here.  We are in a theatre not a cinema.  The main cinematic device employed seems to be the sudden extreme close up – an effect that seems rather jagged and obtrusive nowadays.

Worthy of particular praise is the incidental music by Christopher Whelen.  Never applied obtrusively during the actual dialogues – its drums and brass focus creates a sense of urgency in between scenes.  Oh – and there are harps.  Harps help introduce the dreamier court scenes.  With the right music and the right lighting – you realise that low definition has a charm all of its own.  Certain visual experiences are better smudged.  Certain dramas are impressionist.

The first episode is basically Richard II – Part One.  This way of cutting the play helps to remind us what a bloody awful king Richard II was – vain, cruel, and lethally stupid.  In many ways, he entertained the sort of Divine Right theory of absolute monarchy two hundred years before such a theory was logistically viable.  He thought he was Louis XIV in an age when ruling nations could not be efficiently centralised and people calling themselves “king” still needed the cooperation of regional magnates.    David William plays Richard as a mannered, effete monarch but oddly lacking any homo-erotic overtones.  This is king too in love himself to be sexualised along the tramlines of any known stereotype.

Shakespeare’s tetralogies do not endorse Divine Right hereditarianism – but they don’t endorse pragmatic meritocracy either.  What happens when “rightful” king is awful – just awful?  But then again, what happens when four or five people at a time think they could do a better job of being king?  Shakespeare does not solve these problems of governance.  He just stages them.

Edgar Wreford is John of Gaunt – charged with with the most famous speech in the play.  Wreford does not give the “Scepter’d Isle” malarkey quite the detachable resonance you tend to expect from classical actors.  Wreford is busy dying (he dies, slowly, quite realistically) and his delivery of the speech therefore feels more like part of the overall drama.  Then of course, Richard shows up and takes all his stuff.  Then he runs off to Ireland to take everybody’s stuff there.  And then the lords go into hugger-mugger to discuss the fact that nobody’s stuff is safe.

In many ways, at the heart of this production is Geoffrey “Catweazle” Bayldon  as the guy caught in the middle.  He wants to be loyal to his king, but he’s also aware of Bolinbroke’s logic – that the hereditary principle, if it is to be defended at all, has to work for Dukes as well as Kings.  If he’s not Lancaster – why is Richard king?  Bayldon’s Duke of York is closer to being a POV character than any other, and Bayldon manages to sound querulous and sympathetic at the same time.

Also note Julian Glover.  Note that Julian Glover subsequently became the supreme franchise king – appearing in Star Wars, Doctor Who, Blake’s Seven, James Bond, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.  Probably Emmerdale as well for all I know.

There is however a historical problem with the casting of Harry “Hotspur” Percy – who makes a brief appearance in this episode.  He’s played by a young actor by the name of Sean Connery.  Now everyone understands that from the perspective of London/Westminster, the Percys live a long way up north.  This particular Harry Percy seems to come from rather TOO far north.  The privilege of the Percys was to run a huge chunk of North East England pretty much as they saw fit and the responsibility of the Percys was to defend England from Scottish invasion.   Percys kill Scots in border skirmishes.  It’s what they do.  But this Percy is obviously Shscottish himshelf.  How did thish  happen?  Was Pershy shent on an undercover misshion into Shcotland and hash yet to be debriefed?

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