The Illuminations DVD release of the 1960 BBC series An Age of Kings is now well and truly launched – and initial sales are promising. These eight Shakespeare History plays in the 5-disc box set can be bought here, as well as via the excellent Moviemail (who have been hugely supportive) and Amazon (although it’s currently much more expensive on this site). My overview of the series is here, but I want now to begin a critical exploration of the 15 episodes – a kind of virtual viewing guide. Over the holidays my aim is to transfer these posts to a dedicated web site. Episode 1 presents the first half of Richard II, playing through to the end of Act III Scene 2, with King Richard having returned from Ireland and recognising the dominance of Bolingbroke:
Discharge my followers. Let them hence away
From Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s fair day.
Following are my initial thoughts about each scene – timings in the square brackets are minutes and seconds into each episode as presented on disc 1.
In the opening sequence, which will be repeated with variations in the next 14 episodes, the camera moves in on the white hart emblem of King Richard, accompanied by the title music composed by Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975). Bliss had been appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953, the year in which he composed the Processional for the Coronation. Through the 1950s and 1960s he wrote new compositions for a variety of state occasions, and in 1959-60 he worked with librettist Christopher Hassall on an opera conceived for television, Tobias and the Angel. The incidental music for the series was entrusted to Christopher Whelen (1927-1993).
[00:28] Act I Scene 1
The cycle begins with a seated, thoughtful King Richard (an imperious David William) staring at a crown and other regalia on a table in front of him. He rises, accompanied by an oddly incongruous music cue and processes down a corridor (which begins to establish the studio space of the production) to his council chamber. The exchange with John of Gaunt (Edgar Wreford) takes place at a table, to which Bolingbroke (Tom Fleming) and Mowbray (an effective, honest performance by Noel Johnson) are summoned. Compared with later scenes, the text here has significant cuts, thinning out the rhetoric and clarifying the quarrel, although also omitted is Bolingbroke’s charge ‘that all the treasons for these eighteen years’ can be ascribed to Mowbray.
No Act I Scene 2; the exchange between John of Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester is cut. The transition to the next scene is made via a close shot of a heraldic shield being fixed to the front of the platform from which King Richard will watch the fight.
[06:17] Act I Scene 3
A camera on a crane pulls back to reveal the scene which will see Bolingbroke and Mowbray fight. King Richard mounts the platform in an expansive wide-shot, and as Mowbray enters to address the king, the shot dollies in to look up at the king high above. Again, the text is heavily filleted. As the combatants make their final preparations, the camera closes in on Richard, emphasising his uncertainty about how to act but also relieving the production of introducing expensive battle-armour (or even horses!). At the end of the scene, the conversation between Gaunt and Bolingbroke is given almost in full. Edgar Wreford (1923-2006), who plays Gaunt, had been a stalwart of the Birmingham Rep company during the 1950s, where producer Peter Dews also worked, and from where he drew several key members of the cast.
[17:36] Act I Scene 4
There is an air of luxuriance about the court in this scene, with music off and laughing ladies. The account by Aumerle (John Greenwood, who had been in the Old Vic company in the 1950s) of the parting of Bolingbroke is played to the gallery.
[20:25] Act II Scene 1
Almost the whole of Gaunt’s great scene is given, with very few cuts. It begins with Gaunt and Norfolk (Geoffrey Bayldon, later of Catweazle fame) warming themselves by a brazier. Edgar Wreford gives ‘This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars’ from a chair, but his command of the verse is deeply impressive, and he is observed by a long developing camera shot. As Gaunt compares Richard unfavourably with his ancestors, the king turns from him, but spins round again on the all-important word ‘deposed’. On ‘Landlord of England’, Gaunt rises to thunder out his final words. Towards the end, Northumberland (George A. Cooper, who grows with the part through this and the next episode) and Ross (Alan Rowe) watch the king’s party process away into the distance before turning to their plotting with Willoughby (Gordon Gostelow). They in turn warm their hands on the flickering brazier.
[33:57] Act II Scene 2
The first part of this scene, with the Bushy trying to comfort the Queen (Juliet Cooke), has been cut, and it begins with the entrance of Green (Jerome Willis). Much of the rest is played around a table on which the documents and other instruments of state are in a muddle, and at the close the camera pans down onto the mess around an overturned vase from which flowers have spilled.
[37:27] Act II Scene 3
This scene in Bolingbroke’s camp, which is quite heavily cut, is perhaps most notable for the first appearance of Sean Connery as Harry Percy. For several years Connery had been playing good roles for the BBC and in features but he was still two years away from the breakthrough role of James Bond in Dr. No (1962). For my money, Connery makes a valuable contribution here and in the next three episodes, with is Scottish burr an attractive addition to the mix of RP and a smattering of other regional accents. Later, York is brought in blind-folded and furious with Bolingbroke. Director Michael Hayes makes effective use of the soldiers in the camp, who appear singularly threatening to York. The final two lines of the scene are delivered in close-up by a sad and reflective York who speaks directly into the camera.
No Act II Scene 4: the Welsh Captain and Salisbury are taken out, as they often are in stagings.
[43:09] Act III Scene 1
Bolingbroke sits at a table now, signing documents, as Bushy and Gren are brought to kneel before him. He is taking on the trappings of government.
[45:29] Act III Scene 2
The setting is a grassy knoll with sea sound effects off. David William (1926-2010) is strong throughout, always in charge of the glorious poetry as he moves between despair and elation. We also get to see Frank Windsor’s Bishop of Carlisle for the first time, although his big scene will come in the next episode, and the young Patrick Garland as Scroop. Both William and Garland had been student stars with the Oxford University Dramatic Society in the 1950s. For the final lines the camera closes right in on the king’s face, and again he addresses us directly for the very last line.
[58:20] Credits, run over the king’s party turning and departing, leaving Richard alone, defeated and head bent, standing centre screen; right at the end he raises his head proudly.
King Richard the Second David William
John of Gaunt Edgar Wreford
Henry Bolingbroke Tom Fleming
Duke of Norfolk Noel Johnson
Sir John Bushy David Andrews
Sir William Bagot Terence Lodge
Sir Henry Green Jerome Willis
Lord Marshal Julian Glover
Duke of Aumerle John Greenwood
Duke of York Geoffrey Bayldon
Queen Juliet Cooke
Earl of Northumberland George A. Cooper
Lord Ross Alan Rowe
Lord Willoughby Gordon Gostelow
Servant Brian Smith
Harry Percy Sean Connery
Lord Berkeley John Ringham
Bishop of Carlisle Frank Windsor
Earl of Salisbury Leon Shepperdson
Sir Stephen Scroop Patrick Garland
with Sheldon Allen, Jeremy Bisley, Adrian Brine, Michael Graham Cox, Ray Grover, Peter Holmes, Joseph Levine, John Levitt, Brian McIrvine, Desmond Newling, William Patenall, Stanley Platts, Martin Scott, John Murray Scott, Terry Scully, Terry Selby, Anthony Valentine, Terry Wale, Derek Ware, Julian Yardley
and Eileen Atkins, Maggie Barton, Pamela Craig, Susan Evans, Mary Henderson, Margot McAlasirer, Violet Parry, Jane Walker
Music composed and conducted by Christopher Wheeldon
Title music by Sir Arthur Bliss
Designer Stanley Morris
Directed by Michael Hayes
Produced by Peter Dews
First broadcast 9pm, Thursday 28 April 1960, 59 minutes.