When An Age of Kings (BBC, tx. 28/4-17/11/1960) was first broadcast, it was the most conceptually ambitious Shakespeare project ever attempted for either film or television. Its fifteen parts encompassed Richard II, both parts of Henry IV, Henry V, all three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, effectively presenting a chronological history of British royalty from 1377 to 1485.
By the standards of the time, it was a highly prestigious undertaking, with each episode costing £4,000 (a big budget in 1960), 600 speaking parts, and thirty weeks of rehearsal prior to shooting. Unlike many BBC productions of the time, An Age of Kings has been preserved in its entirety, and it makes fascinating viewing, both in its own right and in comparison with the later BBC Television Shakespeare cycle (1978-85).
While the latter presented the plays with minimal trimming, An Age of Kings' adapter Eric Crozier cut the text into schedule-friendly 60 and 75 minute episodes. These mostly comprised half a complete play, though Henry VI Part I was reduced to a single hour-long episode. Although the television treatment was conventional for the most part, largely consisting of medium and close shots of a theatre-style performance, there were occasional striking visual moments, such as the downfall of Joan la Pucelle (Eileen Atkins) with ghostly visions superimposed over her eyeballs just before she is surrounded by English spearpoints, and an imaginative use of associative dissolves, often to revealing close-ups.
Briskly directed by Michael Hayes, and confidently performed by a repertory cast that included Hermione Baddeley, Geoffrey Bayldon, Paul Daneman, Judi Dench, Patrick Garland, Julian Glover, Robert Hardy, Esmond Knight, Frank Windsor and a young Sean Connery (two years before James Bond made him a star), any unevenness was generally the fault of Shakespeare's originals, as later, stronger plays (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V) were performed first in order to fit the chronological plan. But the concluding adaptation of Richard III held its own against rival versions, and brought the series to a rousing conclusion on Bosworth field.
In 1963, producer Peter Dews gave the Roman plays Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra similar treatment in the nine-part Spread of the Eagle (BBC, tx. 3/5-28/6/1963, using many of the same actors. This was regarded as being less successful, largely because the original plays had fewer continuous narrative lines and just one character (Mark Antony) appeared in more than one.