The other ‘Hollow Crown’

22nd October 2016

The Hollow Crown is the collective title of the seven films drawn from Shakespeare’s History plays from Richard II to Richard III that played on BBC Two in 2012 and earlier this year. But long before Benedict Cumberbatch gave us his Gloucester there was another version of The Hollow Crown that was first seen on the stage and was then adapted for the screen. And it was a 16mm print of the latter that I viewed on a trusty Steenbeck earlier this week. This Hollow Crown began life as a Royal Shakespeare Company entertainment intended as a one-off performance at the Stratford Poetry Festival in the summer of 1960, although it was still doing service for the company 45 years later. Shot in 1964, the screen version will have a place in the book I’m researching about adaptations of RSC productions. But here’s a preliminary response to a film that stands up remarkably well today.

The Hollow Crown of the early 1960s was devised as a simple stage entertainment by the erudite John Barton. Sub-titled on the cover of the acting edition as ‘The Fall and Foibles of the Kings and Queens of England’, it features three male and one female characters known as readers, three male singers, and a musician who can play both harpsichord before the interval and piano after. Making use only of a simple set-up of chairs, a table and a lectern, the performers were intended to wear evening dress and to treat the occasion with a marked degree of formality. The script is a miscellany of fragments by and about monarchs from William I to Queen Victoria, with additional authors including Anglo-Saxon and other early chroniclers, Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, Shakespeare of course, and, for the epilogue from Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory.

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The tone shifts from the personal and light-hearted, as in a letter to Anne Boleyn from Henry VIII, to the passionate and momentous, such as when Charles I confronts John Bradshaw, President of the Court, at his trial for treason. The songs include the 12th century ‘Worlde’s Bliss’ and ‘Here’s a Health unto his Majesty’ from the reign of Charles II. Jane Austen makes the cut as well, with her charming ‘A Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian’, written when she was 15.

After a first outing in Stratford in 1960, the entertainment entered the RSC repertory in March 1961 on the stage of London’s Aldwych Theatre, with Barton himself, Max Adrian, Richard Johnson and Dorothy Tutin as the readers. In later years the production was frequently revived and it toured with great success, and a deal of profitability, with casts that included Peggy Ashcroft, Marius Goring, Donald Sinden, Geraldine McEwan and Vanessa Redgrave. More than 40 years after its first appearance the RSC and commercial producers Triumph Entertainment rolled it out again alongside the Jubilee in 2002. This show toured Britain and went on to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, before being brought back to Stratford in March 2005 when a planned production of Hecuba had to be postponed.

A selection from The Hollow Crown was broadcast by BBC Television’s Monitor series on Shakespeare’s birthday, 23 April 1961. The following year Argo released a long-playing record of highlights. And two years later, the nascent pay-TV service British Home Entertainment (BHE) co-produced a film version with CBS Television. Directed by American TV stalwart Charles S. Dubin (responsible for more episodes of M*A*S*H than anyone else), the 35mm feature was handsomely and imaginatively shot in monochrome at Twickenham Studios by director of photography Christopher Challis, who had been a regular collaborator with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The staging for the film features a wood-frame setting by designer Voytek that suggests both architectural features and, perhaps inevitably, a crown. The text has been filleted and re-arranged, so that for example, Jane Austen – and Dorothy Tutin’s totally winning impersonation – comes much nearer the start of the show. Paul Hardwick appears instead of Richard Johnson from the initial line-up, while John Barton and Max Adrian reprise their roles. Some lines of contextual narration are also included, these having been superfluous in the theatre where the audience was assumed to be reading a running order.

As it clattered softly through the Steenbeck, I found much of this Hollow Crown charming and engaging, and I was slightly surprised that it is so rarely screened. Perhaps there are rights complications, although a DVD can seemingly be purchased from BHE’s legacy website.

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