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The Devil’s Crown: The Mystery and Majesty of a Lost BBC Series

July 24, 2014

The opening scene of the first episode of The Devil’s Crown (1978) begins with a shot of Henry II‘s tomb at Fontveraud Abbey, Anjou. Sonorous narration declares:

Henry, by the grace of God King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou. Eight feet of ground doth now suffice for whom the earth was not enough.

Alas, burial would be an apt metaphor for this remarkable BBC drama about the early Plantagenet kings, as it was to disappear from view and was believed lost for years.

I have always regarded the early 1970s to the mid-1980s as a Golden Age of British television drama. Just look at the number of classic dramas that were produced in that period: Elizabeth R, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Shadow of the Tower, I Claudius, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (a personal favourite), Smiley’s People, The Jewel in the Crown, Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective to name just a few. And then there are the character-actors who appear, to quote Richard Dawkins out of context, with all the ‘likable familiarity of senior partners in a firm of Dickensian lawyers’. Actors such as Peter Vaughan, Sian Phillips, Bernard Hepton, Charles Kay and Terence Rigby. Of course, there have been many brilliant dramas since the mid-1980s. But I think in later years, a certain conservatism set in. The BBC started to produce more and more Dickens and Austen adaptations, which all feel very safe. Looking back at the Seventies (I was born in the early Eighties mind you) TV drama just seemed more radical, daring and exciting. It’s probably no coincidence that the Seventies was an era when the British film industry collapsed and seemed to churn out nothing but sleazy sex comedies (do you remember such classics as Confessions of a Window Cleaner and Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate?), and some of our best creative talent would have flocked to TV. Indeed, parallels are striking today with the decline of Hollywood and rise of American TV channels, such as HBO, producing knock-out television.

A year or two ago, I had just finished watching a copy of the superb To Serve Them All My Days (1980). Impressed by John Duttine’s performance in the leading role,  I looked up what other roles he had played. One title stuck out on his resume: The Devil’s Crown in which he played King John. At first I couldn’t find out that much about the series. The information online was minimal and at that time the episode titles on the BFI and IMDB were incomplete. The show had never been repeated or released on DVD and was listed in some sources as lost. All I could find were comment threads where people shared their memories of the show and this scratchy recording of the theme tune on YouTube. I was stunned that a major BBC drama from the late Seventies could be lost because the information that was available on the show was very intriguing. The Devil’s Crown was an epic 13 episode drama series covering the Angevin kings, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and King John. The cast was impressive and read like a who’s who’s of thespians from British film and television: Brian Cox, Charles Kay, Jane Lapotaire, Michael Byrne, Jack Shepherd, Thorley Walters and the aforementioned John Duttine. I kept an eye on the comment threads from time to time in the hope that a copy might resurface. Then the Wikipedia page was updated to say that the BFI had a copy that was available for viewing on request. I was just about to make arrangements to visit the BFI when – a miracle! – all thirteen episodes were uploaded online by some benevolent YouTube user. The following review is based on my viewing of the drama on YouTube, but I’m not going to link to it because that will increase the chances that some killjoy will have it taken down. The upload appears to have been taken from a broadcast on French television. All of the credits are in French, but thankfully there are no French subtitles or dubbing. According to the chap who uploaded it, someone has been peddling poor quality bootleg DVD copies, but I really think it’s about time The Devil’s Crown became available through the BBC Shop, and a full television repeat is also overdue.

