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Henry VI Part II (1983)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Henry VI Part II (1983)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 9/1/1983, colour, 211 mins
DirectorJane Howell
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerJonathan Miller
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerOliver Bayldon
MusicDudley Simpson

Cast: Peter Benson (King Henry VI), David Burke (Duke of Gloucester), Julia Foster (Queen Margaret), Anne Carroll (Duchess of Gloucester), Ron Cook (Richard Plantagenet), Bernard Hill (Duke of York), Frank Middlemass (Cardinal of Winchester), Trevor Peacock (Jack Cade), Mark Wing-Davey (Earl of Warwick)

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Following French military successes, Henry's hold over his kingdom begins to slip, and his court splits into the warring factions of York and Lancaster. Meanwhile, a revolutionary insurrection by a disaffected Kentish mob threatens to bring anarchy to London.

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The second part of Jane Howell's acclaimed BBC Television Shakespeare presentation of the Henry VI/Richard III history cycle continues where Part I (broadcast a week earlier) left off, in terms of both narrative and presentation. But the tone is darker, the paint on Oliver Bayldon's adventure-playground set is beginning to flake and peel, and John Peacock's costumes, previously colour-coded to identify particular factions, have become markedly more uniform - by the end it will become nearly impossible to tell each side apart.

Part I is also echoed by Howell's inspired use of doubling, seen to its best advantage in the recycling of Trevor Peacock and David Burke. Previously Lord Talbot and the Duke of Gloucester, King Henry's most loyal right-hand men, after their deaths the actors reappear as revolutionary anarchists Jack Cade and Dick the Butcher, twisted parodies of their previous incarnations, and a graphic personification of what has befallen England since the death of Henry V.

Although King Henry (Peter Benson) has a more central role than before, so too does Queen Margaret (Julia Foster), whose ambitions vault anything her ineffectual husband is capable of delivering. While Henry remains on the sidelines, reluctantly drawn into affairs of state, she is in the thick of it, plotting behind the scenes with her lover Suffolk (Paul Chapman) and playing an active role on the battlefield like a latterday Boudicca. The only character appearing in all four plays (including Richard III), Margaret is one of Shakespeare's strongest female roles, and Howell's treatment emphasises her importance still further.

One of the conceptual challenges posed by the Henry VI trilogy lies in its large number of very similar, potentially confusing battle scenes. The earlier BBC adaptation, An Age of Kings (1960) simplified matters by cutting many of them outright (eliminating Talbot in the process), but Howell's treatment is fuller and subtler. In Part I, the fighting verged on slapstick comedy with only a hint of a darker tone at the death of Talbot towards the end.

In Part II, as the action moves from France to England, its treatment becomes correspondingly slower and weightier, with a much greater emphasis on physical pain (towards the end, blows are emphasised by electronic thuds on the soundtrack). The result is a compelling visualisation of one of Shakespeare's key themes, the destruction of a nation through internal strife, an approach that Howell would develop further in Part III.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Margaret vs Eleanor (4:14)
2. A miracle! (4:14)
3. Jack Cade's law (3:29)
Henry VI Part I (1983)
Henry VI Part III (1983)
Hill, Bernard (1944-)
Miller, Jonathan (1934)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Henry VI On Screen
Henry VI: Video Materials