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Henry IV On Screen

TV adaptations of both parts of Shakespeare's coming-of-age drama

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Widely considered amongst Shakespeare's greatest dramatic achievements, the two Henry IV plays, written in the late 1590s and technically separate entities (though television versions have generally presented both together) segue seamlessly from high drama to low farce, courtroom to battlefield, politics to revelry, and iambic pentameter to the most colloquial (not to say ribald) English prose. They also include a coming-of-age story, with young Prince Hal surrounded by three father-figures: his actual parent King Henry, Harry Percy ('Hotspur') and the rumbustious Sir John Falstaff, one of the greatest comic creations in world literature.

Despite their exalted stature, the combined length of the Henry IV plays (which should run between five and six hours if played together) has meant that they have had rather fewer screen adaptations than the more obviously crowd-pleasing likes of Henry V and Richard III. There have been no British cinema versions and just four complete television broadcasts, the last of which was heavily truncated.

The first broadcast of any part of the plays seems to have been on 19 August 1951, when the BBC's For the Children slot included scenes from Henry IV Part I, taken from Anthony Quayle's well-received Stratford production. It was never recorded, making it impossible to check specific details, but it seems likely given the 45-minute slot (shared with another short item) and a cast list restricted to Falstaff (Quayle), Hal (Richard Burton), Bardolph (Michael Bates), Poins (Alan Badel), Gadshill (Edward Atienza) and two travellers (Ken Wynne, Robert Hardy) that it consisted of Act 2 Scenes 1 and 4 (the waylaying of the travellers, Falstaff's routing and his subsequent boasts), and possibly Act 1 Scene 2 (Hal and Poins' conspiracy).

Between 20 January and 3 March 1959, the BBC broadcast the seven-part The Life and Death of Sir John Falstaff, adapted and produced by the playwright Ronald Eyre into seven half-hour episodes aimed at schools, with material sourced from the Henry IV plays. Husky-voiced Roger Livesey played Falstaff, with a supporting cast that included Colin Jeavons (Prince Hal), Robert Harris (Henry IV), Eric Thompson (Poins), George Benson (Bardolph), Paul Daneman (Shallow), Graham Crowden (Silence), Audrey Noble (Mistress Quickly) and Edgar Wreford (Pistol).

The following year, both plays formed a major section of the ambitious fifteen-part BBC history cycle An Age of Kings (1960), with parts three and four ('Rebellion from the North', tx. 23/5; 'The Road to Shrewsbury', tx. 9/6) making up Henry IV Part I and parts five and six ('The New Conspiracy', tx. 23/6; 'Uneasy Lies the Head', tx. 7/7) comprising Part II. In comparison with many other episodes of the series, adapter Eric Crozier made relatively few cuts to the original text, with Part I presented almost in full at 150 minutes and Part II only slightly truncated at 134. Tom Fleming played Henry IV, with Robert Hardy as an unusually resolute Hal, Frank Pettingell as a lighthearted Falstaff and a young Sean Connery, less than two years from James Bond-fuelled international stardom, as a notably dashing and charismatic Hotspur.

Nearly twenty years later the BBC Television Shakespeare project scheduled Parts I and II as the centrepiece of a month-long four-part history cycle that began with a repeat of Richard II, ended with Henry V and ran throughout December 1979. The Henry IV plays (tx. 9/12 and 16/12) starred Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, with Jon Finch as Henry (a role he had previously played in Richard II), David Gwillim as Prince Hal and Tim Pigott-Smith as a red-headed Hotspur. The conservative production was in line with David Giles' other history plays for the BBC cycle, its strengths lying mostly in the acting, with Quayle's Falstaff a particularly subtle interpretation that drew on decades of theatrical experience in the role. As a footnote, Gordon Gostelow played Bardolph in both the 1960 and 1979 BBC versions, without any significant differences to either the character or his decrepit, warty appearance.

A scene-setting Shakespeare in Perspective programme preceded the broadcast of each part. Part I (BBC, tx. 9/12/1979) featured the jazz singer and renowned bon viveur George Melly discussing Elizabethan food, drink and its lively tavern culture, while Part II (BBC, tx. 16/12/1979) saw Panorama presenter Fred Emery exploring the notion of Shakespeare as political journalist.

In 1995, the BBC broadcast a 175-minute compression of both Henry IV plays (tx. 28/10/1995), adapted by Michael Hastings and staged for television by John Caird for the Performance series. Rather more than just a shortening of the text, this reshuffled scenes and individual lines to turn Shakespeare's often convoluted plotlines into a more coherent linear narrative that culminated in the double climax of the battle of Shrewsbury (traditionally the end of Part I) and Falstaff's rejection by Hal. It was bookended by brief passages from Richard II (the circumstances of Henry ascending the throne) and Henry V (the posthumous eulogy to Falstaff), and additional material was also drawn from Henry VI Part III and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

There have not been any British cinema adaptations of the Henry IV plays, though Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight (Spain/Switzerland, 1966) did at least feature several distinguished British actors: John Gielgud (Henry IV), Keith Baxter (Prince Hal), Margaret Rutherford (Mistress Quickly) and Norman Rodway (Hotspur). Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989) featured a brief appearance, in flashback, by Falstaff, played by Robbie Coltrane with dialogue sourced from the earlier plays.

There have been a number of television broadcasts of Giuseppe Verdi's comic opera Falstaff, based on the Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor, all sourced from existing stage performances. Glyndbourne productions were shown by the BBC on 15/9/1960 (with Geraint Evans in the title role) and Southern on 29/4/1978 (Donald Gramm), while Royal Opera House productions were shown by the BBC on 1/1/1983 (Renato Bruson) and 22/12/1999 (Bryn Terfel). Other BBC broadcasts include a production directed by Basil Coleman with Geraint Evans and the English Chamber Orchestra (16/12/1972), and a celebrated 1989 Welsh National Opera production directed by Peter Stein and starring Donald Maxwell.

Michael Brooke

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