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Henry IV Part II (1979)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Henry IV Part II (1979)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 16/12/1979, colour, 150 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 the Fourth), David Gwillim (Henry, Prince of Wales), Anthony Quayle (Sir John Falstaff), Rob Edwards (Prince John of Lancaster), Ralph Michael (Lord Chief Justice), Jack Galloway (Poins), Gordon Gostelow (Bardolph), Brenda Bruce (Hostess Quickly), Frances Cuka (Doll Tearsheet), Robert Eddison (Justice Robert Shallow)

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In the final years of Henry IV's reign, the monarch worries about his regal responsibilities and whether his son Hal will ever measure up to them.

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Broadcast on 16 December 1979, the BBC Television Shakespeare's Henry IV Part II retained the same cast and production team as Part I (shown a week earlier), though it showed a few small differences in approach. About a quarter of the original text was excised (more than the other BBC history plays), resulting in a tighter, more focused production, which also benefited from the play being arguably better suited to television. While Part I was sweeping and expansive, Part II is low-key and intimate, most key scenes being played out between just two or three people in medium shot.

The illness that was already beginning to exert its grip on Jon Finch's Henry IV has now visibly erupted on his skin, impossible to miss in the close-ups accompanying the already pessimistic "uneasy lies the head" soliloquy, his face mirroring the crumbling of his kingdom, a world apart from the confident young buck who seized the throne from Richard II.

David Gwillim's Prince Hal has also darkened and deepened, notably in the scenes with Poins (increasingly assuming Falstaff's role as his main confidant), the long scene where Hal and Henry debate the nature of kingship beside the latter's deathbed, but also in the final devastating scene where he renounces Falstaff (Anthony Quayle). Here, a sharp shift in costume and lighting serves to emphasise his newly-established regal 'otherness', he seems almost to be giving off a faint glow, and is clearly unapproachable by the likes of Falstaff and his comrades even before he utters the fateful "I know thee not, old man".

As Hal and Falstaff grow further apart, so the latter becomes increasingly detached from the play's central intrigues, but Shakespeare compensates with rich pen-portraits Falstaff's surroundings. The Eastcheap bawdy-houses are staffed by put-upon Mistress Quickly (Brenda Bruce) and cynical, world-weary Doll Tearsheet (Frances Cuka), more than capable of defending herself against the likes of swaggering Pistol (Bryan Pringle) - at knifepoint if necessary. These are contrasted by the bucolic Gloucestershire countryside, where Justices Shallow (Robert Eddison) and Silence (Leslie French) sit and reminisce, largely oblivious of the power struggles going on around them.

But David Giles' production is constantly alive to them, its focus on the machinations of power underscored by a Shakespeare in Perspective programme broadcast immediately beforehand, in which Panorama presenter Fred Emery made a convincing case for the Bard as an outstanding political commentator.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Quickly's complaint (3:40)
2. Uneasy lies the head (3:24)
3. I know thee not (4:53)
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