Blame Wallace and Gromit! This week’s news about the latest film from the plasticine national treasures made me very happy – I am a lifelong fan – but keeping with the Jubilee theme, I started thinking about British royalty on the screen.
It’s no surprise that film-makers love the English/British monarchy. The opportunities are endless – larger-than- life characters, some of whom actually wear the crown: scandal: intrigue and relinquished thrones, for a variety of reasons, all make for colourful, engaging drama. And, if the words ‘historical’ and ‘accuracy’ aren’t necessarily synonymous, a little artistic licence can be forgiven.
Easily the most colourful dynasty was the Tudors, dominated by the much-married Henry VIII and his second daughter, Elizabeth I. Inevitably, they are the two English monarchs most frequently portrayed on the big screen. Henry’s many outings started with Charles Laughton’s chicken bone hurling portrayal back in 1933, followed by interpretations by the likes of Richard Burton, Eric Bana, Keith Michell and even Sid James. In Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons (1966) Robert Shaw plays him as a noisy, overgrown spoilt child and in the context of the film, he is very much second fiddle to Paul Scofield’s Sir Thomas More. But there is no doubt that he is the instigator of the drama. It may be showing its age, but this is still a gripping drama that, mainly thanks to Scofield’s Oscar-winning performance, has achieved classic status.
Elizabeth I has also proved to be a meaty part, attracting top names like Bette Davis, Jean Simmons, Glenda Jackson and Dame Judi Dench. Her most recent manifestation, however, as played by Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998), is probably the most memorable and best. She is unforgettable as the young princess who becomes an insecure queen and then transforms herself into an earthly version of the Virgin Mary to take a firm grip on her throne. The character of her elder sister, Queen Mary, also makes one of her rare appearances on film – and Kathy Burke shows just how good a straight actress she is.
But the Tudors don’t have it all their own way in the cinema. Medieval monarchs have had their day too – Patrick McGoohan’s cold-blooded Edward I in Braveheart for one – although his predecessor, Henry II, has made a bigger impact thanks to Peter O’Toole. As the young Henry in Becket (with Richard Burton in the title role), he relishes all the privileges his status has to offer but is confronted by his best friend’s defiance and greater popularity. Four years later, he plays a roaring, grizzled, aging Henry in The Lion In Winter (1968), battling against both his wife and three sons, two of whom (Richard – an early role for Anthony Hopkins – and John) go on to succeed him. O’Toole’s performance towers over the casts of both films, even though they are top-drawer, and watching the two movies in succession is a fascinating opportunity to follow his character’s development.
Our longest-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, has only had a few cinematic outings, the best of which is Mrs Brown (1997) the story of the Queen’s relationship with her servant John Brown, sensitively played by Dame Judi Dench (a Queen yet again!) and Billy Connolly respectively. More recently, Emily Blunt gave us a much younger version of the Queen in Young Victoria (2009), showing that the monarch could be amused.
The current House of Windsor is no stranger to the big screen, with a noticeable increase in film portrayals in recent years. Helen Mirren was masterly in the title role of The Queen (2006), a film that was better-suited to the small screen, but it was Colin Firth’s sympathetic portrayal of George VI’s attempts to overcome his stutter in The King’s Speech (2011) that really caught the public imagination. He and co-star Geoffrey Rush as speech therapist Lionel Logue made a great on-screen partnership – and, of course, Firth’s character wasn’t the only monarch in the story. His brother David, latterly Edward VIII, was played by Guy Pearce, and there were even some early glimpses of the young Elizabeth II.
These, of course, are not the only monarchs to make it onto the screen. Think of Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (the Third) in 1994 and Alec Guinness who lost his head as Charles I, courtesy of Richard Harris in the title role of Cromwell (1970). So, if contemporary pageantry isn’t your thing come June, you could still enjoy the celebrations by taking in some history and enjoying one or two good films instead.
A podcast version of this article is now available to download at: http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Show/audio/5984