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Life and Death of King John, The (1984)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Life and Death of King John, The (1984)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 24/11/1984, colour, 157 mins
DirectorDavid Giles
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerShaun Sutton
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerChris Pemsel
MusicColin Sell

Cast: Leonard Rossiter (King John), William Whymper (Chatillon), Mary Morris (Queen Elinor), Robert Brown (Earl of Pembroke), John Castle (Earl of Salisbury), John Flint (Lord Bigot), John Thaw (Hubert de Burgh), George Costigan (Philip, the Bastard)

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The life and death of England's 'bad king', in conflict not only with the French and the Pope but also those who dispute his claim to the throne.

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Produced near the end of the mammoth BBC Television Shakespeare project, The Life and Death of King John (tx. 21/11/1984) also featured the last recorded performance by Leonard Rossiter, who died between production and transmission.

David Giles had previously helmed the BBC Shakespeare's Richard II/Henry IV/Henry V cycle (1978-79), though he adopts a more stylised approach here - especially in France, represented by a patently fake blue-sky backdrop studded with white fleurs-de-lys. The decision to present the text almost intact (see below) and limit onscreen action to Shakespeare's original specifications results in some lengthy, somewhat static speeches, and many key narrative elements are treated purely as verbal accounts by messengers, without even the silent visual flashbacks characteristic of other screen Shakespeares.

As a result, this production relies heavily on the calibre of its cast, but is thankfully well served. Rossiter gives a dark and saturnine reading of English history's 'bad king', the wig, crown and close-cropped beard ensuring that there's little potentially distracting physical resemblance to the sitcom roles that made him famous. His wheedling voice and fake bravado are much more familiar - though entirely fitting a man manifestly unfit to be king, both in terms of legitimacy and personal merit.

George Costigan is effectively contrasted as the charming but scheming Philip the Bastard, delivering his more conspiratorial soliloquies as if conferring privately with the audience in order to win them over. Mary Morris and especially Claire Bloom give powerful voice to Elinor and Constance, respective mothers to John and the doomed but arguably more legitimate Arthur, while John Thaw fleshes out the loyal but sentimental Hubert de Burgh, disobeying the King's orders to have Arthur killed, then strategically confessing after John's typically opportunistic change of mind.

Scholars disagree as to the play's precise date, but it is generally thought to precede Richard II, and it suffers from the comparison. Both plays depict deeply flawed monarchs who end up usurped and murdered, but John's invective lacks the poetic intensity of Richard's private soliloquies, and consequently the latter's tragic stature. But this production is nonetheless a valuable record of a rarely-staged minor play, and a welcome reminder of Rossiter's versatility as a serious actor.

(The cuts are so minimal that they can be itemised here: act/scene/line references from the Arden Shakespeare edition edited by E.A.J.Honigmann are 2.1.486; 3.1.196-201 and 219-220; 3.3.32 and 96; 4.1.16-24, 41-58, 60-67 and 117-120; 4.2.233; 4.3.47)

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The Bastard rising (2:09)
2. Elinor vs Constance (2:08)
3. Excommunication (2:48)
4. Five moons (4:50)
King John (1899)
Rossiter, Leonard (1926-1984)
Sutton, Shaun (1919-2004)
Thaw, John (1942-2002)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
King John On Screen
King John: Video Materials