TDCThe Devil’s Crown begins with England ravaged by Civil War in the period known as The Anarchy. Henry Plantagenet (latterly Henry II), played with boundless charm and energy by Brian Cox, sees his opportunity to seize the crown and create a kingdom of law and order. He cuts a deal with King Stephen in which Stephen will name him his heir, excluding his sons Eustace and William in exchange for a fragile truce. Stephen’s sudden death elevates Henry to the throne. He may have been King of England, but the bulk of the Angevin Empire was in modern day France, and it was this that Henry regarded as the Jewel in his Crown, maintained through a series of political marriages and complex allegiances. Henry pays homage to Louis VII, King of the Franks, for these lands, but it is clear that Henry is the shrewder and more ambitious of the two kings, having married Louis’ ex-wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. This is a complex story to render on screen and there was a wonderful book The Devil’s Crown: Henry II and his Sons by Richard Barber which was written in conjunction with the series to clarify many of the political intricacies. Barber does a good job of separating fact from fiction in the Medieval period, but some of the myths (or should I say debatable points?) such as Eleanor’s ‘Court of Love’ are kept in the TV series as they make for good drama. This allows the writers to embellish the role of the famous troubadour Bertran de Born, played with wonderful worldly cynicism by Freddie Jones.

Henry’s first real test as king comes from his former friend Thomas Becket (Jack Shepherd). Elevating Becket to Archbishop of Canterbury from his position as Lord Chancellor seems at first to Henry to be a canny decision. It soon backfires when Becket starts using the Church as a rival power to the Crown. This is a daring portrayal of the Henry/Becket feud. Other depictions I have seen, such as the 1964 Becket with Richard Burton in the the title role, have portrayed the Archbishop as becoming pious and devout in office, ultimately achieving martyrdom for his faith. Jack Shepherd plays Becket as malevolent and power-hungry, hellbent on trying to keep the Church above the law. Upon Henry’s death Richard the Lionheart (Michael Byrne) succeeds him and this is where, in my opinion, the series starts to flag. A huge amount of screen time explores Richard’s reputed homosexuality, nothing wrong with that per se but it only seems to contribute to Richard’s endlessly sullen, introspective and unreliable character. Byrne is a good actor but he struggles to make this Richard interesting. There are still compensations in these middle episodes. Zoe Wanamaker has a wonderful early role as Richard’s neglected wife Berengaria of Navarre and when Richard is on Crusade there is one of the most quietly effective scenes of the whole series. Richard fails to take back Jerusalem from Saladin and his Saracen warriors. A truce is negotiated whereby Crusaders and Christian pilgrims are allowed to visit the holy city, but Richard doesn’t go thinking that he only wants to walk into the city having taken it back from Saladin. Lying in his bed, weak from disease, he imagines one of his soldiers visiting the city. We then cut to a monologue by a Crusader describing the city. What makes this scene truly brilliant is that although we are interested in historical fiction to see how life was different in the past we are also interested in how it was similar to life now. The Crusader of the scene could be a loquacious working class man of the present day and his monologue is all the more interesting in that he describes the city in colloquial, unfussy language before ending with his disappointment that they never took it back for Christendom. Richard quietly sobs, just as heartbroken that he has let down this man as much as he has failed God. The final episodes focus on the disastrous reign of King John. By this time Louis VII has been succeeded by his much more ambitious and cunning son Philip II (Christopher Gable), who is determined to rid France of Angevin influence. John has developed a reputation for evil in popular culture and this is how he first appears in the show, a libertine coveting power to dispel his nickname of John Lackland. His brutal revenge on the young rebellious Arthur, Duke of Brittany is reminiscent of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. Gradually though John becomes more sympathetic. The collapse of the Angevin Empire had become inevitable even before his reign but naturally he gets the blame for it. Unlike his brother or father however John has a sincere love of England, and his defeat at Philip’s hands, forcing him out of France, only serves to reinforce his love of a country his ancestors regarded as a nation of serfs. The events surrounding the signing of Magna Carta also provides much intrigue. It has long been claimed that John never intended to honour the terms of the Great Charter, but The Devil’s Crown shows how the Barons had never expected him to sign anyway and, knowing this, John decides to sign to wrongfoot them.

