Have only seen one production of Shakespeare's Henry IV part I and that was when I was studying it for O-level (yes I am old enough to have done O-levels). Since then haven't been near and I never touched part 2 although I always had an inkling for how things might turn out.
But, wow, what a great way to be reintroduced/introduced to the plays than with these magnificently produced, film-length versions by the BBC as part of its Hollow Crown series, previewed on the big screen at the BFI last night.
Visually the two parts of Henry IV are very different to Richard II, which aired on BBC One last Saturday (still available on iPlayer). In Richard II, usurper-to-be Bolingbroke was somber and conservative to Richard's glamour and extravagance and his court, as Henry IV, reflects this. He's also a king that has inherited debt and is at war so there is little cash to splash on conspicuous wealth.
As a result Henry IV has a more earthy feel helped by the scenes in ale houses and muddy streets of Cheapside and then on the battle field where formality is somewhat thrown out of the window.
Part 1 sees the King (a gravelly voiced Jeremy Irons) despairing about his wayward son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) who spend most of his time drinking and concocting japes with his alehouse friends led by Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale) while the Duke of Northumberland's son, the respected Hotspur (Joe Armstrong), engineers a rebellion against the King.
Then in part 2 we see the breakdown of Hal's relationship with Falstaff as he tries to shake off his past and the King's battle with a new threat of rebellion, ill health and his troubled conscience about how he came to take the crown.
Tom Hiddleston is just a magnetic screen presence as the young prince switching from bawdy fun seeker to introspective intellectual weighed down by his future responsibility and then taking on the regal cloak like a natural in part 2. The crown scene is particularly moving, Hiddleston managing to convey grief and fear of responsibility with just a look. And he does a fantastic impression of Jeremy Irons's Henry IV in the mock confrontation played out with Falstaff. (Hiddleston fans may also enjoy a scene set in a sauna.)
The supporting cast is breathtaking. It is a film you immediately want to see again just to enjoying spotting all the cameos. Julie Walters takes on Mistress Quickly and is naturally a joy to watch.
Only one weak performance, I felt, and that was Michelle Dockrey as Hotspur's wife. Her delivery just jarred as if she'd somehow disconnected from the words she was speaking.
Think the BBC has a triumph on it's hands. There is only Henry V to go and I can't imagine them dropping the ball in the final instalment. It's been a long time since I was first enthralled by Henry IV's story and I was enthralled all over again.
There was a Q&A after the screenings with Simon Russell Beale and director Sir Richard Eyre chaired by none other than Sam Mendes who was executive producer for the Hollow Crown series. I took notes and will be posting those up in a day or two.
Henry IV Part 1 will air on BBC 2 on Saturday night with Part 2 the following saturday.