Fans of Tom Hiddleston this “Henry IV Part 1” on PBS is a must-see. Hiddleston’s Prince Hal is the main focus of this tale of three Henrys: the uneasy King Henry IV (Jeremy Irons), the ambitious Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) and the reluctant Prince Hal. “Henry IV, Part 1” premieres on PBS on Friday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. on PBS (Check local listings).

The year is 1403. To put this in historical perspective Richard II of England is already dead (1400). Richard II had become king as a child (in 1377) at age ten under the regency of John of Gaunt.  John of Gaunt was the first Duke of Lancaster and the third surviving son of King Edward III of England after Edward the Black Prince (Richard II’s father) and Lionel of Antwerp.  Lionel  died in 1368, shortly after Richard was born in 1367. John of Gaunt had predeceased Richard II, but his son, Henry, Earl of Derby, the Henry of Bolingbroke, usurped the throne, bringing into question the concept of the right to rule: Was it God’s rule or man’s rules?

This is a very different England than the sunny court of Richard II. Filmed in cold bluish tones, there’s a tone of austerity and cold political strategies in the court of Henry IV. Yet before we see the court, we see the hanging flesh at the butcher’s. Then the sunny joyful face of Prince Hal walks through the streets of England, rubbing shoulders with the common folk. From animal flesh to animal desires we go. Prince Hal has come to awaken his companion, Falstaff, who lies dressed but in a deep stupor of sleep, the kind that comes after a night of heavy drinking. Next to him is a whore with her pale naked legs revealed.

Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale) is the king of his own court, one filled with dirty faced commoners and aristocrats and their hangers on slumming it. Prince Hal is both his son and his savior, his happy companion at play and his cruelest critic. Prince Hal hadn’t been a prince raised and the title weighs heavily upon him just as the crown weighs heavily on the usurper, Henry IV, and the first king of the first King of England from the Lancaster Plantagenets.

Replacing Rory Kinnear who was Bolingbroke in the previous installment “Richard II,” is Jeremy Irons. Bolingbroke is now King Henry IV, but his crown in uncomfortably heavy. Consider that Kinnear is only 35 and Irons is 65. How the crown has aged Henry in the span of three historical years! Instead of the white clothes and brightly glittering crown of “Richard II,” Henry IV wears black and his crown is tarnished and barely shines at all.

Henry IV and Prince Hal are challenged by another father-son: Northumberland and Hotspur. The father-son parallel is enriched by the casting of Joe Armstrong (familiar to British TV viewers for his work on several programs) as the son of his actual father, Alun Armstrong (also a familiar face to British TV viewers).

While director Richard Eyre shows us the grim of being a commoner, he also exposes the aristocrats as not being so far removed from their underlings, their faces muddy from battle as they are the butchers of their fellow man.

Beale won a Best Supporting Actor from BAFTA for his portrayal of Falstaff in Part 2. One can hardly wait to see how he improves upon Part 1.

While Hiddleston didn’t receive any nominations, his portrayal of Prince Hal is key to the series. Prince Hal must go from fun-loving shirker of duties to a man reluctantly accepting his role in the royal house and his performance is intelligent and moving.

“Henry IV, Part 1” is the second episode of 2012 “The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare’s History Plays” series premieres on PBS on Friday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. on PBS (Check local listings).

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