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Henry V (1979)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Henry V (1979)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 23/12/1979, colour, 166 mins
DirectorDavid Giles
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerCedric Messina
Script EditorAlan Shallcross
DesignerDon Homfray
Music AdviserDavid Lloyd-Jones

Cast: David Gwillim (King Henry V), Alec McCowen (Chorus), Jocelyne Boisseau (Katherine), Thorley Walters (King Charles VI), Julian Glover (Constable of France)

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The triumphant reign of King Henry V, uniter of his kingdom and conqueror of the French at Agincourt.

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The BBC Television Shakespeare's Henry V was broadcast on 23 December 1979, at the end of a four-week series covering the whole of Shakespeare's second history cycle. All four plays were directed by David Giles and given a traditional staging in the studio, though the battle scenes suffered from production values better suited to the more intimate Richard II and Henry IV Part II.

The chronological sequence gave television audiences the first chance to see a single actor shift from Prince Hal into King Henry since Robert Hardy in An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960). But while Hardy's bluff and hearty rendition was arguably more convincing as decisive monarch than callow youth, David Gwillim's Henry is a clear development from his younger self. At the end of Henry IV Part II Hal suggested an abrupt change of demeanour to something more regal, but in the early scenes of Henry V his inexperience is clear, as is his eagerness to seek advice from all quarters before reaching a firm decision on the question of France. He plays the warrior-king, but we know it's essentially a performance - even the scar on his cheek acts as a permanent aide-mémoire of a wound suffered at the end of Henry IV Part I.

While it is easy to accept a one-off production such as Laurence Olivier's film (1944) as presenting an image of unvarnished heroism, David Giles pointed out that: "he was only playing Henry V, he wasn't playing Hal as well. If you've played Hal the boy, you can't quite do that" - and he restores material that Olivier tellingly omitted, notably the scene where Henry orders the killing of French prisoners of war. However, Gwillim delivers this almost as a throwaway line, as though he's ashamed of himself for saying it - and one of the few major cuts to the text occurs in his speech to the citizens of Harfleur, where 27 lines of threatening invective in which he denies responsibility for his soldiers' actions have been discreetly removed.

In general, though, significantly more of Shakespeare's original play is included than was the case with Olivier, An Age of Kings or the later Kenneth Branagh film (1989), making this Henry V a valuable record, for all its limitations as spectacle. Gwillim is very much the star, but Alec McCowen makes a rousing Chorus, and newcomer Jocelyne Boisseau delivers a touching (and authentically French) Katherine.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Tennis balls (4:17)
2. A touch of Harry (3:12)
3. Band of brothers (2:26)
4. Killing prisoners (2:04)
Henry IV Part I (1979)
Henry IV Part II (1979)
Glover, Julian (1935-)
Messina, Cedric (1920-1993)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Henry V On Screen