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The Life and Death of King John (1984) Online

The Life and Death of King John (1984) Online
Original Title :
The Life and Death of King John
Genre :
Movie / Drama
Year :
Directror :
David Giles
Cast :
Leonard Rossiter,William Whymper,Mary Morris
Writer :
William Shakespeare
Type :
Time :
2h 35min
Rating :
The Life and Death of King John (1984) Online

King John does whatever it takes to keep himself on the throne of England, making enemies of the pope, France, and his nephew along the way.
Cast overview, first billed only:
Leonard Rossiter Leonard Rossiter - King John
William Whymper William Whymper - Chatillon
Mary Morris Mary Morris - Queen Elinor
Robert Brown Robert Brown - Earl of Pembroke
John Castle John Castle - Earl of Salisbury
John Flint John Flint - Lord Bigot
John Thaw John Thaw - Hubert de Burgh
George Costigan George Costigan - Philip - the Bastard
Edward Hibbert Edward Hibbert - Robert Faulconbridge
Phyllida Law Phyllida Law - Lady Faulconbridge
Mike Lewin Mike Lewin - James Gurney
Charles Kay Charles Kay - King Philip of France
Jonathan Coy Jonathan Coy - Lewis, the Dauphin
Luc Owen Luc Owen - Arthur - Duke of Britaine
Gorden Kaye Gorden Kaye - Lymoges - Duke of Austria

For this production, director David Giles chose to go with a semi-stylised setting which he referred to as both "emblematic" and "heraldic."

Leonard Rossiter died before the show aired.

Part of the long running BBC Television Shakespeare project which ran between 1978 and 1985.

User reviews



The chronology places "King John" between "Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Merchant of Venice," but this play is not on that level. The quality of the writing is remarkably inconsistent compared with more familiar texts. However the BBC production gives the play a fighting chance, and it's worth exploring.

This Shakespeare series often roped in familiar faces from light television for leading roles, to broaden the viewing audience. Sometimes the stars would open the play with recognizable tics to reassure their public, and then abandon them as they gained confidence during the course of the play.

One example is John Cleese in "Taming of the Shrew," and Leonard Rossiter does it here too. After a tentative beginning, Rossiter acquits himself well by his final scene. George Costigan as Philip the Bastard also starts out fairly cluttered, and gains a welcome simplicity by the end. John Thaw is quite good as Hubert de Burgh, and Inspector Morse addicts will have trouble recognizing him.

The women disappear from the plot fairly early, but here they get the acting honors. Mary Morris is magnetic as old Queen Elinor, and Claire Bloom wrestles valiantly with the unactable part of Lady Constance.

The stylized physical production owes more than a little to the Olivier "Henry V," with a medieval manuscript illustration feel to the scenes in France. Altogether a worthy excursion off the beaten path.


I'm glad I watched this. It is a good production of a neglected (and in my opinion unjustly so) play. Leonard Rossiter gives a magnificent performance in the title role. There are, as well as him, many other very good performances (notably Claire Bloom as Constance and John Thaw as Hubert). The film however was very obviously filmed entirely indoors and does not attempt to hide the fact. Due to this, the supposedly outdoor sets are very bad, some of it unnecessary. For some reason, when the scene is in France they painted Fleur-de-Lys in the sky and the town walls of Angiers look like what you'd expect from a children's playground. However in spite of this I enjoyed it very much. It has excellent acting, quite good costumes (though again, some of this looks a little stagy) some nice Medieval music and good directing.

Overall 8/10.


Based on the earlier anonymous play The Troublesome Raigne of King John published in 1591 and secondarily, on the 1587 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles, William Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John (King John) is not an objective historical statement but a poetic comment on the monarchy and the moral issues it confronts. Both plays are derived form a 1538 drama by John Bale titled King Johan, one of the earliest English plays. Chronologically the first in the sequence of history plays, King John was listed by Francis Meres among Shakespeare's works in 1598 but did not appear in print until the First Folio in 1623. Though Troublesome Reign and King John are similar, one is hard pressed to find any traditional scholars willing to acknowledge that the latter King John was Shakespeare's reworking of an earlier play that he authored.

King John ruled from 1199 to his death in 1216 and is mainly remembered for having sealed the Magna Carta limiting royal powers, though that is not mentioned in the play. The work deals with the reign of King John who ascended the throne after the death of his brother Richard I known as Richard, the Lion-Hearted at a time when England had to deal with both internal disputes and French invasions sanctioned by the pope. When King John is visited by an emissary from France, demanding that he hand his throne over to his nephew Arthur whom the French King Philip believes is the rightful heir, war is threatened and is bargained over for the remainder of the play.

