Jeremy Irons goes Henry IV into battle

Liverpool Echo 30 June 2012

After almost a decade, Jeremy Irons is returning to Shakespeare, as King Henry IV in a new BBC series. Acting’s good, he tells Kate Whiting, but what he really loves doing is tinkering with his boat.

IN A snow-covered field just a stone’s throw from the M25, Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston and a heavily disguised Simon Russell Beale are doing battle.

It’s a surreal sight, as Jeremy and Tom, in chain mail and red capes, charge back and forth on horses through a throng of armour-clad men, while Russell Beale, in a fat-suit and clasping a spear, runs comically away from just about everyone in his path.

On hills either side of the small valley are camps of ancient tents and, were it not for the camera crew in modern-day dress, you could almost imagine it was Medieval England. Even the sounds of the M25 have been muffled, much to director Richard Eyre’s relief, thanks to the snow.

But this is January, 2012, and the scene being filmed is the climax of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, where the future Henry V, young Prince Hal, will defeat rebel leader Hotspur, ultimately taking his place in history.

Some time earlier, in the comfort of a heated modern tent, which doubles as wardrobe and canteen for the battling mob, Jeremy Irons, who’s playing the titular king, settles down to discuss his first Shakespeare play since the 2004 Merchant Of Venice film.

He looks every inch the lauded British thespian, dressed in a red woolly jumper, Middle Eastern scarf, cords and high black boots, with a backwards cap on his head – chic but cosy.

“Shakespeare is wonderful to come back to, you forget how fertile his language is,” says the 63-year-old, in those deep, familiar tones.

“You get used to working in film, where language is spare and often not well written and suddenly you get back to this language, his use of rhythm, the choice of words, the way he changes from one thought to another on a sixpence, which is glorious.

“It’s like driving an Aston Martin and you think, ‘Oh yes, this can do anything, once I get to know how to do it’. Once you’ve done some of those big roles, even though you might not have done it for a few years, you know the possibilities, you know what you’re looking for – which is to make it sound completely colloquial and understandable to an audience.”

Indeed, with their season of four Shakespeare history plays, entitled The Hollow Crown, it’s the BBC’s mission to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. As part of the Cultural Olympiad in the run-up to London 2012, the Shakespeare Unlocked season charts the rise and fall of three kings; self-indulgent Richard II (played by Ben Whishaw) who is overthrown by his cousin Bolingbroke, Henry IV, and finally his son Henry V.

The two parts of Henry IV tell of the king’s guilt over deposing his cousin and struggle to retain the crown, as his enemies rise up against him.

In recent years, Jeremy, who made his name in the 1981 ITV series Brideshead Revisited before starring in films such as Lolita, The Mission, The Lion King and the Oscar-winning Reversal Of Fortune, has returned to TV acting, with an acclaimed role in the US drama The Borgias. Next month, he’s off to Budapest to film the third series.

Television has become more appealing as film budgets dwindle, he says.

“Movies are really having a problem. The sort of pictures I make, what I call the £8m to £30m, are not made very easily now. The £200m are getting made and the £1m movies are getting made, but the ones in the middle are finding it very hard.

“I’ve been watching the series that are coming out of America and there’s such good writing happening. Mad Men, The Wire, Damages, this is really good drama, good writing.”

When he does get a break from his acting schedule, Jeremy has more than enough at home in Ireland to keep him busy.

“I love downtime because there are many other things I love doing,” he says simply. “I’ve always been a doer-upper of things. In the early days it was furniture, then it became houses. Now I have a boat and horses, which is very lucky.

“At one stage, during my 30s, I remember leaving the house thinking, ‘Why do I have to work, there’s so much I want to get done?’. Then I thought, ‘Careful, you have to work in order to support the life you want to live’.”

And with that, Jeremy is off to ride a horse – for work.

The Hollow Crown begins on BBC Two today. Jeremy Irons appears in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 on Saturday, July 7 and Saturday, July 14

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The Hollow Crown – As good as TV Shakespeare can get?

