Henry IV Part One: A Well Balanced Act

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By James Le Grice

Historical fiction is a balancing act. Tip the scales too far with the history, and you end
up with an alienating work enjoyable only to historians. Tip the scales too far with the
fiction, and you end up with something unbelievable and the audience wonders why
the author even bothered with a historical setting. Get the balance right, and you have a
compelling story enhanced by the fact that, to some extent, it really happened. Henry IV
Part One, the second instalment of BBC Two’s Shakespeare series The Hollow Crown, is
how it should be done.

Henry IV Part One picks up the story three years after the titular king usurped the
throne in an insurrection against Richard II. He now faces a rebellion of his own.
Owain Glyndwr is fighting to drive the English out of Wales, and on his side are a few
disgruntled English lords fighting to overthrow the King. But this history serves as the
backdrop, rather than the focus of the story.

The story itself is a fictional tale of Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, coming of
age and seeking his father’s approval. Hal is an unprincely Prince of Wales who spends
all his time in a seedy London tavern, cavorting with criminals and prostitutes. Life is
a game to him, and holds no greater prospects than getting drunk and having a laugh.
As the rebellion grows more severe, the King smacks sense into his wayward son. Hal
remembers who he is meant to be, and sets off to fight the leader of the English rebels,
Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, in single combat to defend his future kingdom.

However, some aspects of the history-fiction balance do not work quite as well for a
modern television audience as it did for Shakespeare’s own. This is due to the evolution
of ‘public knowledge’. In Shakespeare’s time, the events of The Hollow Crown series
would have held the same place in public knowledge that the events of the Napoleonic
Wars hold today.

You needn’t have read much history to have heard of Waterloo, Nelson, Trafalgar, and
Wellington and know that those names refer not just to a railway station, a column, a
square, and a type of boot. So too would Shakespeare’s audience have heard of Glyndwr,
Percy, and Mortimer and known about their agreement to take over England and Wales
and divide the land into three fiefdoms between them. So too would they have known the
legends that Glyndwr was a wizard fulfilling the ancient prophecies of Merlin, and so too
would they have been familiar with the popular legend about what Welsh women did to
the bodies of dead English soldiers during his revolt (Supposedly they cut their penises
off and stuffed them into their mouths). The script assumes this knowledge and merely
alludes to these things without slowing the story down with history lessons.

But what is not lost on the modern tv audience is the regional comedy. There is much
Welsh bashing here, and the portrayal of Glyndwr as a somewhat loopy figure with
quixotic ideas about Welsh nationalism and the Welsh language could just as easily be a
caricature of Plaid Cymru. Then there is Hotspur, who plays up the northerner stereotype:

straight talking, no nonsense, quick tempered, loves to have a fight. This is driven home
by Joe Armstrong’s portrayal of the character with a thick Geordie accent, something the
historical Hotspur would certainly have had. Likewise, Mistress Quickly’s London tavern
has a slightly EastEnders feel about it. Some things really do stay the same.

The BBC’s film adaptation is a balancing act in its own right, especially in the casting.
Henry IV Part One contains one of Shakespeare’s best-loved characters, Falstaff,
and many scenes centred around him. It can easily become The Falstaff Show if the
actors playing the other main characters are not as strong as whoever plays the tainted
knight. Thankfully in this adaptation, Simon Russell Beale’s brilliant performance as
literature’s most endearing coward is balanced beautifully by Tom Hiddleston’s Hal, Joe
Armstrong’s Hotspur, and Jeremy Irons as the curmudgeonly Henry IV. The supporting
cast also shine, with a particularly enjoyable performance from Julie Waters as Mistress
Quickly.

Finally, the production value enhances rather than clashes with the story, another tricky
balancing act when adapting plays into films and one that didn’t work as seamlessly with
Richard II. The visuals are stunning, and really bring the Battle of Shrewsbury scenes to
life. The battle looks gritty, sweaty, and bloody like a medieval battle should. Altogether,
this well-balanced act leaves the audience eager to settle in to Henry IV Part Two.

Watch The Hollow Crown on BBC Two, Saturdays at 21.00 or on iPlayer. Richard II will
be available on iPlayer until 28 July.

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