As depicted in the BBC-Time-Life version from 1984, King John, as portrayed by Leonard Rossiter, is weak, conniving, and thoroughly disreputable while the two strongest characters are women, Eleanor of Aquitane (Mary Morris) and Constance (Claire Bloom). A rallying point for the English cause, however, is the invented character of Philip (Richard) Faulconbridge (George Costigan), the illegitimate son of Richard I whose identity as the "bastard" is trumpeted throughout the play. His soliloquy at the end of Act II beginning "Mad world, mad kings, mad composition" is the best known speech in the play and Costigan's performance is full of energy and aliveness.

Also notable is a speech by Faulconbridge after John and the French conclude a less than noble treaty to the effect that commodity is the bias of the world. At the end, Faulconbridge becomes the true hero, the royal bastard who saves the day. King John underscores Shakespeare's preoccupation with issues of legitimacy, bastardy, and succession and one wonders what the source of the author's anxiety and hopes in this area may have been. The play argues that bastardy is a virtuous condition, and should be no barrier to the crown. He (the bastard) is a loyal subject, not a usurper and the suggestion is clear that Queen Elizabeth's successor should be named and should be a natural heir, an occurrence thwarted by the power ambitions of Robert Cecil.


The Life and Death of King John (1984) (TV) is an excellent version of one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays. The movie was directed by David Giles for the BBC.

Each of us has a favorite Shakespeare play--Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry V, etc. My guess is that if you asked a thousand people which is their favorite Shakespeare play, not one would say King John. In fact, it's probably not in anyone's top ten. However, it's still in the Shakespeare canon, so, naturally, it has moments of brilliance.

As with all of the BBC Shakespeare plays, King John has a solid cast, good costumes, and minimal scenery. Crowd scenes and battle scenes aren't included--too expensive. (Remember that they weren't included in Shakespeare's day either, for the same reason.)

So, what we see--and how much we enjoy it--depends on our understanding that this is a strong production of one of Shakespeare's lesser plays. I enjoyed the film, because to my way of thinking it's a faithful representation of what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote it.

Leonard Rossiter does good work as King John, who always lives in the shadow of his slain brother, Richard the Lion-Hearted. Mary Morris is excellent as John's mother, Queen Elinor, who is as tough as nails. Claire Bloom gives a heart-rending portrayal of Lady Constance, mother of the true heir to the throne of England. (John is basically a usurper, but he has the crown, and will fight to keep it.)

However, for me, top acting honors go to George Costigan as Philip (called The Bastard) who is the out-of-wedlock son of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Philip not only participates in most of the important scenes of the play, but he also speaks directly to us, the audience, taking us into his confidence the way Richard III does. Costigan's Philip is handsome, brash, intelligent, and confident. King John recognizes this, and so do we.

The only direct criticism I have of the film is the shortening of a key scene. All directors cut something from Shakespeare's text, but director Giles has opted to cut parts of the dungeon scene. The dungeon scene is one of the emotional high points of the play, and we deserve to hear every word of it.

In summary, this is a solid version of one of Shakespeare's lesser plays. I recommend it because, even when Shakespeare isn't at the top of his form, his plays are still so well-written that they're worth watching.

King John--as is the case of all the BBC productions--was made for TV, so it works well on the small screen, which is how we saw it. I suggest finding it and viewing it.


Though I have loved watching Shakespeare plays both in the theatre and on film, I rarely watch them on TV. Just a few months ago, I decided to buy the BBC Shakespeare DVDs and watch the Bard's entire works in a systematic way (with the tome of the RSC Shakespeare at my side). So this is the first, as I have decided to watch the history plays chronologically (by history) before going on to the comedies and tragedies.

From my RSC Shakespeare I learn that, in the early 17th Century, this play was regarded as one of Shakespeare's finest... more so than Hamlet, for example. How times change. Perhaps it is because of the way in which the body politic has changed so much that the petty squabbles of nations seem tawdry these days.

It seems to me that this play (full title 'The Life & Death of King John') is subtler and more interesting than other reviewers have suggested. The subject is, in essence, the nature of 'kingship' and the qualities that it requires, and the nature of 'legitimacy' in that and other respects. The uncertain legitimacy of the seat of King John on the throne of England is brilliantly echoed in the somewhat prefatory scene in which John is required to make judgement on the claim of the younger son of Philip 'the Bastard' to be his father's heir. John, as portrayed by Leonard Rossiter (and written by Shakespeare) is a vacillating, self-serving knave, lacking confidence, but seeking to fulfil his royal charge. There are interesting parallels drawn, as well between the role of the Pope in the affairs of England in this epoch and that at the time of the Spanish Armada. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, in spite of the certain impression that the Papal legate is meddling where he shouldn't, he is no cardboard cut-out villain, and shown, finally, to be powerless.

