Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent
Sun, 28 August 2022 at 9:00 am
King Richard III did not deserve his evil reputation, yet battles waged in his name have raged on long after his death more than five centuries ago at the Battle of Bosworth. Now, on the eve of the premiere of a starry British film about the amazing discovery of his remains under a Leicester car park, the great “lost king” of England is again the subject of conflict.
The group of expert archaeologists who retrieved his bones from the hidden ruins of the Greyfriars church 10 years ago last week, and who skilfully proved who he was, are this weekend fighting to stop their side of the story being buried for ever. They fear that the “pretty reckless” new film, The Lost King, will reduce their role in the extraordinary historical find.
One member of the University of Leicester team, Professor Turi King, carried out key DNA studies, providing conclusive evidence and spending hours in the laboratory.
“I had to start from scratch, both on the historic work and the modern-day samples from Richard’s living relatives,” said the Canadian-British geneticist.
“We are all so surprised that the filmmakers didn’t check with us. I showed their location scout around and offered to explain, as did the university, but no one took us up.”
Since his death, Richard III’s defenders, known as Ricardians, have argued that he was never the scheming malcontent that his influential detractors, such as Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare, portrayed. Neither was he the murderer of “the princes in the tower”.
Historians also disagreed over the fate of his missing corpse: had it been hastily interred after the humiliation of a public parade or thrown into the nearby River Soar? And even when his skeleton was eventually found, the citizens of Leicester and York clashed over where he should be laid to rest.
With the premiere of The Lost King at the Toronto film festival next month, the monarch is once again caught up in controversy. A quirky drama, it is co-written by Steve Coogan, who also stars as the husband of Philippa Langley, the woman behind the campaign to look for Richard Plantagenet under the asphalt.
Langley, played by Sally Hawkins in the film, is a passionate member of the Richard III Society and the woman who persuaded the local council and the University of Leicester to start the dig. All agree she is the heart of the story, but the historians and archaeologists who carried out the work fear the acclaimed team making the film, including co-screenwriter Jeff Pope and director Stephen Frears, have now cast them all as obstacles, rather than as Langley’s supporters.
They are concerned that Langley, motivated by the belief that she was cut out by the team, has told the film-makers an incomplete version of the story.
King, who worked on the dig with the renowned lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, said Langley was inspirational but did not have the expertise to lead them. “Everyone brought something to the table, that was what was so nice,” she said. “We tried to keep Philippa involved all the time. Why wouldn’t we? We bent over backwards, in fact.”
What is more, Richard Taylor, the former deputy registrar at Leicester University, said this weekend that he suspects the film does not pay due respect to the late David Baldwin, one of the first academics to pinpoint the car park as a potential burial site in the mid-1980s.
Taylor, who now works at Loughborough University, first told the world that Richard III had been found at the famous press conference in February 2013 and he is upset the film proclaims itself “the true story”.
“We all recognise it would not have happened without the tireless enthusiasm of Philippa, but equally it would not have happened without the university team,” he said. “Tension makes a good story but it doesn’t necessarily make it true. If you are going to portray real people, at least involve them. It strikes me as pretty reckless.”
Taylor is also “frustrated” that his screen character, played by Lee Ingleby, represents the academic bureaucracy that Langley felt stood in her way. The film’s trailer shows him making fun of her intuition about where Richard lay.
“I’m surprised to be the villain of the piece. There’s dialogue in there that not only didn’t happen that way, but didn’t happen at all,” he said. “We always included her, and gave out her number to the press.”
Speaking to the Guardian last week, Langley said she had felt “diminished” by the university academics and by the archaeologists on the dig: “I was sidelined and marginalised. I was hugely vulnerable. Because I’m not a doctor. I’m not a professor. But in the end, I came to find my voice.”
Langley also claims she funded much of the early work. This point is disputed by King, who says that the university made the first major payment and underwrote the dig research, whereupon the council joined in.
Excavation director Mathew Morris, portrayed in the film by Alasdair Hankinson, said this weekend: “It was always going to be Philippa’s story, but my big concern is how we are shown. It is unfair if it doesn’t show our partnership with her.”
The Lost King, which reunites the makers of the award-winning Philomena, opens in British cinemas on 7 October and Australian cinemas on 26 December.
The Leicester University academics have been invited to a screening in London next week.
This weekend the film producers said they are “fascinated” to learn of the interest of so many of those associated with the story, “Especially as no one has yet seen the film”. They added that: “Quite simply, without the singleminded and unwavering determination of Philippa Langley, a smart, committed amateur historian, the remains of King Richard III would still be undiscovered.”
Ahead of the release of the film, an exhibition at London’s Wallace Collection opens next week. The Lost King, Imagining Richard III