From the Guardian.co.uk

The Hollow Crown: as good as TV Shakespeare can get?

The BBC’s new Shakespeare films, starting this weekend with Richard II, show that the Bard can play as well on TV as in the theatre

During TV conferences and festivals, at least one delegate always argues that Shakespeare, if he were around today, would be writing EastEnders or Holby City. This claim is based on the fact that theatre, at the time Shakespeare’s plays were written, was a mass audience form rather than the relatively elitist entertainment it has become; and also, more subtly, on the contention that the playwright’s fondness for parallel plots and cross-cutting to some extent anticipates screen narrative.

And yet, despite these affinities, Will has always tested the will of TV producers. The BBC TV Shakespeare – a late 1970s attempt to film all 37 plays as an educational tool – became a headline calamity, helping to establish Clive James’s reputation as a critic through his pitiless Observer reviews of shaking scenery and stagey acting. The original production of Much Ado About Nothing (starring Penelope Keith and Michael York) was never transmitted because, according to the minutes of BBC management meetings I have seen, it was considered such a failure.

The original producer, the late Cedric Messina, left the project and Jonathan Miller came in as an emergency replacement. Miller steadied the shipwreck – with productions including John Cleese as a brilliant Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew – and it’s good to have a permanent record of, for example, Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet. But, in general, the experience cemented the view that Shakespeare is a weapon to be deployed on television only when particular performances called to be immortalised – Laurence Olivier’s King Lear and Ian McKellen’s and Judi Dench’s Macbeths on ITV, Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth by the BBC – or when there is a special occasion, such as BBC licence fee renegotiation or, this summer, as part of the Cultural Olympiad alongside the London Games.

Bringing together four of the Shakesperean English history plays under a group of high-class stage directors, The Hollow Crown begins this weekend on BBC2 and marks a significant advance in the medium’s fight with this writer.

The troubled BBC Complete Shakespeare taught several lessons – that not all of the works merit the attention of the audience; that studio recordings create an uneasy limbo between theatre and TV; that the pace and fluidity of made-for-TV dramas can make stage plays seem slow and staid; and that it is vital to have an overall producer who understands both Shakespeare and film.

The Hollow Crown brings a full set of ticks to this checklist. Present from the start, rather than parachuted in as Jonathan Miller was, Sam Mendes has executive produced the series, while also presiding over another English cultural icon: the new James Bond movies.

And this BBC TV Shakespeare is sensibly restricted to a discrete and particular 9% or so of the collected works. The linked sequence of Richard II (directed by Rupert Goold), Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (filmed by Sir Richard Eyre) and Henry V (under Thea Sharrock’s direction) tell a sequential story, with recurring characters and so have a structural similarity with the four-part family drama, a staple of TV fiction. In this sense, The Hollow Crown can be seen as a relative of The Tudors, though with significantly better dialogue.

Mendes and his directors have also assimilated the wisdom of TV property shows: what matters in filming Shakspeare is location, location, location. Instead of a studio mediaeval England formed from hardboard, we get actual castles, taverns and forests.

The two productions that I have so far seen – Richard II and the first part of Henry IV – also convincingly show that, rather than being a triumph over limitations, filmed Shakespeare has some advantages over theatrical versions. In the often-bewildering opening scene of Richard II, which begins with a list of characters and their achievements, Goold’s camera can simply close in on the noble being mentioned, easily establishing characters in a way that, in the theatre, would require much fumbling with a programme in the dark.

And, in Henry IV, Eyre employs every trick of cinematic fluidity to match the quick flow of modern screen drama: cross-cutting and dissolving between the three main locations (the court, the rebels, Falstaff’s dens) and turning soliloquies into their natural screen equivalent of voice-overs.

