Jeremy Irons – The Arts Desk Interview


Jeremy Irons: ‘I was never very beautiful’ – interview

In his 70th year the actor looks back on Olivier and Gielgud, on the Oscars and his start at Bristol Old Vic

‘You can get a bit lazy, film acting’: Jeremy Irons as James Tyrone in ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night – Photo by Hugo Glendinning

In 2016 the Bristol Old Vic turned 250. To blow out the candles, England’s oldest continually running theatre summoned home one of its most splendid alumni. Jeremy Irons – Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, an Oscar winner as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, not forgetting the lordly larynx of Scar in The Lion King – arrived at the theatre’s drama school in 1969 and in due course joined the company. The role that called him back was just about the biggest one going: James Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Eugene O’Neill’s monster play tells of a titanic family implosion in which an actor-manager who has saddled himself with the same part for years cracks up as his wife (played by Bristol by Lesley Manville) succumbs to alcohol addiction. Two years on, Richard Eyre’s production resurfaces at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End.

This year Irons, who once had a long-lost stint as a children’s TV presenter, turns 70. Does he still feel gratitude for that big break in Brideshead? How was it to act opposite Olivier and Gielgud? Does he mind that a generation of children know him as the voice of an evil Disney lion? Could he have been Bond? Read on for the answers to these and many other questions.

JASPER REES: You returned for the 250th anniversary of the theatre to be in Long Day’s Journey into Night. It’s a mammoth role. What was the draw?

JEREMY IRONS: It’s great to celebrate this iconic play which I saw Olivier do. When I was asked to do it I thought if I do it’ll be a real workout but I need a workout. Richard Eyre asked. I’d quite recently done The Hollow Crown on television. I did Henry IV with Tom Hiddleston playing Hal, Richard was the director, it had been a very happy shoot and I liked him and admired him. And I’d seen his production of Ghosts at Trafalgar with Lesley which I thought was tremendous.

This is a Bristol Old Vic production. What are your memories of training there in 1969?

‘69, was it? Phwoof. Well, very fond. I was a student at the school and there for two years and we watched every production and on first nights a group of us would dress up in our black tie and go down and host the audience in, and for that we were able to watch for free the production. And then after the two years at the school I was one of the five offered a job there and although I can’t remember the first show I did, I spent three years. I started off as an acting ASM which is where you muck about backstage, moving the scenery and making the props. It was really good because what it taught you was the way a theatre works and who’s important. And if you missed that bit of the process you can have the mistaken illusion that it’s the actors who are important. Of course it’s not. The actors are part of a team. And if it isn’t lit right and the stage isn’t designed well, then your work suffers. And I’ve always got great joy now on a film set or in the theatre of that sort of teamwork where we’re all trying to do our best around a particular story, and I learnt that at Bristol.


(Pictured below: Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day’s Journey into Night at Bristol Old Vic, by Hugo Glendinning)

Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day's Journey into Night.

I began to learn a bit about acting, not a lot. I loved my time there. Of course when I was there the backstage, everything behind the proscenium arch, was the same age as the auditorium. And it had been built by shipbuilders in 1766, and you could tell. It felt like a ship. All the ropes were like ropes for the sails. And of course immensely dusty. I remember changing one of the sets which we had to do through the night – I was a bit asthmatic at that age and I would get into bed at five in the morning wheezing away. But it taught the respect and the love of the old theatre. Then I remember Harold Wilson coming down on the last night and talked to all the cast as we retired from Bristol and went to Bath for three years or something while they knocked down that backstage. I remember we started a campaign to try to stop it happening and we couldn’t. It was the days when city planners – great theatre designers they thought they were – wanted to create a big backstage area so that shows from the Old Vic could be transferred to London. And they built what is quite honestly a sort of monstrosity. Such a shame because here was an integral period theatre. I remember seeing the wrecking ball going through the wall of my dressing room. I was standing behind the theatre as it swung in and the bricks cascaded down.

Back to Olivier, you have talked about the sense of rivalry that he brought to your scenes when doing Brideshead Revisited. “He never felt that he’d got there and neither will I.” Does that still obtain?

Oh absolutely. In fact I think it was in his first biography that he said you get to the top of a mountain and you think you’re there and you look and there’s another valley and higher mountain. Long Day’s Journey is the high mountain.

How high is it?

