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Henry VI On Screen

TV adaptations of Shakespeare's first history cycle

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Although it has not been firmly established when the three Henry VI plays were first written and performed, they are generally thought to date from the early 1590s, at the start of William Shakespeare's career as a professional dramatist. It's certainly true that this sprawling account of the Wars of the Roses (a series of battles that dominated much of fifteenth-century English history) lacks the depth and subtlety of the later history plays, but it's unclear whether their unevenness of tone is the result of Shakespeare's inexperience, the fact that they may be collaborative efforts involving several writers, or a combination of the two.

Given the plays' relative unfamiliarity and the substantial demands made in terms of both cast and running time, it is not surprising that all three television adaptations of the trilogy have presented it as part of a longer series incorporating better-known work. Each concluded with a production of Richard III, while An Age of Kings included the Richard II/Henry IV/Henry V sequence as well.

The first television Henry VI made up a third of Peter Dews' fifteen-part BBC series An Age of Kings (1960), which reduced the three plays to five hour-long episodes, less than half the length of the later BBC Television Shakespeare productions. Part I suffered the most, with the entire play reduced to a single episode (part nine, 'The Red Rose and the White', tx. 25/8/60), the surviving material concentrating almost entirely on the political intrigue. Most of the battle scenes were cut, and Talbot was eliminated altogether, though there was compensation in the form of Eileen Atkins' hollow-eyed and intense Joan of Arc, whose Expressionistically-staged downfall was one of the visual high points of the series as a whole. The other plays fared better, each running roughly two hours apiece, with parts 10 ('The Fall of a Protector', tx.8/9/1960) and 11 ('The Rabble from Kent', tx. 22/9/1960) making up Part II, and parts 12 ('The Morning's War', tx. 6/10/1960) and 13 ('The Sun in Splendour', tx. 20/10/1960) comprising Part III.

In the mid-1960s, the Henry VI and Richard III plays were turned into the three-part Royal Shakespeare Company stage adaptation The Wars of the Roses, which the BBC broadcast in 1965 ('Henry VI', tx. 8/4/1965; 'Edward IV', tx. 15/4/1965; 'Richard III', tx. 22/4/1965). Although Peter Hall's production was highly regarded as a piece of theatre, with David Warner in particular singled out for his interpretation of Henry VI, John Barton's adaptation made extensive changes to the original text, not only cutting it by roughly half but also adding some 1,400 lines of his own devising to patch up the resulting holes.

The BBC Television Shakespeare cycle (1978-85) tackled the Henry VI plays at a relatively late stage, broadcasting them on successive Sundays in January 1983. All three adaptations (and that of Richard III, screened a week later) were directed by Jane Howell and featured the same repertory cast throughout. Oliver Bayldon's set, metaphorically modelled on a children's adventure playground, provided a striking contrast with the more realistic productions earlier in the BBC Shakespeare series, as did a stylised approach to direction and performance, with individual actors often taking on multiple roles in an inventive use of doubling that was deliberately designed to highlight similarities and contrasts between the various characters. With each episode running over three hours, the text was still slightly cut, but it nonetheless presented the fullest television version of the trilogy to date. The popular historian Michael Wood presented three 25-minute Shakespeare in Perspective documentaries about the background to each play, and were broadcast the same evening.

The first episode of John Mortimer's entertaining (if largely fictionalised) biographical series Will Shakespeare, 'Dead Shepherd' (ITV, tx. 13/6/1978) covers Shakespeare's arrival in London and his apprenticeship to Christopher Marlowe, during which he writes the Henry VI plays. The scene of the son killing his father and the father killing his son in the heat of battle (Part III, Act II, Scene V) is focused on, both in terms of writing and staging, and this is paralleled by the uneasy relationship between the two great playwrights - in this instance it is Marlowe who dies first, murdered for political reasons.

As a footnote, all three big-screen adaptations of Richard III - those starring Frank Benson (1911), Laurence Olivier (1955) and Ian McKellen (d. Richard Loncraine, 1995) - opened with material taken from Henry VI Part III in order to set the scene for audiences unfamiliar with the Henry VI plays or the historical events that inspired them (the 1995 film even adopted a Part III quotation, "I can smile, and murder while I smile", as its poster tagline). That said, all three productions also made significant cuts to scenes which would have needed prior knowledge of the earlier plays in order to appreciate their dramatic impact - notably those involving Queen Margaret, the only character to appear in all four plays, but whose presence in the last is largely meaningless to those unaware of her pivotal role earlier on.

Michael Brooke

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Henry VI Part I (1983)

The bright and gaudy first part of Jane Howell's acclaimed history cycle

Thumbnail image of Henry VI Part II (1983)

Henry VI Part II (1983)

As Henry's grip on power weakens, the Wars of the Roses begin in earnest

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Henry VI Part III (1983)

England is torn apart by civil war in the third part of Shakespeare's trilogy

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Will Shakespeare (1978)

Tim Curry stars in John Mortimer's rollicking biographical portrait

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