Back in 2012 the first season of The Hollow Crown aired on BBC Two.
Based on Shakespeare’s plays, the run consisted of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. Starring Ben Whishaw, Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons, they were met with great acclaim, with three BAFTA nominations (two wins), as well as a nomination for Irons in the Screen Actors Guilds Awards.
Steeped in the theatrical history of Shakespeare’s plays and brought vividly to life onscreen for a whole new audience, The Hollow Crown was an all-round success.
Now it’s back for a second season, this time focusing on the plays which centre around Henry VI and Richard III. Boasting a formidable line-up for a cast, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses looks set to follow in the footsteps of the first season and show off some top quality drama.
The opening adaptation, Henry VI Part 1, deals with the beginning of the Wars of the Roses as tensions arise in court between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The young king’s ruling is not as steady as he would like and his age and inexperience feed the quarrelling of the powerful families.
Meanwhile, an uprising in France leads to the loss of land belonging to the English crown; it transpires that the uprising was led by a young woman named Joan (Joan of Arc), who claims to have had religious visions which have given her the power and insight required in order to defeat the English.
It is a tumultuous and dangerous time and the young king needs all the help he can get – but help and loyalty are difficult to come by, and even the princess he becomes betrothed to, Margaret of Anjou, has been strategically placed by the Earl of Suffolk so that he may dominate the king through her.
It’s a hefty plot and a hefty running time as well at two hours long, but it gets going fairly quick – it’s not too long before the first hints of treason and unrest begin to seep through, setting an ominous tone as the civil war which is now so famous begins to brew in Henry’s court.
It’s gritty and realistic, and the battle scenes are brutal without being too showy. It doesn’t hide the violence of the times – the scene in which Joan of Arc is burned at the stake, for example, is necessarily horrible. Full credit to Laura Frances-Morgan for her turn as Joan; she’s excellent in the role, fierce and vulnerable all at once but utterly steadfast in her beliefs.
There’s a real sense of the actors relishing the theatricality and weight of their lines, perhaps feeling the thrill of mixing Shakespeare’s plays with the world of television.
‘Civil dissension is a viperous worm that gnaws at the bowels of the commonwealth,’ says Tom Sturridge’s Henry at one point; it’s the kind of dramatic, significant line which really gives you the impression that the actors are savouring this opportunity.
Having said that, there are moments which are potentially better suited to stage than to screen, and seem to suffer for the translation to television. Lengthy monologues over a slaughtered son on a battlefield, for example, are the bread and butter of a Shakespearean history play, but seemed clunky and awkward on screen.
All the same, Henry VI Part 1 marks a welcome return of a series with glorious production values and fantastic performances. It’s great to see Shakespearean plays presented in fresh, exciting ways, with the possibility of reaching such a wide audience.
This first instalment does seem to be building up to something bigger – for the Wars of the Roses to really kick off, presumably, when the House of York makes its move to sink its teeth into Henry.
This film finishes with the introduction of a young Richard III, so hopefully the series will continue to build on a strong start; anticipation levels are high for the next part, which introduces Benedict Cumberbatch as the York usurper.
Aired at 9pm on Saturday 7 May 2016 on BBC Two.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let us know below…