Another benefit of television is the available cast: because it isn’t asking for a three-month run or global tour to make the budget back, The Hollow Crown simultaneously retains a group of actors that even the most famous theatres could only accumulate over several seasons. Theatre-goers have long anticipated Simon Russell Beale’s eventual Falstaff but he gives it here first: cloud-bearded and earthy, a portrait of ambition and intelligence chiselled away by appetite. And, if SRB does play Falstaff in the theatre, it is highly unlikely, for budgetary and logistical reasons, to be in a company that also includes Julie Walters, Lindsay Duncan, David Suchet and David Morrissey.

There remains a basic flaw in the theory that because Shakepeare was a populist writer in his time, he should naturally suit TV now: the mainstream television audience, often made suspicious of classic theatre by education and school theatre outings, would take much persuasion to tune in to these dramas. But, despite that caveat, The Hollow Crown feels as good as TV Shakespeare is going to get.

Radio Times – Kings of Cool

Thank you to scarletthammer on Tumblr for the scans.

Radio Times 30 June -6 July 2012

Kings of Cool – Classic Shakespeare with Britain’s biggest stars

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Telegraph Review – At home with the histories

From artyprettykipple on Tumblr

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Shakespeare Unlocked: The Sunday Times Spectrum Magazine

Behind the scenes of the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked season.

From The Sunday Times Sunday 24 June 2012

SOURCE OF ORIGINAL SCANS and also THIS SOURCE

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The three Shakespeare kings hit TV: The Times Interview

From the London Times, Saturday 23 June 2012.

Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston are bringing the history plays to the BBC. Andrew Billen talks to them.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown — uneasy even, one imagines, if it is worn merely for Harry, England and the BBC. Any actor playing the king in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of English history, the Henriad, composed of Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V, must feel the crown’s weight. It has rounded the mortal temples of Alec Guinness, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance (among the Richards), of John Gielgud, Jon Finch and Tom Fleming (the last of whose Henry IVs became the voice of royal ceremonial for the BBC), and, most burdensomely, of an army of hyper-distinguished Hals led by Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and the just-knighted Kenneth Branagh.

But for Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston, who sequentially play the kings in the BBC’s new cycle, The Hollow Crown, there is another responsibility. Shakespeare on TV has fallen out of fashion. The once familiar BBC Shakespeare production — there were more than 60 between 1945 and 2000 — has disappeared to be replaced by the occasional BBC film of a hit stage version. Even with Ian Holm as Lear, David Tennant as Hamlet, and, tomorrow on BBC Four, Jeffrey Kissoon as the RSC’s current Julius Caesar, this is not quite the same. The BBC’s last Richard IIs, for instance, were Fiona Shaw (from the gender-swapping 1995 National Theatre production) and Mark Rylance, filmed at the Globe in 2003. Incredibly, there has not been a BBC Henry V for 32 St Crispin Days. That play begins by apologising for cramming “so great an object” within the “wooden O” of the stage. Today, the question is whether Shakespeare, with his worrisome language, lengthy scenes and habit of arriving DOA in classrooms, is interesting enough to fill our great plasmatic rectangles.

Well. I have seen all four films in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown series, and my living room echoes resoundingly “yes”. When the BBC announced the project in September 2010, the histories seemed an odd place to begin a Bard revival. Now, in the summer of the Jubilee, as the kingdom again ponders a succession, they seem oddly relevant, if not as controversial as when Richard II’s abdication scene was removed from print editions so as not to offend the first Elizabeth. Politicians now, as Shakespeare’s monarchs then, strain for legitimacy amid shifting alliances. Nor is there anything remote about sending young men abroad to die for opaque causes: as the grunt Williams tells Henry V just before Agincourt, when he dares to speak of the justice of his cause: “That’s more than we know.”

