An Age of Kings

Before Masterpiece Theatretransformed the classics into costume-drama color TV, the BBC relied on a simpler model: no-frills Shakespeare in black-and-white. In the lean years of the early ’60s, wise heads at the Beeb produced this ambitious series, The Age of Kings, eight of Shakespeare’s history plays arranged chronologically by subject, not in the order composed. Those eight plays, from Richard II to Richard III, with all the Henry plays in between, cover nothing less than the protracted Wars of the Roses, England’s internecine battles over succession that amounted to endless fighting among kinsmen. Fifteen one-hour episodes divvied up the plays, with half of Henry VI (Part One) deleted along with other scenes not essential to the larger arc. The result is a real treat: Shakespeare like you never see it anymore, not even on the stage. No gimmicks, no star turns — just two sets and two cameras (with some smart close-ups) that focus attention where it belongs: Shakespeare’s language. Once you do that, the history is clear, and the themes stark. The matter of kingship, still important in Shakespeare’s day, animates these always engaging dramas, from betrayals, murders, and vengeance at court to scheming among the nobles throughout the country. Comic relief, of course, comes primarily from Prince Hal’s tutor in the demimonde, the glorious buffoon Falstaff. But Hal himself, upon ascension to the crown as Henry V, leads his valiant “band of brothers” to victory on the battlefield, only to be followed by his weak son, who suffers from “churchlike humors.” Robert Hardy carries the series as Hal, and there are fine performances throughout, with a pre-Bond Sean Connery as Harry Hotspur and a young Judi Dench as Henry V’s beloved. Despite some emulsion lines and an occasionally unsteady camera, this is Shakespeare at its very best.