An Age of Kings, called a "chronicle" from the Bard's historical plays, (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III), was the BBC's most ambitious project to date in 1960. The plays dramatised the rise and fall of no less than seven monarchs spanning eighty-six years of turbulent British history. The plays, all of which were stage performed, were cut and edited to make a serial with 'cliffhanger' endings much the same as a soap opera: A style of presentation the BBC would repeat many years later with adaptations of Dickens' Bleak House and Little Dorrit. With An Age of Kings the BBC kept a full cast at work for seven months in fifteen productions.
The concept for the series was originated in 1959 by veteran BBC producer Peter Dews who had started his BBC career in radio and was the director of the infamous Archers episode which featured the death of Grace Archer, an episode aired as a deliberate ploy by the BBC to disrupt the opening night of Independent Television). By 1960 Dews had produced several successful BBC productions including A Man for All Seasons (1957), The Nightwatchmen's Stories (1959) and Hilda Lessways (1959).
Dews principle cast were vastly experienced in Shakespeare, most of them having performed the Bard's works at the Old Vic, regarded as the crucible of many of the performing arts companies and theatres in Britain. But with over 600 speaking parts, the series was not restricted to noted or upcoming Shakesperian actors and some notable (future) household names appeared, including Frank Windsor, Julian Glover, Anthony Valentine, Tony Garnett (later to become a producer himself - most notably for the emotive BBC play Cathy Come Home), Robert Hardy, Geoffrey Bayldon, Judi Dench and Sean Connery. A stellar cast that alone would guarantee a huge audience in modern times.
Originally the plan was that the series would be made in the BBC's newly built Television Centre in London's White City, and broadcast as that studio's inaugural production, but Dew felt as though there was still work to be done on the plays before they went in front of the cameras (in the end there was thirty weeks of rehearsal) and as a result the production fell behind schedule. Scenic design, dressing of sets, costumes and props were all devised unsparingly with each episode costing around £4,000 to produce. All ten episodes were broadcast live but unlike a vast number of television productions from this time, telerecordings were not dumped and the series survived, although it took some thirty years before a DVD release appeared.
The series was a huge ratings success for the BBC and was acquired for US broacasting on public service television. The New York Herald Tribune hailed it as "easily one of the most magnificent efforts of the TV season", and as a result An Age of Kings led the way for future British drama imports. The series was also shown in several other countries and translated into several languages.
Dubbed a "most neglected masterpiece" by one critic upon its DVD release, An Age of Kings stands today as a broadcasting landmark for British television and features Shakesperian acting at its best.
Published on May 20th, 2019. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.