Henry IV is packed with glorious bawdiness and drama, but for some reason screen adaptations are rare.
The BBC took it on in 1960 with mini-series An Age of Kings, casting a likeable Sean Connery as Hotspur. Then came Orson Welles who, in a realisation of his lifelong ambition, played Falstaff in 1967’s Chimes at Midnight, a sumptuous combination of the tetralogy for the big screens.
Kenneth Branagh dreamed of Robbie Coltrane in the same role in his rousing Henry V from 1989, Michael Pennington’s masterful seven part stage series came a year later, and then Gus Van Sandt’s My Own Private Idaho sparked thousands of teenage girls’ Own Private fantasies of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in 1991. But since then, more than 20 years of silence, and I can’t work out why. Where else can you find an aspiring leader who, while plotting his way to the top, wins the support of his “pitiful rascal” underlings by pretending to like pints? Oh, wait, hang on…
Almost six years ago, Richard Eyre, the director of the second and third parts of the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, took Notes on a Scandal and built an audacious thriller around the brilliant novel. His version of the twin peaks of Shakespeare’s genius is full of the same kind of thrill. The setting is grim, the outside scenes filmed in mucky medieval surroundings, while inside, every pallet of grey is satisfied by gloomy, depressing great halls. And for that, the atmosphere is marvellous, as is the attention to detail in the casting.
Hotspur is an arrogant twerp, he always has been, so turning him into someone to love is a thankless task. It’s a challenge Joe Armstrong more than meets with an assault of gripping northern enthusiasm. Screaming “die merrily” to rouse his rebellion, Armstrong wears the ferocity on his sleeves, always keeping the pace of the story flowing. As the king, Jeremy Irons is a relative bystander but is cracking nonetheless, and Tom Hiddleston in the first of his outings as Hal, the role all actors dream about, is magnetic — I can see why his stock is rising in Hollywood. In the gory, mud wrestling battle scenes fought on a snowy Bosky hill, he fits the gallant mould perfectly, robbing Hotspur of his youth with a frenzied look in his eyes before taking a deep breath and delivering that agonising adieu - I can’t wait to see him delivering a triumphant speech on the field of Agincourt in a couple of weeks’ time.
And, speaking of triumph, the spoils here have to go to Simon Russell Beale, whose Falstaff, looking like a ne’er do well father Christmas at the back of a soup line, fills the screen in every sense. “Have I not fallen away. Do I not dwindle? My skin hangs around me like an old lady’s gown,” he says to his fellow barflys in the tavern. Of course, we know to expect shrinking cowardice later, but there’s nothing diminished about Beale’s on screen magic. He took in all of the grubby manors of the Jacobean jester — always hilarious, always knocking the comic timing stone dead, always self indulgent — but was able to measure it with a crumpling sense of disaster. He is the perfect foil for Hal, and watching him at work, it felt like Shakespeare was being unlocked like never before.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see this play returning to our screens in the not too distant future.