Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Henry IV Part I (1979)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Henry IV Part I (1979)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 9/12/1979, colour, 147 mins
DirectorDavid Giles
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerCedric Messina
Script EditorAlan Shallcross
DesignerDon Homfray
Music AdviserDavid Lloyd-Jones

Cast: Jon Finch (King Henry IV), David Gwillim (Prince Hal), Tim Piggot-Smith (Hotspur), Anthony Quayle (Sir John Falstaff), Brenda Bruce (Mistress Quickly)

Show full cast and credits

While King Henry IV attempts to unite the warring factions making up his kingdom, his son Prince Hal prefers the rumbustious company of Sir John Falstaff.

Show full synopsis

Broadcast on 9 December 1979 as the second part of a four-play cycle that began with a repeat of Richard II (BBC, originally tx. 10/12/1978), Henry IV Part I opens with a brief flashback to King Richard's murder, providing a graphic reminder that Henry Bolingbroke's ascent to the throne was by no means either smooth or necessarily legitimate. Some continuity is provided by the repeated casting of Jon Finch as Henry (whose increasingly disease-ridden skin symbolises the rottenness at the heart of his court), though most of the other roles common to both plays have changed, with Tim Pigott-Smith taking over from Jeremy Bulloch as a fiery, red-headed Hotspur.

The biggest name in the new cast was Anthony Quayle, who had played Sir John Falstaff on stage for decades, with two earlier incarnations broadcast live by the BBC (King Henry IV Part I, BBC, tx. 19/8/1951; The Merry Wives of Windsor, BBC, tx. 2/10/1955). His rendition is far from the jolly buffoon of legend, emphasising not only the character's age and alcohol-induced infirmity but also his scheming, conspiratorial nature and frequent willingness to stab his colleagues in the back for personal gain (aspects that would be accentuated in Part II). All of which is entirely true to Shakespeare's original text, but these darker aspects of Falstaff's character are often neglected by actors and directors who prefer to stress the comedy.

David Gwillim makes an appropriately ingenuous Hal, taking full advantage of the opportunity to develop the character over three lengthy plays from young prince to fully-fledged King Henry V: by the end of Part I, having defeated Hotspur at Shrewsbury, he has won his spurs in more than just the literal sense.

David Giles' competent if conservative production takes a broadly similar approach to his Richard II, confined to the studio but with no attempt at symbolic stylisation: the tavern scenes in particular have an authentic-looking grubbiness. Although clearly restricted by budget, the battle scenes are staged with a convincing physicality, though Hotspur's final lines are somewhat muffled by having to deliver them through a mouth full of blood, a gratuitous touch that came in for much criticism at the time.

Henry IV Part II was broadcast a week later (tx. 16/12/1979), followed by Henry V (tx. 23/12/1979), both productions retaining the same cast and production team as Part I.

Michael Brooke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Hotspur's wrath (3:36)
2. Falstaff's 'heroism' (4:31)
3. Falstaff's rabble (3:51)
Age of Kings, An (1960)
Henry IV (1995)
Henry IV Part II (1979)
Henry V (1979)
Richard II (1978)
Quayle, Anthony (1913-1989)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Henry IV On Screen
Henry IV Part I: Video Materials