The First Part of Henry the Sixth (1983), Jane Howell (Director)

I have finally understood why, at least for the last 30 years, Henry VI, part 1 is not taught or read: Jane Howell’s BBC production of The First part of Henry the Sixth took it out back and shot it. Repeatedly.

Where to begin?

The First Part of Henry the Sixth (Tv 1983) is not, strictly speaking, a movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. While it does make use of some cinematic techniques, it is essentially a filmed staging of a stage play without any of the energy or tension which accompanies the live theatre experience.

That, I think, may be exactly where the problems start for Howell: she doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether this is a movie or a play. The result is a schizophrenic blend of kitsch costumes, tired stage conventions and amateurish camera work. It’s a distracting hot mess that seems especially designed only to confirm the popular opinion, that Henry VI part 1 is a bad play.

The sets and costumes look like they were produced for and by a high school drama class. One possible reason cited for this choice is to showcase the often petty and childish nature of the infighting which characterises the War of the Roses. However, I feel that it backfires in The First part of Henry the Sixth: instead of showing us the petty nature of the War of the Roses (which seems plain enough in Shakespeare’s language anyway), it turns Henry VI part 1 into a bit of a joke by cheapening what are also the very serious consequences of these wars. Very unfortunate.

Jane’s First Part of Henry the Sixth is part of a larger collection of made-for-TV movies produced by the BBC in the late seventies and early eighties. The BBC television Shakespeare was an ambitious project not entirely unlike the Bard Brawl’s in scope: to produce a filmed version of each one of Shakespeare’s plays. And to their credit, they did manage to complete the project – you can order the complete 38 DVD set from the BBC or on Amazon and then you will own this gem forever! Or you can buy something you’ll actually watch. Whatever.

Given that the purpose of the BBC’s project was to produce largely faithful to the text versions of these plays, Howell’s film works its way through Shakespeare’s play without any noticeable leaps, omissions or inventions on Howell’s part. The setting of the play is fifteenth century Europe and it opens with English nobility gathered for Henry V’s funeral. The language is Shakespeare’s and the movie ends where Shakespeare’s play ends.

One of the few differences: Howell chose to open the film with a dirge sung by Henry V’s son who was played by 40 year-old Peter Benson.

I guess they missed the part where Henry VI was nine months old when his father was killed, and about 12 years-old during the rest of the play.

I’ll spare you the plot synopsis seeing as we’ve already done one for each act and Howell’s film follows almost exactly Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1. (You can refer to our previous posts on Henry VI, part 1 if you need a quick plot reminder.)

After all of this, is The First Part of Henry VI a total wash? No. There are a few, precious – oh, so very rare and precious – pearls locked up within this clam.

Trevor Peacock manages to deliver a Talbot which is every bit the hardened, noble English warrior of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1. Brenda Blethyn plays a very energetic and active Joan who has the entire French court wrapped around her fingers. Too bad the stage fighting, a large part of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1, is so bad. It just turned Pucelle’s fight with Talbot – which is one of many great action scenes in this play – into a farce

As I watch this, I wonder why Howell insists on draining just about every one of the action sequences of its dramatic potential?

In my opinion, however, the strongest and most successful character is Richard Planatagent, Duke of York who is played by none other than the brilliant Bernard Hill. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, it should. But maybe you know him by his other name, King Théoden of Rohan.

While the BBC’s project to adapt every one of Shakespeare’s plays to film verbatim was an excellent initiative from an archival perspective, it really failed to produce something that brings Shakespeare to a new audience in a way which is both easily accessible and engaging. In the end, Howell’s choices in The First Part of Henry the Sixth results in a finished product which is alienating and off-putting.

The First Part of Henry the Sixth remains an excellent study… in how NOT to bring Shakespeare’s works to life.

(Eric Jean is co-creator of the Bard Brawl.)

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4 thoughts on “The First Part of Henry the Sixth (1983), Jane Howell (Director)

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  1. Eric, your review is so utterly cretinous and callow that I really cannot be bothered to mash it into the tiny squalid pieces it deserves to be torn into and then puked back into your gingery face. As someone who knows an awful lot about this play in performance, has worked at the RSC and the National, even knows some of the actors in the production, you really make a convincing argument as to why Shakespeare is wasted on your select coterie of the petulant ‘I demand to be entertained’ smartarse university armchair expert generation. I’d like to see the supposed high-school production you allude to that could actually better the understanding this company had of the tone of the play. As Bill Hicks once famously said of people who work in Marketing, ‘Kill yourself. Really.’

    1. Thank you for your comment, One Eyed Man. I was hoping that the tone of my review would spark a reaction but I have to admit, I hadn’t expected such a vehement ad hominem response to my somewhat tongue-in-cheek review.

      I feel that there are different reasons to love Shakespeare and different things to appreciate in the various plays or adaptations. I also see nothing wrong with questioning the entertainment value of something which was, at least in part, popular entertainment when it was first written and staged.

      I’m sorry that I can’t agree that Shakespeare is wasted on anybody. I don’t think he would have felt his play to be wasted on us either.

      The reason behind the Bard Brawl is precisely to get together and discuss (argue) about what we like or don’t like about the plays and to have a little fun in the process. We certainly don’t pretend to posses any special claim to the truth and we are more than willing to learn from one another and even (or especially) our detractors.

      You mention that you have a lot of experience with this play in performance. That’s awesome because we have had a hard time finding performances to watch. Are there any versions available on film which you might recommend? We’d love to be able to watch them.

  2. Could hardly disagree more with your comments on Jane Howell’s work on the HENRY VIs. The BBC Shakespeare project netted variable results, but I think the histories generally were very well served, and Howell’s experiment–setting the four HENRY VI-RICHARD III on the same deteriorating set–struck me as the best of the bunch, unifying material that otherwise tends to com across disjointed. Peter Benson is a fine Henry and Julia Foster a remarkable Margaret. By the by, to complain about historical inaccuracy when talking about Shakespeare is just plain silly … we don’t look to Shakespeare for real history (Hal and Hotspur certainly never faced each other in battle) but for larger insights into human behavior and political strategy. Sorry you don’t appreciate what Howell did. Joe Papp was such a fan that he broke his own rule is producing Shakespeare by Americans for Americans and imported her to New York to put up a stage version in Central Park. And very well received it was, too.

  3. “I guess they missed the part where Henry VI was nine months old when his father was killed, and about 12 years-old during the rest of the play.”

    Maybe. I certainly missed the part where the character Peter Benson is playing when he sings that song is identified by name as Henry VI, and not, say, a random funeral singer played by the same actor for symbolic and/or thematic reasons, in the same way that virtually everyone in the cast doubles up over the course of the tetralogy. Not that it makes a difference either way. I also missed all those other stagings of the play which scrupulously cast actual twelve year olds in the role, which is presumably the usual practice except on this one occasion, given how shocked and appalled you are at the casting of Benson. This is, after all, a documentary, and can have no possible significance or relevance except as a straight-faced historical record.

    In summary, if you’re going to be so insanely literalist you’re better off with the Cedric Messina series. Bless him, he had no imagination either.

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