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Benedict Cumberbatch on The Hollow Crown, bloody warfare and discovering he's Richard III's cousin

The actor and his co-stars Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Dunbar, talk Kings, medieval courts and dying for power in the BBC2 adaptation of Shakespeare's history play...

Published: Saturday, 14th May 2016 at 7:00 am

The war scenes recreated for Hollow Crown are big on bloody realism, as evidenced by the gallons of fake gore – silicone wax for clotted blood, a sugar compound for the runny stuff - laid in at The Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex, where the Battle of St Albans ( Henry VI, Part II) is in full cry. There’s also a state-of-the-art armoury doing brisk business as iron-clad warriors limp off set in various states of disrepair.

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“Most of the actors on this production wanted to do their own stunts, “ says armourer Hamish Macleod, “and they’ve been working in horrific conditions; we’ve staged battles in nine inches of mud, with torrential rainstorms crashing down. We’ve had to develop an armour system that can take that kind of punishment, but when it gets too much, we’d rather the armour broke than the actor, so we’ve got our forge going here for running repairs. “

In the thick of the fighting, barely visible in a miasma of battlefield smoke, Adrian Dunbar, who plays Richard Plantagenet, is taking chunks out of the enemy with a broadsword.

“You’ve got the armour and everything on, and you think ‘this is going to be great’” says the Line of Duty star. “Then they give you a sword, and you think ‘ah, it’s not too bad.’ And after ten minutes you’re just standing there thinking ‘Please, I can’t be doing this all day. I mean, I really don’t know how people sustained themselves in real battles. Someone would just come along and slaughter you because you’d be too tired to lift a sword.”

Plantagenet, who defeated the Lancastrian forces at St Albans in 1455, is the great king England never had, says Dunbar: “I‘d say he presents the same qualities that Geoffrey Boycott would present today. He’s a Yorkshireman, he calls a spade a spade and he gets on with things. His world is in a state of flux, no one is secure, people are being killed right, left and centre. Someone, somewhere, has got to sort it out, and, in this story at least, Plantagenet did his best.

“We have a tendency to call primitive people ‘noble savages’. I think we could turn that around and call the guys in our story savage nobles. They had to be savage; life expectancy was very short, you were married as a teenager, had children by the time you were twenty, so life was a huge rush, and I think these films really get that point across.”

Above all for Dunbar, The Hollow Crown tells a fabulous story. “It’s got everything- battles, power being wrested from people, witchcraft – it’s the proper game of thrones. And I would see people being able to ‘get it’, because of that. I think there are a lot of young people, in particular, who watch Game of Thrones, or who are playing games that exist in the same kind of territory, so these plays won’t be as alien to them now, as they might have been to audiences watching 30 or 40 years ago.”

Certainly Sophie Okonedo’s Margaret of Anjou fits the fantasy genre; in the course of The Hollow Crown, Margaret, the wife of Henry VI, is required to age from fairy-tale princess, to warrior queen and , ultimately, wild-eyed prophetess. It’s a tour de force for the star of Criminal Justice and Undercover. “We haven’t been shooting in chronological order, so one day I’m a young girl, the next I’m an old hag,“ she explains. I did a lot of preparation in my head, so that when I come to a particular scene, I can sort of remember where I am at, emotionally, and then I just think young or think older – I don’t do funny voices or anything. And, hopefully, it just kind of happens. “

Okonedo is equally phlegamatic about the byzantine wranglings of the medieval court. “Margaret thinks her lot have a divine right to the throne, and the others are scumbags. She loves hard and she lives hard, and, a lot of the time, her fantastic energy is channelled into violence. Maybe if she was around today, she’d have gone into politics.”

Everyone is keen to point out contemporary parallels, but six hours of late Elizabethan drama is high-risk programming. Can The Hollow Crown reach out to viewers across four centuries? Benedict Cumberbatch is in no doubt that it can.

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“We are living through a golden era of television. To marry the talent in film with the bedrock of all drama in this country, in the shape of Shakespeare, will bring a lot of new eyes to this material. If the audience has half as much fun watching it, as we have had playing it, it will be well worth tuning in for.”

The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Part II is on Saturday 14th May at 9pm on BBC2 (Sunday 10pm in Wales)

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