An Age of Kings, broadcast on the BBC between April – November 1960, was an incredibly ambitious project. All eight of William Shakespeare’s history plays were adapted in this series – across fifteen episodes – and each play (with the exception of Henry VI Part One) was split across two episodes. Broadcast live, once a fortnight, An Age of Kings served as an excellent showcase for first rate cast, many of whom (Sean Connery, Judi Dench, Julian Glover, Robert Hardy, etc) were at the start of their impressive careers.
Producer Peter Dews had joined the BBC in 1957 and one of his first productions was an adaptation of Henry V. This was a success and it paved the way towards a production of the entire cycle.
A core group of twenty or so main actors were engaged for the series. Rather like a repertory company, they would play various roles in the different plays and therefore would be central in some and more peripheral in others. Many of the actors recruited by Dews were veterans of the Old Vic and were therefore very familiar with the material. Given the live nature of the transmissions and the quick turnaround (one episode to be broadcast every fortnight, each running for between 60 and 80 minutes) this was essential.
Once production began, the actors had four days to learn their lines – and then they would have a weeks rehearsal. On transmission days there would be camera rehearsals throughout the day, before the live transmission at 9.00 pm.
Despite very favourable newspaper reviews, the series was repeated only once in the UK (in 1962). After that it remained unavailable until it was released on DVD in R1 a few years ago whilst in 2013 it was released in R2 by Illuminations Media.
Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll blog a short overview of each episode. So let’s start with episode one – The Hollow Crown.