It has an immense amount of verbiage. It’s very emotional and yet the character has long scenes where his wife is just going on and on and on in her hallucinatory state and you’re given no clue by the playwright about what you’re doing, what you’re feeling. So you have to design all of that. I find it fascinating because they all talk about each other in the play, they describe each other, and he has quite different colours from how he is perceived by the others. That’s true to form. O’Neill doesn’t judge any of the characters. And I know how people are truly different from how they are perceived. We perceive our father in a particular way but actually his lover would perceive him quite differently and he would be even different from those two perceptions. Also one of the problems with the play is that O’Neill was never produced in his lifetime and he actually never wanted it to be produced because it was so close to him. But anyway his second wife decided to produce it and because he was dead and because he was O’Neill you’re loath to play with it, whereas had it been produced in his life the director would have said, “Shall we cut that bit?” or “What do you mean by that?” We’re giving it a good zip but it’s hard for an old man. And the older you get the harder it is to retain lines.

..Jeremy Irons, The Hollow Crown.

You say you need a workout. Why?

You can get a bit lazy, film acting. You don’t have to play a long phrase of three hours, you don’t have to communicate to an audience, you’re just communicating with a camera. Yes you have to think but you’re thinking in much shorter spans. You’re able to knit little bits together. That’s done, that colour, I can do that colour tomorrow, or whatever. It’s not easy work but I think it’s less of a … I would compare film acting almost to – it’s not a very good analogy – to playing chess. You’re trying to get the game right.

The analogy suggests you’re trying to beat someone.

No. That’s why it’s not a good analogy. Maybe making a patchwork quilt. You’re sewing really nicely round that bit of fabric. Whereas doing something like Long Day’s Journey is like doing a long-distance run without falling over and making it interesting for people to watch.

Do you get nervous?

I hope not. Not if I’m prepared. If I feel unprepared then I do. And what my task is during the rehearsal period is to be so prepared that I sling it and bring with me to the performance what’s happened to me that day, so it has a freshness. But you have to be really on top of it to do that. You can’t be thinking, what’s my next cue?

There must some parts of the profession that get easier.

It’s strange. I always feel like a plumber when I’m approaching a part. I never have a feeling of knowing how to do it. When you are in the process you are “Oh yes I found that easy” so there are things there. But I always feel like a beginner with a new character.

Are you getting better?

I couldn’t say. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I couldn’t judge. I think probably not. I know more, I’ve lived longer, so I have a little bit more to draw on. But my process is the same. A muddled process.

A plumber fixes stuff, often a blockage.

Blockages I know all about. I choose plumber because it’s just completely separate from acting.

A competent technician.

You’re reading too much into my plumber analogy. What I mean is someone who is a layman, a butcher or a newsagent.

This is one of the great plays about an actor. Does something chime with you?

Of course it does. I look to somebody like Kenneth Branagh who I admire enormously or Simon Russell Beale who I admire greatly too. I remember in my 40s talking about wanting to start my own company and I never have. Simon’s played quite a lot of stuff. And he was the young shepherd when I did Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. I’d just done The Mission. I look at those careers and I think, should I have spent more time in the classics? Should I have put back more into English theatre than I have? I could have possibly been an interesting Shakespearean actor and I haven’t done him for a long time and yet in truth I never really had the desire to. I always used to feel, so and so can play that part so much better than me.


(Pictured: Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro in The Mission)Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro in The Mission.

Who would that be?

Depends on the part.

You must have been offered Lear.

I have been and quite honestly at the moment I don’t have the energy. I mean Lear is massive.

If you can do this you can do that.

We’ll see. I always wanted to do a Hamlet that was directed by Harold Pinter because I thought we’d find something quite interesting.

What did he say?

I don’t think I ever asked him. I might have mentioned it and he didn’t bite. I don’t know. I have been asked by a director who shall be nameless if I can be her Lear and I just said, “We’ll see. Not today anyway.” And I don’t actually know the play very well. I saw the most wonderful production at the National with Ian Holm which I thought was almost definitive.

Directed by Richard Eyre.

Was it? Oh, I haven’t talked to him about that. I’m not a person who lives with regrets. I’ve made my bed and I’m very happy and I sleep well in it at night. Things could have gone a different way. Would I have been happier or not? I don’t know. I look back at my life not with satisfaction because I’m never satisfied with what I do, but I’ve been very lucky. I’ve done a lot of disparate things, some of which have given me great joy at the time. And of course I don’t know what I’ll do. My appetite is not to work as hard as I wanted to when I was in my 30s and 40s.

How long can you not work for?

If I knew for instance that I had a job that I really wanted to do in a year’s time, very happy not working for a year. I think the thing that disturbs me a little bit is – not that it often happens, fortunately – having nothing coming up. I like to know my time is limited and then I’ll plan well within that time.