It is certainly the case the 'the Bastard' has many of the best lines, and it is tempting to conclude that he represents, for Shakespeare, the innate nobility of the English people. But it is somewhat disturbing to think of the moral implications of one of his most memorable couplets...

'Bell, book and candle shall not drive me back

When gold and silver becks me to come on.'

Is Shakespeare really saying that money and not conscience should be the sole rationale for action?

As 'The Bastard' George Costigan is fine, but an actor of the quality of James McAvoy or Tobey Maguire is really required for this role 'on film'. The disappointment for me was Claire Bloom. Pace other contributors, I do not consider her part 'unactable' - indeed Constance is arguably the strongest part in the play, but she doesn't strike the right balance between displaying emotion and speaking the lines - preferring the elegance of Shakespeares words to the force with which they demand to be spoken. On this occasion the iambic pentameter is not the most important thing. I blame here the director more than the actress, as several of her speeches *demand* close-ups and we get none.

But this is simply carping perhaps, I would not dissuade any lover of Shakespeare from watching this fascinating production.

Best of all is the most harrowing scene in the play where Hubert is about to gouge out the eyes of the unfortunate young Prince Arthur.

Hubert: If I talk to him, with his innocent prate / He will awake my mercy which lies dead

Forget all these plethora of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bard here trumps every other shot at defining the relation between the torturer and the tortured. (But we wouldn't, realistically, expect anything else, would we?)

Finally, one might ask why, in spite of my enthusiasm, the work gets only six stars... it is simply that there is precious little attempt to illuminate Shakespeare's moral ambiguities with visual expression. Olivier 'Henry V', yes, but that had Agincourt as a coda, and Olivier's camera placement was immensely more articulate than is the case here. And, of course, we are not in the same universe as Welles' sublime expressions of Shakespeare on film.


This is not one of Shakepeare's better works, as the writing and plot lack the consistency and character that typify his more popular plays. Yet the BBC production is interesting, not least because it takes comic actor Leonard Rossiter and placing him in a serious role.

This works very well, and Rossiter pulls off terrific portrayal of a weak and flabby monarch who is ultimately neither hero nor villain. He is well-supported by George Costigan, who gives a likeably knowing savvy to the role of Philip the Bastard.

There is also some good technical work here. The set and the costumes are all wonderful, conveying the period successfully without seeming cheap or tacky.

Another good addition to the BBC's Shakespeare collection.


Without entering the discussion whether the 1591 quarto is a mediocre first version of the play and this 1594 one an improved re-written version, or the 1591 bad quarto is just a bad quarto edition of the present play, this choice moving the play between 1591 and 1594 or vice versa, let's say this play is not one of the best histories Shakespeare is famous for. It is the end of John's reign. John is weak, irresolute, hesitating on every issue, wavering one way or the other according to events, over-reactive at times, just uncertain at other times. He is without any royal glory or any greatness at all, as a man as well as a soldier.

This makes him the real plaything of events.

The play starts with him recognizing a bastard son Philip of his brother Richard I as a member of the family, hence a cousin of his, with the benediction of both John's and Philip's mothers. This cousin will be essential all along in dealing with the nobles and the lords.

The quarrel with the King of France is complicated and uncertain though it is the first time the King of France actually tries to invade England and sends his son the Dauphin there with an army and the promised support of the English Lords after some kind of a quarrel brought to a settlement outside Angiers, with an exchange of relatives, King John's niece Blanche to marry the Dauphin and Arthur, Duke of Britain (in fact Brittany), a nephew to King John, who has a claim to the English throne as the son of John's elder brother, to go the English court as some kind of hostage-prisoner-guest. King John seriously hesitates on his fate: be killed, be blinded or be kept alive as a direct successor to him in spite of his own son, Prince Henry.

Strangely enough Hubert de Burgh does not carry out his mission to kill at first and blind then Arthur but Arthur tries to escape his custody and jumps from some battlement and kills himself. A strange situation deals with the Pope and his Legate, Cardinal Pandulph, who excommunicates King John because of some quarrel on the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury and the decision to make abbeys pay for the war against the French king. This Legate incites the French King to go at war against the English King but he negotiates some agreement with King John who is crowned a second time (after his excommunication is repealed) but the legate cannot stop the Dauphin in his war. Yet apparently the English Lords who supported the Dauphin step back and some hazard destroy the supply ship of the Dauphin's army, but on the other side the English led by Philip Falconbridge, the bastard son of Richard I's, is more or less made powerless by some flood in their camp. The Legate then manages to get some agreement, just before King John dies which enables Prince Henry to become the new King, Henry III.

