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King John On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's history play

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Because it's both a relatively early work and does not form part of his two great history cycles (Henry VI/Richard III and Richard II/Henry IV/Henry V), Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John, a study of the downfall of the so-called 'bad king' (curiously, it doesn't mention Magna Carta, the historical humiliation for which he's most famous), is one of his lesser-known plays, though it has had three filmed adaptations to date.

The first, made in 1899, also holds the distinction of being the earliest known Shakespeare film, starring stage legend Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in the title role. Originally thought to comprise four scenes sourced from a production at Her Majesty's Theatre, one survives today, and consists of a short extract from King John's death scene, with Beerbohm Tree giving an appropriately histrionic and eye-rolling performance to compensate for the lack of a soundtrack or intertitles.

The BBC first broadcast the play on 20 January 1952 in a production starring Sir Donald Wolfit (King John), Una Venning (Queen Elinor), Sonia Dresdel (Constance) and Joseph O'Conor (Philip the Bastard), and directed by Stephen Harrison. As with all Shakespeare television productions of the period, it was a live broadcast and does not appear to have been recorded.

This means that the only surviving filmed version of the full play is the one broadcast on 24 November 1984 as part of the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle. Directed by David Giles, who had previously helmed the BBC's Richard II/Henry IV/Henry V tetralogy (1978-9), it starred Leonard Rossiter (King John), John Thaw (Hubert de Burgh), Claire Bloom (Constance) and George Costigan (Philip). It was a somewhat poignant occasion in that it contained Rossiter's last recorded performance, and was first shown seven weeks after his unexpectedly sudden death. Although it was a relatively staid production as a whole, handicapped by fidelity to a wordy original that lacks much in the way of high drama, it nonetheless provided a welcome reminder of the versatility of an actor who had become largely associated with comedy in his final decade.

That same evening, the then British Rail chairman Peter Parker hosted a Shakespeare in Perspective introduction to the play, while the Channel 5 series The Most Evil Men and Women in History screened 'Bad King John' on 13 May 2002, a study of the real-life king that asked if he was genuinely an evil man or whether he simply came to power in an age when ruthlessness and violence was the only way to rule effectively.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of King John (1899)

King John (1899)

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree stars in the world's first Shakespeare film

Thumbnail image of Life and Death of King John, The (1984)

Life and Death of King John, The (1984)

Leonard Rossiter's last screen role, as Shakespeare's 'bad king'

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Thumbnail image of King John: Video Materials

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