Earlier you said that others see us differently from the way we see ourselves. How do you think my profession has seen you? Have you recognised yourself in interviews?Jeremy Irons, High-Rise

Sometimes. I’m very wary of your profession because they sometimes hang me out to dry. I’ve become fairly hard-skinned about that. I think sometimes journalists come with an agenda. They come with their story and hope that what you say will fit into that story and if it doesn’t quite… we know what writing can do. So I would say I am wary. I’m often my own worst enemy because I love flying kites and I’ve realised now you can’t do that. Wrong place.

Does High-Rise (pictured above) feel it’s saying something about the state we’re in now?

You’ll get a better feeling of that seeing it fresh than I will. He makes it very Thatcherite and 1980s. I think he could have made it present-day. Does it have reverberations for today? I suppose. I think the film is better than the book but I didn’t much like the book, although I’m a great admirer of Ballard and turned down the opportunity to play in Crash, which I’ve always rather regretted. Not seriously because I don’t regret anything seriously. So I can’t really answer that question.

Would Tom Hiddleston make a good Bond?

I think he’d be a wonderful James Bond. He’s a fairly conventional James Bond but he has the style, the wit, the looks and the physique.

Would you have fancied it, once upon a time?

I once had a meeting about it..

Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Who rejected whom?

Neither of us rejected either really. It was a time when Roger Moore was saying he wasn’t going to do any more and I think he was probably doing it to up his fee. I was making The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Cubby Broccoli came down. We had a meeting in Lyme Regis and I wasn’t actually very interested because perhaps wrongly I thought it’s such an iconic role I would find it hard to get away from it. Doesn’t seem to have affected Sean [Connery] at all. I think it maybe has affected Pierce [Brosnan] a little. Don’t think it’ll affect Daniel [Craig]. I don’t know. I think it hangs round your neck a bit. (Pictured: Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman)

Have there been roles that have hung round your neck?

Not uncomfortably so. I mean Brideshead has hung round my neck like a necklace. I’ve always loved it. I’m very proud that it has legs, that it’s still played on various channels and doesn’t seem to have aged. I think it’s good work on everybody’s part and it was certainly a wonderful experience doing it.

Is it true you get pissed off when they mention your contribution to The Lion King?

[Laughs] It’s not been a millstone round my neck at all. That’s the thing. Things you’re successful in, they’re there, they’re colour. If you’re hugely successful in them that’s a big colour.

What’s it like watching yourself getting older?

I was never very beautiful. I always had a bit of an odd face and I still have an odd face. It’s just different. I don’t really mind how I look. The only thing I mind about is how much the character is communicating to me through that body, through that face. It’s faintly curious to see me young.Jeremy Irons, Brideshead Revisited

Have you ever seen Brideshead?

Since it went out? No.

You’ve tended to play quite well-to-do characters. The poshest person in Batman vs Superman, for example.

I know why. I sound like I sound. I’m tall and slim. A huge part of what we present is our physique and the way we sound and if somebody wanted me to play a five foot two Geordie who was 34 they wouldn’t come to me. That’s the nature of the business.

Do you regret you haven’t been cast as the odd oik and spiv?

I’d love to do that. Diversity is what I’ve always tried to get. But I’ve had what I’ve had. I try and muscle sideways from people’s perceptions but it’s not easy.

Olivier was rivalrous in his 70s. How do you feel you measure against him now you’re doing this role?

Oh, way down. Way down. I remember reading his biography and there’s a list at the end of chapter two or four of all the roles he plays and it takes up about a page and at the bottom it said he did this work by the time he was 27. It was six times the amount of work I’ve ever done.

But that was then.

I know but of course that develops a more rounded, a more talented actor than I could ever become. He was a different sort of actor than me. He was more of a showman I think than me. But he was for me iconic, as Gielgud and Ralph Richardson and Scofield were.

You had scenes with both of them in Brideshead. They weren’t close with each other.


Could I ask you to compare acting with them?

I spent more time with John because he was around for longer. I remember going to dinners with him and I’d just read his autobiography and he would tell these wickedly funny stories at dinner and I would say, “Why isn’t that in your autobiography?” And he would say, “I couldn’t write that, dear. I couldn’t possibly. Upset too many people.” A shame of course because that’s what an autobiography should be full of. But Larry I remember was not well. We had this big death scene and he was sleeping in the next room in Castle Howard to the room we were filming in. I just had to kneel at the end of the bed and watch him make the sign of the cross before his death and knew that he’d come back to the Catholic church and this was an important part of the story. And Charles [Sturridge, the director] came to me and said, “‘Listen, I don’t want to get Larry up too early. Would you do your bit at the foot of the bed first?” And I said, “Charles, no. I have to react and feel to what he does. I can’t act and feel to something I imagine he’s going to do. You’ve got to get him.” So he did and Larry came in and got into bed and said, “Gather you can’t do it without me, dear boy.” I said, “You’re dead right, sir.” I just know that I feel like a child at the foot of a mountain compared with what I saw him do.

