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Henry VI Part I (1983)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Henry VI Part I (1983)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 2/1/1983, colour, 187 mins
DirectorJane Howell
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerJonathan Miller
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerOliver Bayldon
MusicDudley Simpson

Cast: Peter Benson (King Henry VI), Julia Foster (Margaret), Brenda Blethyn (Joan La Pucelle), Bernard Hill (Duke of York), Frank Middlemass (Cardinal of Winchester), Trevor Peacock (Lord Talbot), Ian Saynor (Charles the Dauphin), Mark Wing-Davey (Earl of Warwick)

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The early years of the reign of Henry VI, in which the French, galvanised by a mystic warrior-woman, recapture many of England's former conquests. Meanwhile, plots are hatching within the ranks of Henry's court, especially after his arranged marriage to the French noblewoman Margaret of Anjou...

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Broadcast on successive Sundays from 2 to 23 January 1983, Jane Howell's adaptations of the Henry VI/Richard III history cycle collectively formed one of the BBC Television Shakespeare's high points. Effectively a thirteen-hour mini-series spanning fifty years of English history, all four productions had the same cast, set and conceptual approach throughout.

Inspired by the notion that the political intrigues behind the Wars of the Roses often seemed like playground squabbles, Howell and designer Oliver Bayldon staged the plays in a single set resembling a children's adventure playground, at first freshly painted in bright colours but gradually decaying through wear and misuse, a constant visual metaphor for the damage the various warring factions are doing to England.

The treatment was similarly stylised. Instead of resorting to conventional television grammar, Howell favoured extremely long takes, her mobile camera singling out individual players for conspiratorial asides to the audience. There was little attempt at realism, with the Duke of Gloucester (David Burke) and the Bishop of Winchester (Frank Middlemass) confronting each other on patently fake horses, and individual actors frequently playing multiple roles, both to hint at their more substantial parts (Ron Cook's hunchbacked porter foreshadowing his Richard III) or to emphasise contrast (Trevor Peacock as patriotic Lord Talbot and, in Part II, revolutionary Jack Cade).

Part I begins playfully, with much running about and clambering over walkways and platforms, the English and French armies decked out in garish colours and egged on by Joan la Pucelle (i.e. Joan of Arc) in a broadly comedic characterisation by Brenda Blethyn that is sharply removed from Eileen Atkins' gaunt interpretation in An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960). Only Talbot grasps the stark implications of losing France, and he is undone when a disagreement between York (Bernard Hill) and Somerset (Brian Deacon) leads to a fatal strategic miscalculation, darkening both the overall tone and relations between the English factions, whose verbal sparring here will shortly turn all too physical.

Despite the title, the monkish King Henry (Peter Benson) is a minor character, not appearing at all until the halfway mark, and usually framed in the background thereafter, dwarfed by the various nobles whose arguments he is powerless to resolve. He asserts himself only in the final scene, when he chooses Margaret of Anjou (Julia Foster) as his bride against Gloucester's advice - a decision that both he and his country will live to regret.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Protector vs Bishop (3:38)
2. Talbot vs Joan (3:14)
3. Red vs white (5:05)
Henry VI Part II (1983)
Henry VI Part III (1983)
Blethyn, Brenda (1946-)
Hill, Bernard (1944-)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Henry VI On Screen
Henry VI: Video Materials