Taking advantage of the nation’s widescreens, the executive producers Sam Mendes and Pippa Harris have opened the dramas out, cinematically, into Britain’s countryside, castles and cathedrals. The plays’ respective directors, Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre and Thea Sharrock, have encouraged their casts to deliver often heavily-cut speeches conversationally. Soliloquies, following the convention of Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet, are delivered as voiceovers. But what casts! Not even counting those kings, to whose number one must admit the dourly brilliant Rory Kinnear as Richard’s successful challenger Bolingbroke, there is the fat-suited Simon Russell Beale as a delicate, scheming Falstaff, Joe Armstrong as Hotspur, and, down in Falstaff’s unruly alternative court in Eastcheap, Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly. Again and again, actors we have taken for granted prove true Shakespeareans.

But it is when the kings wrangle over the crown that the films electrify. Ben Whishaw as Richard, reluctantly persuaded to abdicate in Bolingbroke’s favour (“Here cousin!”), bursts into tears, almost hands over the crown, takes it back and finally rolls it truculently towards Kinnear, who is wearing an expression that might be texted as “WTF?”.

“When someone is that deluded about themselves, it is always slightly comic,” says Whishaw, last seen in The Hour on BBC Two, and, at 31, two years younger than Richard at his deposition and death. “I felt his story was the story of someone who was forced to confront their vulnerability, who has constructed an identity of power and invulnerability and godlike authority, and whose illusions about himself are shattered.”

Whishaw dresses for his sacking in a priestly white gown trimmed in orange. In an earlier beach scene, in which he makes a stage of a rock, he wears his crown over a scarf worn a la Lawrence of Arabia. Mixed in with his divinity is a dessert helping of camp. “What Rupert [Goold] and I talked about was a Michael Jackson parallel. That was our reference in terms of his theatricality, the sense that everything is a performance and everything is about maximising the mystery around him. And like Jackson he is surrounded by people who just say yes to him.”

But there are more mundane parallels for an age of economic uncertainty. Whishaw sees Richard both as a megastar and a bloke who loses the job that defined him. Yet, once reduced to nothing, in his cell, his imagination spring opens and he identifies with others, even his old horse. “When I had finished working on this play — and maybe all Shakespeare is like this — I had the sensation that the play seemed to be about everything in life,” Whishaw says. “It is at once very specific and completely universal.”

For Jeremy Irons, who takes over from Kinnear as Henry IV in the two plays that follow Richard II, the story burrows towards the particular and the personal. Henry, so assured when he was Henry Bolingbroke, a duke unjustly exiled by the whimsically despotic Richard, is now plagued by ill health brought on by guilt at having usurped a divinely anointed king. The barons, not liking their new monarch much more than the last, again divide the kingdom. Any actor playing this Henry finds the plays’ form following their content. He is the star in title only. In performance he vies for attention with his tearaway son-and-heir Hal, his rebellious rival Hotspur, and, above all, Falstaff, who not only represents that hedonistic boozer faction in the English character but is a dissolute second father to his son. For many theatre-goers over the centuries, and for Orson Welles in his movie Chimes at Midnight, the star ofHenry IV is Sir John Falstaff.

Irons’ solution to the plays’ divided attentions is to make Henry’s throne its own centre of gravity, turning it into a virtual sick bed. Irons, 63, six years older than Henry at his death, wears the hollow crown over a hollow face, in a performance informed by his research into the real Henry, a “dazzling youth”, champion jouster, unjustly exiled and rightly outraged when Richard takes the estate of his dead father (Patrick Stewart’s John of Gaunt). “You would think he would be perfect, but in fact illness got him,” Irons says. “He used to have these fits. He would lie there apparently dead for ten, 20 minutes and then he would revive. No one quite knows what it was.” But it adds to the scene when Hal believes his father dead.

In a 1979 Henry IV, the BBC gave Jon Finch’s king leprosy, allowing for some Pilate-style hand-washing undermined by an off day in the continuity department that resulted in the king both wearing and not wearing gloves at the time. This time Richard Eyre determined leprosy would only mean Irons getting up even earlier into make-up. Instead Irons complicates his malaise with a father’s despair.

“For me it is a domestic play and a play about a father and a son — quite common themes: I am missing a boy who is not there and is up to I-know-not-what. I think quite a lot of fathers go through that time with their sons when they are demanding their independence. I certainly had it with my first boy. He pulled away and some years later he came back and realised how similar he was to me.”