Was Gielgud more generous?

No, I have to say they were both very kind and considerate and well mannered and well behaved. Gielgud was struggling with continuity – he was eating fish, I remember – and the way they were shooting it he had to match from various angles and when you’re eating fish and you’ve got bones and all that, it was really hard, and speak. And I saw him struggling and I thought, God I’d be struggling too. I asked him about one line. I said, “Sir John, how would you say this?” Because I felt I wasn’t getting it right. And he [makes a noise of saying a line]. So I went outside while they were re-lighting and sat in the corridor going, doesn’t sound right at all to me. And of course you realise that what works for one actor doesn’t work for another. But he was lovely. You really have to do a theatre run with an actor to really get to know them. And then at that point they’d both had their fingers slightly burned by the Joe Orton generation when everything was new and acting was kitchen sink now. I think they felt perhaps their advice was not welcome, which I really regret, because I think acting should be passed on.

Do you make an effort to do it yourself?

When asked, but you’re not often asked. And you have to be very careful because people are very protective of their own work and what they’re doing and I’m not very politic. I normally go through the director and do it that way if there’s something I feel very strongly about. But when it’s somebody my age talking to somebody younger, they feel they’re being told. Their perception of that actor is he knows how to do it. Now, you don’t feel that way as an actor. You’re just exploring in the same way that a young person is exploring. You suggest. You say, “You could try that but you don’t have to, it might not work.” You have to really be careful, because they think you’re wise and you know how to do it, and course you’re not and you don’t. So it’s very difficult. Even as a director. I watch Richard Eyre and he’s wonderful the way he doesn’t impose. He’ll give a bit of a nudge in a certain direction but very very carefully. Howard Davies used to say about me that I’m a fundamentalist. He said, “You want it changed now, you want it different now. You’ve got to wait. Performances, plays – they ferment. Some people ferment quicker than others and you’ve got to let it happen and not get impatient.” Great lesson for me.Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune


Is there ever a sense of self-loathing at being someone who pretends to be other people for a living?

No because I do believe… I don’t think actors, entertainers, deserve the amount of attention they get. It’s the way of the world. But people love to know about them. Less so now but nevertheless. But I think storytelling, which at base is what we do, is an important component of society. So that we can live our fears, live our fantasies through story, whether it be novels or film. And I’m a bit of that process. but I’ve always been aware that I don’t warrant the coverage that I get.

And if there were none, if the tap were turned off and the world stopped noticing, would you accept that happily?

I would. I’d probably not get employed. That’s the trouble. You know what they’re doing now? If there are two young men who are up for a role – two young women, whatever – and one has 1,000 Twitter followers and one has 100,000, the one with 100,000 will get the role. Nothing to do with…

And how does that make you feel?

I just think it’s madness. Absolute madness. But it’s life. And just as when I started out you didn’t have to sell a show, they didn’t have publicity, billboards, whatever. But even when we went up for Oscars for Reversal of Fortune the Oscars were on the Monday, I flew into New York from London, did Saturday Night Live, flew on to Los Angeles on the Sunday, did one party, and the following day were the Oscars. That was the only campaign. Now they campaign for months! I didn’t do a campaign. (Pictured above: Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune)

Did it change your life, winning that Oscar?

No. I mean it’s lovely. It didn’t harm it. It didn’t change my life as much as being the lead in a film that had huge box office would have changed my life.

And yet you didn’t pursue them when you could.

I was never really offered a great movie. We were going to do Remains of the Day but I don’t think that ever made a lot of money. I was going to play the Tony Hopkins part. Meryl was going to play the part Emma Thompson played and Harold was going to write it. And it all just fell apart. Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers


It is sometimes said in some places that the Reversal of Fortune Oscar was an apology for not having won the Oscar before in Dead Ringers? (Pictured above: Irons in Dead Ringers)

I think that came about because I thanked David Cronenberg in my speech.

Do you think it’s an empty story?

No, I don’t because there was a – it even got to me so it must have been quite big because I was over here – a feeling in Los Angeles that it was very wrong that Dead Ringers was not nominated, and it got a lot of attention among the aficionados of the business. And so when Reversal came along the next year I think that groundswell encouraged my producers to say, “We’re going to do an Oscar campaign for you.” Which is a decision they make. You don’t just get nominated for Oscar. There is a campaign to get it. And had Dead Ringers not happened, I wonder whether they would have had that confidence.

  • Long Day’s Journey into Night at Wyndham’s Theatre from 27 January to 7 April
  • Follow Jasper Rees on Twitter @jasperrees

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