You might think having waited so long to see The Devil’s Crown I would either be inevitably disappointed or slightly biased to believing the show is a lost classic. Truthfully, I would rank The Devil’s Crown among the very best of television dramas that were made in the period. It’s compelling, intriguing and often moving. Brian Cox himself described the show as ‘very ahead of its time’. However, there are flaws, and not just the lull in the episodes focusing on Richard which I mentioned. Memorably, all historical TV dramas during this period were shot on set, even the exterior scenes. The BBC just did not have the money to stage big battles or build convincing sets of castles and the like. It could lead to some imaginative storytelling as the sets were quite malleable. On being told that Louis VII has married Constance of Castile, Henry, then in Normandy, sees it happening before his eyes on the same set. There are downsides. For some outdoor scenes they simply paint the floor green and the walls blue. A modern audience especially might find this jarring. The Devil’s Crown may have been commissioned following the success of I Claudius, indeed there are some striking parallels between the two stories. A wise and mostly benevolent monarch Henry II/Augustus is undermined during his long reign by his scheming and cunning wife Eleanor of Aquitaine/Livia who strongly favours her son for the succession Richard/Tiberius who ultimately is more suited to soldiering than leadership and has a brief and unhappy reign. The parallels only go so far, however, as Eleanor of Aquitaine is just not as malevolent as the arch-villainess Livia. There were several historical dramas made during the period that tried to follow the I Claudius model of political intrigue and murder in a Royal Court. The Borgias and The Cleopatras were both panned for being lurid as they lacked the benevolent central character that Derek Jacobi’s Claudius provided, the stammering, much-mocked boy who grows up to become historian and Emperor. The Devil’s Crown also suffers a little in comparison to I Claudius, but ultimately it’s a drama that deserves to be judged on its own merits of which there are many. This is a fascinating rendering of a very complex and brutal period of history. I’m delighted to have seen it after first hearing of it a few years ago. It now belongs to television history. I hope that it finally reaches the wider audience it deserves.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. doc permalink
    November 5, 2015 8:31 pm

    Greta review thx

  2. August 24, 2016 9:36 pm

    I’ve been watching this series repeatedly via youtube (I probably count for about 10 or 20 views per video). I absolutely love it, and I think you’re review does capture a lot of the features with both make it a classic and possibly not as successful. One point of personal disagreement I have with you concerns the Episodes with Richard. I find Richard’s character while melancholic a lot more dynamic than I think you do. I like his episodes and think the personal issues that his character has to tackle are a good tie in to issues many people in Todays world (40 years post filming) can take lessons from.

    • August 25, 2016 12:23 pm

      Hi Bryce, thanks for commenting. Glad you liked the show so much. What an underrated gem it is. I watched it through twice and the second time I was very curious as to how I’d rate the Richard episodes. I went in with an open mind but I still didn’t like them as much because I think the show becomes much too internal at that point and it’s noticeable how things liven up again once John’s disastrous reign begins. However, I see your point that Richard’s personal issues resonate well today. He is essentially a character who wants to live his life in a way which his world won’t allow him.

  3. Rachel permalink
    December 27, 2016 3:22 am

    I totally agree that this is from the golden age of British tv. I am a huge I, Claudius fan. I actually saw the series before reading the books I’ve watched most of the mentioned series and enjoyed them all, even The Cleopatras. But The Devil’s Crown is definitely my favorite. I’ve watched it countless times. It never gets old! I actually love the cheap sets too. You made a good point about them helping the viewer’s imagination. I stumbled upon it when searching for documentaries on the Plantagenets and/or Eleanor of Aquitaine (she’s a personal hero of mine). I found the Richard episodes a little slower the first few times but now I don’t think so. Thank you for the article, there’s so little written on the series. I was born in 86 and none of my friends or family are really into England’s history during that time period, I can’t convince them to watch a 13 episode series from the 70s… So sorry if this is a little winded.

    • December 27, 2016 6:34 pm

      Hi Rachel, thanks for commenting and don’t worry about being longwinded. I’m flattered when anyone likes a post I’ve written. Yes, I think the forgotten Devil’s crown and more appreciated series like I’Claudius are just classics of their kind and the modern HBO boxsets and streaming series owe a huge debt of gratitude to them. We’re still enjoying what these series achieved forty years on. I dipped into The Cleopatras. I might give it another try.

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