This play is very messy as for events and connections among and between the characters. There is no decisive decision and no decisive action on any side. It is all confused decisions and confused actions that establish some kind of fuzzy atmosphere. Prince Arthur is shown pleading for his safety with Hubert and winning and then a couple of scenes later he is shown jumping from some battlement on his own initiative and killing himself. The King himself is poisoned by some monk, they say, but he had reached such a level of disorderly thinking and behaving that the poison is not changing much: he was not able to take a clear decision and he was better off dead. In fact everyone was better off with him dead even if the new king was young, inexperienced and more or less overwhelmed by events.

But all ends well. The king is taken away. The Prince becomes king. Philip Falconbridge cleans up the military situation. The Legate puts everything back in order and "Long live the king!" The production is rather light and I must say the battlements of Angiers or the royal castle really look like cardboard, maybe plywood. The costumes are rich and fancy, maybe too much. And it is true of many of these productions by the BBC that the diction, the language is too respectful of the iambic pentameter or simply iambic rhythm, which takes any natural prosody or even poetry from the language. I guess it was still the norm in the early 1980s in Great Britain. The costumes are so heavy and cumbersome that there cannot be any kind of agile or swift movement at all and since we are in an old TV production the picture is centered on close-up images or images zooming more or less slow onto close-up faces or upper half bodies.



In the early 1980s the B.B.C. did the complete plays of William Shakespeare in a series that ran over five years. They played in the U.S.A. once, and then never played again. It's a pity, because some of the Shakespeare plays (TIMON OF ATHENS, PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE, ALLS WELL THAT ENDS WELL, CYMBELINE) are not produced that frequently. Of the 37 or 38 titles (depending on if you count THE TWO NOBLE KINSMAN that Shakespeare wrote with John Fletcher) that are usually ascribed to the Bard, only twenty get produced. Look at the titles here, and see how many movie versions of OTHELLO, MACBETH, HAMLET, ROMEO AND JULIET there are as opposed to say AS YOU LIKE IT or MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.

Shakespeare's plays are divided up into three groups: Histories, Tragedies, and Comedies. There is actually some overlap, as several of the tragedies (JULIUS CAESAR, CORIOLANUS, ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA, KING LEAR, CYMBELINE) are based on historical or legendary figures). But the one's officially labeled "Histories" have these titles: KING JOHN; RICHARD II; HENRY IV, PARTS I and II; HENRY V; HENRY VI, PARTS I, II, and III; RICHARD III; HENRY VIII). We are aware that Shakespeare also wrote a scene in a play whose manuscript exists called The Play of "SIR THOMAS MORE", dealing with the life of that political writer and martyr. As More was a contemporary (and victim) of Henry VIII, those two plays are contemporary in historical content, and only the lack of a play called HENRY VII prevent their linking with the bulk of the plays from RICHARD II to RICHARD III (all dealing with the years from 1397 to 1485. As we realize other plays of Shakespeare's may be missing or non-recognized so far (recently one called EDWARD III was suggested as a play of Shakespeare's and produced to mixed reviews; Charles Hamilton, the New York autograph expert, found a missing play, CARDENIO, based on a Cervantes' story a decade ago), it is likely there were plays called HENRY II or EDWARD THE CONFESSOR. History plays were very popular.

But at this moment KING JOHN is unique as the first (in terms of chronology) of the histories, and the most isolated one. JOHN takes place from 1199 - 1216, when that monarch reigned and died. We have been aware of him from other sources. As the troublesome rival and younger brother of Richard the Lion Hearted (King Richard I) he is important in the films THE LION IN WINTER, THE CRUSADES, KING RICHARD AND THE CRUSADES, ROBIN HOOD, ROBIN AND MARIAN. He is the unscrupulous schemer, out to get that throne his brother Richard possessed. Unlike the later King Richard III (as Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More presented him) he is not a successful schemer. He only gets the throne when Richard dies. Richard had no legitimate heir. So John has no real problem - except everyone hates and distrusts him.

KING JOHN follows as the pig-headed monarch turns off his nobles (culminating in his greatest "achievement" - the Magna Carta he was forced to sign), gets his kingdom under a papal interdict (he never learned from his brilliant father's example with Thomas A'Becket to avoid controversies with Rome), and he allows the English hating Philip of France (again, remember THE LION IN WINTER) to invade to depose the interdicted John. He also faces an attempt to put the son of his older brother Geoffrey to replace him. It's a messy bit of history - another reason it is not frequently performed.

Leonard Rossiter is best recalled for his comedy performances, especially in the Reginald Perrin television series. He gave a convincing performance here as an unscrupulous and inept monarch, who managed to lose control very quickly. The amazing thing was he died still King, and passing on the throne. Luc Arthur played Arthur, the nephew who became such an unwitting threat to the monarch, and John Thaw played Hubert De Burgh, who tries to help young Arthur but fails.