The historical plays of William Shakespeare need no introduction. Over the years they have seen many dramatizations, ranging from Sir Laurence Olivier's classic film adaptation of "Richard III" to the 1995 telling of the same play, but set in a an alternate early 20th century setting. The 1960 miniseries "An Age of Kings," however, did something truly unique and special with these plays; something that hasn't been done since, and will likely never be recreated. Director Michael Hayes adapts "Richard II," "Henry IV," "Henry V," "Henry VI," and "Richard III," for television audiences in a truly epic, 15-part series that treats the stories with a chronological continuity.
The original broadcast of "An Age of Kings" was done live on British television. American audiences discovered the series on public television, and up until this DVD release, it hasn't been seen, on any form of home video at least, since. For those unfamiliar with BBC treatment of early television, you might not realize that it's a bit of a miracle that a watchable version of this series exists; Doctor Who fans are all too familiar with early episodes of that series being missing due to reuse or blatant destruction of tapes.
While modern audiences are more used to high budget theatrical productions of Shakespeare, what "Age of Kings" lacks in showmanship, it makes up for in spades with acting quality. My initial reaction to seeing the cover boasting the appearances of Robert Hardy, Judi Dench, and Sean Connery, was one of disgust. I assumed their roles would be limited and their use on the cover was solely for advertising value. While this is true in the sense of Dench (who only appears in two episodes, both Connery and especially Hardy play substantial enough roles, and play their roles well. Sean Connery was the biggest surprise of this whole set; while I am a huge fan, I've never considered him a classical actor, but his performance as Hotspur here, is, quality wise, the best of his career. It's still easy to see his charming screen presence and playful eyes complement great delivery of dialogue; it's definitely something a Connery fan will want to check out, even if the source material intimidates them.
The other performance that caught my eye was David William's take on Richard II. Robert Hardy's, Prince Hal gets a lot of praise from fans, as well as Paul Daneman's title character of Richard III, but William's Richard II is worthy as well. He helps set the tone for quality in the first two episodes and if his performance were not up to snuff, the viewer's interest could easily be crushed. His whispered delivery in the closing scenes of episode two is haunting, especially in juxtaposition with the trembling voice, still confident, which preceded it.
The stories themselves, obviously need no introduction or critical analysis. Understandably, Shakespeare fans will be drawn to certain blocks of episodes as six different plays are represented here; I consider myself a Shakespeare fan and while I enjoyed seeing "Henry V" and "Richard III" represented, I was also highly impressed by the adaptation that opened the series, "Richard II." I had never read it prior and am not aware of any film adaptations, but it played out just as well as the former titles. It is full of beautiful dialogue and ripe with the political intrigue and conflict one might expect.
Going back to the production of the series, viewers should be prepared for sparse, but effective minimalism. The settings are obviously soundstages and filming is tight to hide limitations. In this instance, this is an extreme positive as the viewer is left with nothing to distract them from the superior performances. While this fantastic series is no substitute for watching a full production of any of the individual plays, it is mandatory viewing for any Shakespeare fan. It serves as a testament to the amazing quality of the BBC and the high standard that cemented the importance of American public television. Simply put, "An Age of Kings" is one of those "once-in-a-lifetime" programs.
At first glance, one might suspect the DVD release of "An Age of Kings" was a slapdash effort as the video quality is not pretty. Warner and BBC Video have been honest from the get go, as there is a disclaimer stating "Due to the archive nature of the material, the sound and picture quality may vary occasionally." If this were an American production from the same era, I would be very angry with the transfer. There is a notable amount of print damage, and due to the way the original American release was produced, some minor tracking errors. I did a bit of research and from what I've gathered, the program was filmed off of monitors with 16mm film. Due to the artifacts present on this release, it's obvious the source of the transfer here were tapes. The problems with the transfer aren't great enough though to distract from the quality of the program itself and as I stated before, knowing how the BBC treated other programs from the era, having this series in the first place is quite an achievement.
The audio fares better than the video. It's an unimpressive English 2.0 stereo track. The sound often sounds hollow, a likely result from the creation of the tapes and the small soundstages the program was filmed on. Thankfully the dialogue is clear enough to be well heard with no great instances of distortion. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included and highly recommended as it helps the viewer follow the dialogue intensive program and eliminate the confusion for any muffled lines.
Save for a solitary booklet of viewing notes giving some brief background for the plays and series itself, the set is devoid of supplementary material. It's very sad, BBC couldn't get Hayes to record a commentary track for at least one episode or an interview for that matter, especially considering his participation on interviews for the "Doctor Who" episodes he directed.
Despite, better than expected, but still rough audio and video quality, "An Age Kings" is a top notch production that will please Shakespeare fans with its brilliant performances, and at the same time possibly stir interest in viewers who have not read or seen many if any productions of the author's works. If there had been any form of extras on this disc that shed more light on its production, this would be a possible Collectors Series rating. Highly Recommended.