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Radio 4Extra: Vivat Rex

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Paula McDonnell 16:27, Friday, 27 April 2012

Editor's note: Vivat Rex is an epic 26 part drama following the English Crown from Edward II's accession in 1307 to the birth of Elizabeth I. It is told through the adapted works of Shakespeare, Marlowe and other playwrights of the period. Narrated by Richard Burton, it has a celebrated cast including John Hurt, Michael Redgrave and Derek Jacobi. The programme starts Monday at 10am on Radio Extra. PMcD.

John Burton


I was surprised and delighted when I was informed that VIVAT REX was to be re-broadcast on Radio 4 Extra.  Ever since it first went out in 1977 I had hoped that one day it might have another airing and now, after 35 years, this is finally happening.

Vivat Rex was originally broadcast to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the rebroadcast is to mark her Diamond Jubilee.  Basically it is a dramatic chronicle in 26 episodes of 225 years of the history of the crown by Shakespeare, Marlowe and other Elizabethan playwrights. However, in Vivat Rex the plays were not be performed as single entities but they were to be woven into a continuous series covering the lives of eleven monarchs stretching from Edward II to Henry VIII.  An episode would often end mid-way through a play or even combine two plays by different writers. 

Once the idea had been agreed, together with my co-director, the late Gerry Jones, work started on the complex process of adapting and shaping the original texts so that we could create the 26 episodes. This involved cutting and pruning, reshaping, amalgamating smaller characters and providing cliff-hangers at the end of each episode. Of course, our plan was to hide the joins between the different playwrights as well as between our own attempts at writing some verse to fill in gaps in the story or to explain some highly visual moment to the listener. We quickly realised that the series needed a storyteller or chronicler to provide continuity between episodes and to also set the scene as well as to provide essential background information. 

Richard Burton was perfect for the role.  He had always retained a deep affection and respect for radio drama and seemed genuinely delighted to be back in Broadcasting House.  I can still remember the excitement in the studio when he began recording his narrations.  Cigarette in hand, script in front of him, he began with his unique, hypnotic, lilting voice to take us into the world of Edward II.  I only wish that he fulfilled his life-long ambition to play King Lear but it was not to be.

Even as the editorial work was progressing on the scripts, Gerry and I were also deeply involved with the casting, commissioning the music, providing text for an accompanying booklet, approving a poster and agreeing on the design for a crown, the symbol of the series. In this we were given unstinting support by Jean Bower, Eva Skorski and Jeni Ktori. We were a small team but we all committed to the concept and wanted to assemble the finest casts we could (within budget limits of course).  Looking back now over 35 years, we were privileged to have worked with so many of the leading actors of the day. 

I was particularly pleased that Peggy Ashcroft agreed to play Queen Margaret, a role she had created in the RSC’s legendary Wars of the Roses in which I had been involved as an assistant director and actor.  I had never forgotten her performance and hoped she might agree, fourteen years later, to recreate the role.  She did and now we can hear her again especially in the harrowing scene where she taunts the Duke of York with a napkin soaked with his son’s blood.

Vivat Rex made considerable demands on the technical team assigned to the series.  They went on various trips to record among other things charging horses, battle sequences, church bells etc and in the studio they used their skill and imagination to create all manner of effects from a red hot poker to countless decapitations (a cabbage, a knife and a cup of water, for the spurting blood).  Even today some of these effects still retain their gruesome impact.

The other main ingredient in the Vivat Rex mix was the music and here Christopher Whelen really came up trumps creating a truly magnificent score with its superb opening call across the centuries and its theme for each monarch. 

Writing about and recording some interviews for this repeat of Vivat Rex has revived so many memories for me.  I especially want to pay tribute to my friend and colleague, Gerry Jones, who co-directed the series and was outstanding throughout.  Vivat Rex occupied a year of our lives and I think it remains the biggest series ever broadcast by radio drama.  Looking back I am also amazed that, during this time, my wife gave birth to our fourth child! 


Martin Jenkins is Producer and Director of Vivat Rex

Find out more about Vivat Rex on Radio 4Extra


  • Comment number 1.

    How marvellous that Vivat Rex is being broadcast again. I heard the first broadcast, every episode, back in 197? I was a young man who wanted to start to appreciate Shakespeare and improve his very limited knowledge of British History. Vivat Rex was a great way to do that. I hope there will be young people in 2012 who find VR to be the same route in as I did. I particularly remember the ominous sound of Henry V bouncing the tennis balls, you could tell from the way they bounced that he wasn't happy. And Richard Burton brings it all together with that wonderful voice. Vivat, Vivat, Vivat Rex!

  • Comment number 2.

    Is there any possibility that the booklet which was published for the original broadcast could be put up on the website? I found it very useful.

  • Comment number 3.

    I've been waiting a long time for a Vivat Rex rebroadcast. I have fond memories listening to it whilst working away at my University revision at home and at Cambridge. I even, very courageously, wrote away for the booklet which I've dug out - the first time I ever sent away for anything!

    Vivat Rex encouraged an interest in History - which as a 'uncultured' scientist I was not supposed to possess - which has lasted. Hearing the history was, and is, much more fun that reading it...the Falstaff episode, for example, brings things radically to life.

    Listening again, I'm struck by the actoral fire-power exhibited...I didn't appreciate that when younger, but now, WOW.



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