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Tennis balls and Judi Dench talks dirty. Age of Kings, Part VII

August 31, 2020

William Squire resumes the choric role he adopted at the end of the previous episode and performs cheerfully enough. He wears a neutral sort of costume and emerges periodically out of the crowd to surprise us.

Now Henry V isn’t my fave Shakespeare by a long way – but for personal reasons it’s the play I might just know better than any other, in terms of my ability to mouth along with the actors. Some lines, such as “you know me by my habit” – can’t help but still make me snigger.

Critically, this BBC adaptation has decided to omit the important episcopal confab at the very beginning of this play which establishes the fact that Henry V’s expedition to France was originally promoted as a tax dodge.

In any case, the role of Archbishop of Canterbury is one of the toughest gigs in all of Shakespeare, since he is charged with delivering the ear-bleedingly tedious lecture on genealogy that is intended to justify this war of aggression. The speech is usually either played for laughs – played so as to make the tedium funny – or cut significantly. This time it’s cut significantly. Our Archbishop turns out to be Cyril Luckham – whom you’ve seen in any number of TV dramas and who also played the hapless ecclesiastic cursed with having to superintend Frank Spencer in a nativity play.

Julian Glover continues in the role of Westmoreland and continues to exercise an accent that would challenge Professor Henry Higgins to locate on any known map of England or the wider world. Still, Julian Glover is “franchise king” and deserves to be in this series along with every other series ever made.

Robert Hardy’s Henry is now in total command. Even the treasonable plot against him becomes the apt occasion for some politic stage management. Henry organises the traitors (Cambridge, Grey, and Scroop) on an improvised stage, gives them feedlines – and then displays them to the populous in order to inculcate salutary fear. This staging shows them doing more for Henry’s authority with their treason than they ever could with their loyalty.

Judi Dench is gorgeous – just gorgeous in the delightful excursion that is the “nice French girl learns some English words that sound obscene in French ” scene. She is fortune’s fool, to be disposed of by whoever slaughters the most people – but for a moment she seems well worth the carnage. She is wide-eyed and exclamatory and lit to perfection.

Note also Noel Johnson, who plays the Duke of Exeter. He was the radio voice of both Dick Barton (Special Agent) and Dan Dare. He exhibits a very fatherly concern for Harry and, rather disquietingly, looks far more like Robert Hardy than ever Tom Fleming’s Bolinbroke did.

Who else? John Warner’s Dauphin is suitably gittish.

I always cringe a bit during the war of silly accents that is the Fluellen-Jamy-Macmorris-Gower scene. The tiresomeness is slightly alleviated in this instance by giving Gower an English accent and aspect which is at least as silly as the Scottish-Welsh-Irish stereotypical gimmicks on display.

All cuts to Henry V are politic. Anything you do to this text alters the political balance. The threatening speech Harry makes to the desperate people of Harfleur is severely truncated. There are no “naked infants spitted upon pikes” here. On the whole, stuff that might subvert the main line of patriotic consolidation is smothered. Which is a bit of a shame.

One scene that feels “just right” to me is the scene where Harry is notified of Bardolph’s impending execution. The camera swoops in very close so that we can register the faintest glimmer of affectionate recollection on the face of the King. But only we can see it. This is a transformed Harry who can no longer even refer to Bardolph by name – he’s just subsumed into “all such offenders”. It’s one of Robert Hardy’s best moments in the episode. Compare this with the ludicrous treatment of the same occasion in Branagh’s version…

Angela Baddeley has the greatest acting moment in this episode, giving the account of how Falstaff slowly died and was duly consigned (according to her eccentric theology) to “Arthur’s bosom”. The camera just hovers in front of her very white face and lets her do her job. Bless.

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