Sam Irons is a photographer, but Max Irons is already, at 26, a Hollywood leading man (Red Riding Hood). He has talked openly of being expelled from Bryanston when a master caught him having sex. “Now Max is trying to steal my crown,” his father jokes. “But you also think of our current Prince of Wales. He is not up to making a fool of himself, but he has no function and he is trying to find his place. Of course, like Hal, as soon as he gets the job, I am sure he will be magnificent.”

Richard Eyre rang Tom Hiddleston to say he had won the part of Hal/Henry V on the wedding day of Prince Charles’s elder son two Aprils ago. Tom said yes. Now 31, barely two years older than Henry at Agincourt, he had been alerted to the “muscular, visceral” Shakespeare as a schoolboy when he saw Branagh’s 1989 film ofHenry V. Over a term at Rada, he paperbacked his way through Shakespeare at a Café Nero near Archway, London. “I distinctly remember the weekends I read the histories. When I got to Henry IV and Henry V, I thought to myself, very privately: ‘What a prospect that character is! What a journey he goes on!’ ”

No prep, however, could forearm him for his first day of filming, which, owing to the professional commitment of Beale, was onHenry V (15 weeks later Hiddleston’s reverse journey would end in the studio that mocked up Eastcheap in Henry IV). “It was an extraordinary thing. Day one, take one, slate one was riding along the moat of Arundel Castle and then delivering, ‘Once more unto the breach.’ ”

Branagh renders the Harfleur battle speech from a white horse, crisply and at speed, revving up the “r” in “tiger”. Olivier before him, riding an equally pristine steed, waits for perfect quiet and speaks unlisping Churchill. But Hiddleston dismounts and kneels amid a group of soldiers, fixing them in turn. Breathlessly, almost desperately, he gives his pep talk as if the English are one-nil at half time and he is going on himself. The playing owes much to the realism of HBO’s Band of Brothers (which, of course, owes much to Shakespeare).

“The play is an examination of war through the eyes of this one man,” Hiddleston says. “There are brutal speeches in there that are not pretty. I must be careful. Thea Sharrock has not made an anti-war film but it is certainly a pro-peace film. When Henry tells Williams ‘every subject’s duty is the king’s, but every subject’s soul is his own’ it is an exhortation to accountability. Take responsibility for who you are and what you stand for.”

Hiddleston, who has played in several father-son struggles (Randolph Churchill to Albert Finney’s Winston in The Gathering Storm, Loki to Anthony Hopkins’s Odin in Thor last year) clashed lightly with his scientist father about whether to go into acting. One of the funniest moments of his Henry is when he delivers a perfect Irons impression down at the Boar’s Head. But the Henriad has got to him deeper than that, either that or 4am starts, pre-dawn runs and filming till dusk did.

“I don’t want to sound too pompous or pretentious but people I have spoken to who have played Hamlet and other huge, totemic parts say they change you permanently. And having played Henry V, I tend to agree. Part, I think, of the appeal and strength of Henry V as a character is his astonishing ability to back up words with action. I truly think I understand the nature of responsibility a little more.”

The responsibility of returning Shakespeare to television was not the three kings’ alone, but Whishaw, Irons and Hiddleston have more than delivered. As Whishaw says, we are told, and sometimes think, that Shakespeare doesn’t work on television: “His poetry needs a space to live in. It is metaphorical. Blah, blah, blah.” The Hollow Crown refutes such pessimism. Shakespeare is as intimate as television and as outsized as its widest screen. Our wooden O is the box in the corner of our little rooms, confining mighty men, and liberating them too.

The Hollow Crown begins with Richard II on BBC Two, June 30 at 9pm

Jeremy Irons Photographed for BMW Magazine

Fantastic new photos of Jeremy for BMW Magazine, by Ali Toth and Aniko Virag.

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