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Henry IV (1995)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Henry IV (1995)
For Performance, BBC, tx. 28/10/1995
175 mins, colour
DirectorJohn Caird
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerAnnie Castledine
Script EditorMichael Hastings
Author of the Original WorkWilliam Shakespeare
DesignerAnthony Ainsworth
MusicIlona Sekacz

Cast: Ronald Pickup (King Henry IV), Jonathan Firth (Prince Hal), Rufus Sewell (Harry Percy, 'Hotspur'), David Calder (Sir John Falstaff), Jane Horrocks (Doll Tearsheet), Paul Eddington (Justice Shallow)

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The life and death of King Henry IV, and the coming of age of his son Prince Hal.

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Made on an unusually large budget of £1 million, John Caird's adaptation of Henry IV was the BBC's biggest Shakespeare project since the close of the BBC Television Shakespeare (1978-85) a decade earlier, and was considerably more adventurous than any of those productions. Huge cuts were made to the original text (Caird said that he'd removed almost everybody named after an English county), much of the remainder was reshuffled, and additional material was interpolated from Richard II, Henry V, Henry VI Part III and The Merry Wives of Windsor. If it's not as radical a reinvention as the same year's big-screen Richard III (d. Richard Loncraine) - the medieval-cum-Elizabethan setting at least remains true to the original - it certainly rivals it for gripping immediacy and overall clarity.

Key scenes were generally retained, but often shortened to dramatic essentials and repositioned. Falstaff's encounter with Doll Tearsheet (Part II) is followed by Hotspur's leave-taking of Lady Percy (Part I), the King's upbraiding of Hal (Part I) is intercut with the Lord Chief Justice's interrogation of Falstaff (Part II), and so on, and all the battle scenes are telescoped into a single encounter at Shrewsbury near the climax. All of which is entirely forgivable given that Shakespeare's original was hardly a model of historical accuracy.

The interplay between Falstaff (David Calder) and Hal (Jonathan Firth) is strikingly different from that in the BBC Television Shakespeare version (tx. 9-16/12/1979). There, a manipulative Falstaff had the upper hand over a naïve Prince, but Calder's huge-bellied knight seems permanently soused, spending his rare moments of hungover lucidity feeling sorry for himself, while Firth's Hal is much more cynical and knowing. Rufus Sewell's Hotspur is fired by righteous outrage, stabbing his finger at the family tree to emphasise the royal succession, while Ronald Pickup's rueful King is at the mercy of events - his "uneasy lies the head" soliloquy occurs much earlier, casting a doom-haunted pall over what follows.

This last element is accentuated by the crepuscular lighting: this is an altogether more menacing production than previous television Henry IVs. Although primarily a man of the theatre, Caird clearly learned from Jim Goddard's virtuoso translation of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby (co-directed by Caird and Trevor Nunn) into a television classic (Channel Four, tx. 7-28/11/1982), and Henry IV shows a similarly keen awareness of both the potential and the limitations of the small screen.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The rightful king? (2:16)
2. Swaggering Pistol (4:55)
3. Hal and the crown (4:44)
Age of Kings, An (1960)
Henry IV Part I (1979)
Henry IV Part II (1979)
Eddington, Paul (1927-1995)
Jeffrey, Peter (1929-1999)
Henry IV On Screen
Henry IV Part I: Video Materials
Henry IV Part II: Video Materials
Shakespeare on Television
TV Literary Adaptation