If you own a television it has been pretty difficult to escape the BBC's promotion of its Hollow Crown series, a film version of Shakespeare's so-called 'Henriad', the tales of the English kings from Richard II to the great Henry V. Despite a few noses being put out of joint following Henry IV Part 1's postponement for the Wimbledon doubles, the series so far has been a success. And this continued success has wider importance than Saturday night ratings. British pride is at stake, as well the future of history, literature, and British creativity.
Perhaps you haven't noticed, but there has been a slight emphasis on British nationhood across our media outlets this year: something to do with the Queen, a tennis player did quite well, and soon some people are going to be doing some running. We can safely assume that the Henriad was chosen for a revamp because they are the most British of Shakespeare's plays. Although works of fiction, Shakespeare worked from historical sources, and, give or take some artistic licence, we can learn a fair amount of history from these plays.
The Plantagenets have been subordinated to those saucy Tudors and flash Edwardians in recent period drama (see The Tudors and Downton Abbey), with sex and Maggie Smith (not necessarily together) being better draws than the intricate politics of late medieval rebellion.
However, the Plantagenets, and Henry V in particular, contributed much to our enduring image of Britishness. National pride derived from the miraculous victory at Agincourt, which finally proved that we were way better than the French. The character of Falstaff, meanwhile, one of Shakespeare's most enduringly popular creations, represents Britishness itself: jolly, sharp-witted, and usually drunk. Falstaff's popularity is derived from the fact that for centuries the Brits have seen in him everything they love about their country.
In Shakespeare's day these plays were the blockbusters. Histories brought in the crowds like no other genre, although these days they are neglected for the more famous masterpieces of the epic tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear et al.). However, many scholars believe that these are some of Shakespeare's best written plays, and I am humbly inclined to agree.
Comic turns are wittily funny in a sophisticated way, unlike the farcical humour of the festive comedies. There is as much personal conscience and hand-wringing done by the two King Henry's as by Hamlet, yet they provide more fulfilling endings, often with a nice bit of gore. And, in Hollywood terms, the plays are all marketably "based on a true story". The Hollow Crown is therefore providing the public a great service, by not only resurrecting abandoned history, but also promoting some of Shakespeare's most ignored, but arguably most rewarding plays.
Yet aside from the historical and literary benefits, The Hollow Crown has wider cultural implications. The British film industry has been living off Harry Potter for 10 years, with almost all big blockbuster productions being produced in the States. I am already a huge fan of the Beeb's production values, with their continually classy and sleek output, unlike brashness of other channels. The Hollow Crown pops the sumptuous glacé cherry on this production cake, and shows what British production can do when they put their minds to it.
Aside from the boring technicalities of production, the casts are just sublime. A mixture of veteran Shakespearians (Patrick Stewart, Jeremy Irons) and film stars (Tom Hiddleston), these programmes represent the cream of the British acting crop, and boy are they earning their crust.
Ben Whishaw has revolutionised the role of Richard II in a just indescribable performance, while Tom Hiddleston looks as though he could give Sir Ken a run for his money as Henry V. One of the greatest challenges in trying to popularise Shakespeare for a mainstream audience is to move away from the intoning of iambic pentameter and say the lines with the fluidity and dynamism they are capable of. A measure of a successful production is if you forget it's even in Shakespearian, which happens here.
None of the actors involved need this as a platform, all are established in film theatre and TV. What the casting does, as does the production and the plays themselves, is showcase what we've really got going for us. Such great actors, such great creativity, great history and literature.
This is what Britain needs to concentrate on. Murray has lost Wimbledon, and what with all the hype I'm sure we'll do dismally at the Olympics. But we can be proud of our cultural output, from the sixteenth century to the present day. The Hollow Crown, elbowing its way through all of those Olympic adverts, screams "LOOK OVER HERE! LOOK AT WHAT WE CAN DO!" This is what we do best, and it's important that future commissioning reaches up to this sublime benchmark.
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