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Henry VIII (1979)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Henry VIII (1979)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 25/2/1979, colour, 165 mins
DirectorKevin Billington
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerCedric Messina
Script EditorAlan Shallcross
DesignerDon Taylor
MusicJames Tyler

Cast: John Stride (Henry VIII), Timothy West (Cardinal Wolsey), Ronald Pickup (Archbishop Cranmer), Claire Bloom (Katharine of Aragon), Julian Glover (Duke of Buckingham), Jeremy Kemp (Duke of Norfolk), Peter Vaughan (Bishop Gardiner)

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An account of the political machinations surrounding the divorce of Henry VIII from Katharine of Aragon, the subsequent Reformation and wedding to Anne Bullen (Boleyn) and the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth I.

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Rarely performed today (though immensely popular in the past), Shakespeare's Henry VIII is a curious play that seems to plough an unexpectedly narrow field. Much of the legend is ignored: just two of his six wives appear, and the play ends just after the birth of Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth. Despite a tradition of lavish staging (certainly up to the legendary Beerbohm Tree production of 1910), it's an intimate chamber piece where political and philosophical argument takes centre stage, and dramatic high points come from the revelation of incriminating letters rather than beheadings and battles.

Kevin Billington's production presents the often-cut text almost in full (the Porter scene in Act V is omitted, with minor trims elsewhere), and favours close-ups of intelligently-cast actors over visual spectacle. Henry isn't on screen long, but John Stride's authority and gravitas ensures he dominates throughout, mostly soft-spoken, with occasional terrifying (albeit pre-calculated) rages. Timothy West and Claire Bloom are well matched as verbal sparring partners Cardinal Wolsey and Katharine of Aragon, each moving as they confront both loss of status and their imminent demise. Katharine is one of the strongest female roles in the entire Shakespeare canon, and Bloom does her full justice.

Towards the end, there is a similarly fiery confrontation between Peter Vaughan (Bishop Gardiner) and Ronald Pickup (Archbishop Cranmer). Often treated as comic relief if not dropped altogether (Beerbohm Tree airily defended cutting most of the last act by saying that their debate was "practically devoid of dramatic interest and calculated (...) to weary an audience"), the scene is played straight here, letting the play's oddly low-key treatment of the Reformation spring into sharp relief.

As was common practice with the BBC Television Shakespeare's first series, Henry VIII was shot entirely on location, in Leeds Castle, Penshurst Place and Hever Castle. Additional period touches came via Alun Hughes' costumes, sourced from Tudor paintings (notably Hans Holbein's famous portrait of Henry) and James Tyler's music - adding a sense of conviction and solidity to a play largely comprising formalised, often ritualised conversation.

Both at the time of its original broadcast and once the entire BBC cycle had run its course, Henry VIII was acclaimed as one of its best productions (and was specifically cited as such by the Shakespeare Association of America), establishing a generally consistent principle that the lesser-known plays would end up being the most successful adaptations.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Buckingham accused (4:13)
2. Katharine's plea (3:48)
3. Defying the bishops (3:59)
White Falcon, The (1956)
Glover, Julian (1935-)
Messina, Cedric (1920-1993)
Vaughan, Peter (1923-)
West, Timothy (1934-)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Henry VIII On Screen
Henry VIII: Video Materials