‘This day of triumph’ #AAoK

25th November 2013

Last week the first shrink-wrapped copies of Illuminations’ DVD release of An Age of Kings arrived at our offices. The event marked the culmination of at least two years’ work by my colleague Louise Machin and I, along with our designer Loic Leveque, and the essential support of Todd MacDonald and Tom Allen. It also represents, given the advance paid to BBC Worldwide as well as the design, sub-titling and duplication costs, a significant investment by the company. So go here to buy your copy for the bargain price of £34.99.

We very much hope that An Age of Kings will be the beginning of a major new project to release great television adaptations of classic theatre plays, which we are conceiving in conjunction with the AHRC-funded University of Westminster research project Screen Plays. Before I explain why I believe An Age of Kings is so significant, and how we plan to promote and support the release, here is a taster:

An Age of Kings is an adaptation in 15 episodes of Shakespeare’s eight History plays: Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. This epic chronicle relates a version of English history from 1399, when Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, to the defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Each of the plays is presented in two episodes which last – from days when the schedule was nowhere near as constraining – between 60 and 75 minutes each. Except, that is, Henry VI part 1 which is squeezed into a single episode.

The productions were recorded in 1960 from live broadcasts made fortnightly on Thursdays, first from Riverside Studios and later from the new Television Centre. The images are monochrome, and there are occasional picture and sound glitches, but given that they were first shown 53 years ago, the surviving copies are in very good shape. The series was repeated just once, in early 1962, but it has not been previously available as either a VHS or DVD in Britain. So the release is something of an event in the presentation of archive television.

In its day, An Age of Kings was a monumental project, involving a company of some 40 actors as well as a distinguished group of guest artists including Sean Connery, Judi Dench and Robert Hardy. Playing a host of parts in the ‘rep’ group are Eileen Atkins, Patrick Garland, Frank Windsor and Tony Garnett, who was later to become a distinguished producer and who has contributed to the DVD set a filmed interview of his memories.

An Age of Kings was at the time television’s most ambitious adaptation, and it was rewarded with a regular audience of more than 3 million. But ratings was hardly the point, since the project was conceived and carried through as a demonstration of newly resurgent BBC which was emerging from a bruising battle since 1955 with ITV and which needed to demonstrate its strengths to the Pilkington Committee on the future of Broadcasting.

The series was also a landmark for Shakespearean performance in Britain, although because it was made for television it has yet to receive the attention it deserves from theatre historians. But as well as introducing Shakespeare’s Histories to a vast new audience, it was a key stage in the rehabilitation of the Henry VI trilogy which at that point remained largely unplayed.

Watching it now, certain allowances need to be made for some irredeemably plummy accents – although there is also a striking variety of regional voices in the mix. The visuals are more slowly paced than we expect today, and attention is focussed on the words and the performances. But, for me, at least, it has a thousand pleasures and fascinations – some of which I hope to draw out in writings over the coming weeks – and also a remarkably strong sense of story-telling. Quite simply, you want to know what Shakespeare is going to make happen next. Did I mention that you can go here to buy your copy?

Starting later this week, I intend to post regular blogs here at Illuminations as I make my way through the series. We are also developing a separate website dedicated to the series, news of which will posted here soon. That will carry many more resources, including quotes from and links to reviews from the time and critical writing about the series since. You can, of course, follow us via @Illuminations but there is also a new Twitter feed @AAoK for more detailed news about the series.

It would be great, both here and on the forthcoming website, to develop a dialogue about the series, and to hear your thoughts and responses. We might even try a viewing group – when some of you have bought your copies – to watch and post together about particular episodes. So think about who among your friends might enjoy a copy for Christmas, and while you’re picking up a copy for them order one for yourself.

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