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Richard II (1978)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Richard II (1978)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 10/12/1978, colour, 157 mins
DirectorDavid Giles
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerCedric Messina
Script EditorAlan Shallcross
DesignerTony Abbott
Music AdviserDavid Lloyd-Jones

Cast: Derek Jacobi (King Richard), John Gielgud (John of Gaunt), Jon Finch (Henry Bolingbroke), Wendy Hiller (Duchess of York), Charles Gray (Duke of York), Mary Morris (Duchess of Gloucester)

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The story of King Richard II, and how he was deposed, replaced and finally murdered, brought down by his failings both as a king and as a man.

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The second entry in the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle, Richard II (BBC, tx. 10/2/1978) boasted one of the most distinguished casts of the entire project, with Derek Jacobi in the title role, John Gielgud (whose involvement with the play dated back to 1929) as John of Gaunt, Charles Gray and Wendy Hiller adding depth and shading to the normally thankless parts of the Duke and Duchess of York, and Jon Finch, formerly Polanski's Macbeth, as Richard's suitably saturnine nemesis Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV.

Fittingly, in a play that consists entirely of verse (at least a quarter of it rhyming), director David Giles and designer Tony Abbott decided against shot-on-location realism, a dominant feature of the BBC cycle's first season. Instead, they staged the play in studio sets that emphasised the formal and ritualised aspects without resorting to the kind of symbolic stylisation that Jane Howell's productions of the Henry VI/Richard III cycle would adopt later on.

This unfussy visual approach emphasises the original text and its delivery, Giles' preference for medium shots and close-ups (the only significant exception being the scene where Richard confronts his would-be usurpers from his castle ramparts, where extreme long shots emphasise his shrunken political stature) further underlining that this is as much a psychological as a political drama, at its most effective when focusing on individuals.

Richard II is one of Shakespeare's most difficult roles. Although childish, petulant, arrogant, blinded by the belief in his divine right to rule, and fatally unable to empathise with his too-casually-banished subjects, he nonetheless attains something close to authentically tragic stature as he muses in his prison cell on the path his life has taken and what it has taught him (Giles imaginatively stages this not as a single speech but as a series of dissolves, suggesting gradually increasing self-awareness over time). Rightly, Jacobi makes little attempt at playing for sympathy, his finely nuanced delivery of some of Shakespeare's most beautiful verse counterbalancing the character's many failings.

Almost exactly a year after its first broadcast, Richard II was repeated as a lead-in to the two Henry IV plays and Henry V, effectively screened as a weekly four-part serial in the run-up to Christmas 1979. David Giles directed all four productions, with many actors (notably Jon Finch) playing the same roles to ensure consistency. Derek Jacobi's second and final performance for the BBC Television Shakespeare would be as Hamlet (tx. 25/5/1980).

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Old John of Gaunt (4:04)
2. God save King Henry (5:24)
3. Unmasking Aumerle (3:31)
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980)
Henry IV Part I (1979)
Gielgud, John (1904-2000)
Gray, Charles (1928-2000)
Hiller, Wendy (1912-2003)
Jacobi, Sir Derek (1938-)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Richard II On Screen