A nation split in two, bitter struggles over national identity and the country’s relationship with Europe, factional fighting for control of the ruling party, roiling discontent barely suppressed in the streets… This is England in 2016, perhaps, and most certainly England in the mid-15th century. For it is the background to William Shakespeare’s great cycle of history plays that culminates with the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. In 1963 Peter Hall and John Barton triumphantly adapted these plays as The Wars of the Roses for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the following year BBC Television recorded them on the stage in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The Wars of the Roses was screened at Easter 1965 as three full-length dramas: Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. The following year they were shown again in a clumsily-edited 11-episode form. And then, apart from a showing at the NFT of the re-edit, the BBC recordings disappeared. Indeed, for a time, they were thought lost, although in fact they remained safely preserved in the archives of the BBC. I knew them only from a very poor off-air recording of the re-edit that was posted on Youtube and could be bought from the States as a ‘grey’ market pirated version. But I was fascinated by the project, and once we had successfully released on DVD the earlier BBC History plays cycle An Age of Kings, I was determined to complement that with a box set of The Wars of the Roses. Today is the end of a three-year journey to do so.
Much of that time was taken up with discussions with various elements of the BBC and BBC Worldwide about whether or not the recordings could be licenced, and on what terms. Ultimately Anne Farmer and her colleagues were hugely helpful in making this happen. Then there was the problem that the recordings had been made under a detailed agreement between the RSC and the BBC that was drafted long before the first inklings of any form of “home video”. So a negotiation had to take place between the two cultural organisations, and clearances from the actors or their estates, as well as from the various creatives involved, had to be secured.
As for the actual recordings, we were fortunate that the BBC was preparing to release for educational use the bulk of its radio and television programmes related to Shakespeare. Which,with the successful launch of the BBC Shakespeare Archive Resource to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, it has now triumphantly done. For this, Hilary Bishop and her team were creating digital versions of many of the programmes from the past, and where necessary sprucing them up with careful restoration. Which meant that by the start of this year there were sparkling new prints of the three plays of The Wars of the Roses.
I was fortunate to be able to screen these prints at London’s Barbican as part of the RSC Shakespeare on Screen festival in January. Since then my Illuminations colleagues Tom Allen and Todd MacDonald, designer Loic Leveque and our head of business development Louise Machin have been making efforts well above and beyond the call of duty to publish the box set. So now this truly extraordinary landmark of theatre and television from the mid-1960s is available once again – and for just £29.99 or less. Peter Hall said this of the original production:
I was convinced that a presentation of one of the bloodiest and most hypocritical periods in history would teach many lessons about the present.
Watching his achievement 50 years on, in another moment of crisis and confusion, I can only concur.
Over the coming weeks I intend to write much more about this series, about its innovative approaches to adaptation and about the extraordinary production in Stratford in the autumn of 1964. In the meantime, here’s the 20-minute film that we’ve made to complement the release that features interviews with David Warner and Janet Suzman, two of the great actors in the series.