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“I’ll say no more…”: Age of Kings Part 5. (Basically – Henry IV, Part II, part one.)

August 23, 2020

It occurs to me that in 1960, only William Shakespeare was allowed to be so rude on BBC television. Nobody else had a licence for it. Imagine another playwright being allowed to show a brawl in a brothel at that time? Imagine another playwright allowed to conclude the evening’s televisual entertainment with such a clear indication of a “quickie”?

This episode introduces the great Hermione Baddeley as Doll Tearsheet – an aging sex worker subject to disease, exhaustion, emotional trauma and yet periodic lust for life.

Count your Hermoine Baddeley performances. Count them one by one. And it will surprise you what Hermione Baddeley has done.

The episode begins with the sickly Northumberland receiving contrasting accounts of the Battle of Shrewsbury. (This adaptation dispenses with the choric introduction of the guy with the coat made of tongues – the sort of allegorical device that theatre since the nineteenth-century has always had trouble with.) A new foursome of villainy is formed. There’s the cautious Lord Bardolph (not to be confused with etc. etc.) played by David Andrews – whose querulousness is communicated using the same accent and cadencing we associate with Mr Barrowclough from Porridge. There is the far more vigorous Hastings played by Robert Lang. And there is Northumberland himself, Top Percy, the man who has long been used to running much of northern England without much interference – as played by George A. Cooper – a strange self-alienated figure. I’ve never heard of any actor wanting to play Northumberland. Most scary is the Archbishop of York played by Edgar Wreford – whose sincerest of emotions is contempt for the mob.

It is notable and deliberate that this reserve team of traitors, this second eleven, cannot muster the same degree of urgency and excitement as the first – and their fall, when it comes, is the stuff of farce rather than tragedy as history laboriously repeats itself.

They are all to be embarrassed by Lady Percy (Patricia Heneghan) – whose very great elegy to Hotspur creates a man who probably never was. It’s strikingly similar to Cleopatra’s elegiac description of Anthony to her Roman captors in this respect. To make her speech even more unbearable, she is scrabbling at the fresh turf atop his coffin while making this speech. All around her are worried that she will actually try to dig him up.

If nobody wants to play Northumberland, an even more thankless role is Henry IV himself. Discuss. Is there any actor who dreams of playing this role – so central, so verbose, yet so uninspiring? The king spends pretty much all of Part II slowly dying. He’s not fun to be with and he has a knack for getting everything and everyone badly wrong. In his own way he illustrates the hollow crown even more eloquently than the king he deposed? Did anyone really love Henry Bolingbroke? Does Hal? How politic is Hal, really?

Geoffrey Bayldon is back – this time as Lord Chief Killjoy – chief minister in charge of giving Falstaff feedlines. It seems fitting that Bayldon was seriously considered for the title role in Doctor Who, given his capacity to endlessly regenerate in this series. Indeed, the only sad thing about Seeing Bayldon back as the Lord Chief Justice is the realisation that he probably can’t also play Justice Shallow. Can’t you just see Bayldon as Justice Shallow?

Angela and Hermione Baddeley were sisters – and there is something sisterly about Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet’s performances here. Exhortations and chiding are interspersed with sincere concern. Indeed, if I have a problem with this great tavern/bawdy house scene where Poins and Hal are waiters it’s that Quickly and Doll are not always as audible as they deserve to be amid the necessary atmosphere of chaos. Some of the sharpness, pathos, and naive filthiness of their discourse is lost.

Of course, there is the odious Pistol to be dealt with – George A. Cooper again (a very intriguing doubling of parts – Northumberland/Pistol). Falstaff evicts the same actor who represents the principle national military threat in this play and he is comforted by Doll afterwards more lovingly than anything that Bolingbroke or Hal can ever hope for. Swaggering Pistol, of course, is the notorious squaddie who will smash everything in your pub if he ever allowed in. It is his picture you see in the windows of rural pubs that indicate those barred until further notice.

Poins is awful isn’t he? As played by Brian Smith – he is wonderfully, hypnotically awful. He it is who casually inhabits the uncritical prejudicial belief that Hal would be a “princely hypocrite” to pretend to be saddened by his father’s illness. When Hal reads out Falstaff’s letter which suggests that Poins is trying to trick Hal into marriage with Poins’ sister – the panic on Poins’ face suggests there is some truth to the charge.

I must prepare myself. Henry IV Part II part two features some of the saddest scenes in all of Shakespeare. And with such a superlative Falstaff and such a paradoxical Hal, I fear it will be sadder still.

Do not speak to me like a death’s head. Do not bid me remember mine end.

I have some thoughts on previous episodes…

Part IV

Part III:

Part II

Part I

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