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Henry VIII On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's late history play

Main image of Henry VIII On Screen

Now thought to be a collaboration between William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, Henry VIII (also known as All Is True) received its premiere at the Globe Theatre in June 1613, a date we can be unusually precise about because it was the play being performed when the original theatre burned to the ground on June 29.

It stands apart from the other history plays not just in date of composition (the others were all written before 1600) but also for its treatment of events in what was then relatively recent history. Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, and it is unlikely that Shakespeare would have dared write a play about her father prior to this, even though his Henry is a far more thoughtful monarch than the despotic image of legend, and the play's action stops in 1533, shortly after Elizabeth's birth, with no hint of the fate of her mother Anne Boleyn (Bullen), executed three years later, or that of his subsequent wives.

Henry VIII was frequently performed over its first three centuries, culminating in Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's legendarily lavish production of 1910, which staged the play on a massive scale with a cast of 172 and production values to match. Since then, stagings have been scarcer, and have tended more towards psychological penetration than pomp and pageantry, emphasising the political and religious arguments that earlier productions played down.

The play has been filmed twice, for the cinema in 1911 and for television in 1979. Based on the still-running Beerbohm Tree production, the 1911 version (directed by the impresario himself) was a 25-minute presentation of five scenes from his stage extravaganza, made for the Barker Motion Photography Company. Sadly, it was made under an exclusivity deal which required all prints to be burned six weeks after the first screening, and it seems that these instructions were carried out to the letter, as no copies have come to light since.

The 1979 television adaptation, part of the first BBC Television Shakespeare season and generally regarded as one of the cycle's best productions overall, was directed by Kevin Billington. Shot on location in various authentic Tudor stately homes and castles (Leeds Castle, Penshurst Place and Hever Castle), the authenticity of setting and costume was never allowed to overwhelm a tightly-focused study of the play's political machinations. John Stride plays an appropriately firm Henry, but the production's acting honours go to Timothy West's scheming Cardinal Wolsey, clad from head to foot in vivid scarlet, and Claire Bloom's steadfast Katharine of Aragon, the clashes between the two providing many of the dramatic highlights. An accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was presented by Anthony Burgess, and consisted of a general introduction to the background of the play.

Other non-Shakespearean portrayals of Henry VIII include Charles Laughton's definitive study in The Private Life of Henry VIII (d. Alexander Korda, 1933), Keith Michell in Henry VIII And His Six Wives (d. Waris Hussein, 1972), Ray Winstone in the two-part mini-series Henry VIII (Granada, tx. 12-19/10/2003) - plus of course Sid James in Carry On Henry (d. Gerald Thomas, 1971).

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)

Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)

Keith Michell's virtuoso performance as the much-married monarch

Thumbnail image of Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933)

Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933)

Charles Laughton stars as Henry VIII in British cinema's first US smash hit

Thumbnail image of Henry VIII (1979)

Henry VIII (1979)

Adaptation of Shakespeare's late play, filmed in various stately homes

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