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War over the hunt for Richard III

The movie, The Lost King, is about the discovery of Richard III’s (portrayed by Harry Lloyd, pictured) bones underneath a car park in Leicester in 2012

When Richard Taylor was invited to a special screening of a film about the greatest moment of his life — aside from the birth of his two children — he had butterflies in his stomach.

The movie, The Lost King, about the discovery of Richard III’s bones underneath a car park in Leicester in 2012, would surely showcase the work that he and his fellow academics at the city’s university had undertaken — archaeological, scientific and historical endeavours that earned them plaudits the world over.

As deputy registrar at the university, the 49-year-old had been key to the planning and logistical minutiae of the operation. His kids would be proud of him.

Instead, he was in shock as he emerged from the screening. Rather than the mild-mannered and softly-spoken academic he is, the film portrays him as a devious and Machiavellian sexist who belittles women, lies and mocks the disabled.

And rather than the liberal, professional institution that he knew, the university is shown as a stuffy and pompous haven for intransigent male bullies.

The movie, The Lost King, is about the discovery of Richard III’s (portrayed by Harry Lloyd, pictured) bones underneath a car park in Leicester in 2012

The movie, The Lost King, is about the discovery of Richard III’s (portrayed by Harry Lloyd, pictured) bones underneath a car park in Leicester in 2012

Philippa Langley is played by Sally Hawkins (left), while Steve Coogan (right) is one of the writers alongside Jeff Pope. Coogan and Pope claimed the film was accurate and truthful

Philippa Langley is played by Sally Hawkins (left), while Steve Coogan (right) is one of the writers alongside Jeff Pope. Coogan and Pope claimed the film was accurate and truthful

The former burial place of Richard III, a medieval monastic site that now lies under a car park in Leicester

The former burial place of Richard III, a medieval monastic site that now lies under a car park in Leicester

‘It was horrendous — I was completely shell-shocked,’ he says. ‘They have portrayed me as a patronising misogynist who makes fun of Richard III’s curvature of the spine. They have presented the university as being sexist, male‑dominated and dismissive of women.

‘And the really sad thing is that in order to make that narrative work, they have airbrushed out the senior and brilliant female academics who worked on the project.’

‘They’ are the writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, director Stephen Frears and the production companies behind the movie, which include BBC Film and Baby Cow Productions — the entity founded by Coogan and in which the BBC took a majority stake in 2016.

The film, which premiered in the UK yesterday, is based on the remarkable and inspiring story of Philippa Langley, 60, a film-maker and amateur historian who became obsessed with finding the remains of Richard III after taking her son to see Shakespeare’s play about the monarch, which he was studying for his O-levels.

What is true about the film is that Langley spent almost a decade pulling together existing research and rallying academics, council officials and fellow supporters of Richard Plantagenet to the cause of digging up the king whose grave had been thought lost for ever.

Her achievement is astounding and will rightly go down in history.

Richard had been fatally wounded on August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth during a mounted cavalry charge against Henry Tudor. If successful, the battle would have been won. Instead, Richard was surrounded by Tudor soldiers and attacked from all sides.

For years, historians had disagreed over what then happened to his body. Some wrongly claimed it had been dumped in the River Soar, others that it had been hastily interred in the friary of Grey Friars in what is now Leicester city centre (and they were right).

The idea that Richard was under town centre Tarmac wasn’t new. ‘The suspicion had been there since the 1980s, but we can’t just go digging stuff up wherever we think there might be a body of historical interest,’ one archaeologist told me.

But Langley wanted to do precisely that. Everyone involved in the project agrees that without her verve and dedication in persuading Leicester City Council to support the project, in bringing the archaeologists along with her and raising most of the money for the dig, Richard’s bones would never have been found.

According to Coogan, Pope and Frears in an interview with the entertainment website Collider at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, Langley (played by Sally Hawkins) is delighted with the movie.

Furthermore, Coogan and Pope claimed the film was accurate and truthful. Coogan adds that he and Pope consider there is ‘a sort of ethical responsibility’ that ‘all the fundamental truths of the film are intact and unassailable’.

However, the academics and others involved say some of the film bears no relation to the truth, and key parts of it contain such apparently deliberate falsehoods that at least one of them has consulted libel lawyers.

One of the film’s worst inaccuracies has undermined the reputation of the lead archaeologist on the dig, Dr Richard Buckley, 64.

The movie portrays him as being dismissive of Langley and of refusing to help her, only agreeing to become involved when his department is threatened with closure and he faces losing his job; he sees the project as a way of saving his own skin.

But this simply isn’t true.

Buckley’s job was never under threat and his department wasn’t facing closure. He actually worked for a commercial arm of the university called University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), which undertook commercial digs all over the country. ULAS was thriving and did not rely on funding from the university.

Neither did Buckley dismiss Langley out of hand. All the academics involved in the project say he was enthusiastic from the start.

I have seen emails between Buckley and Langley from the days and weeks after their first contact and his are full of ideas, suggestions, co-operation and positivity. Buckley did express caution over the odds of success, but he signed up to the project nonetheless.

He has not seen the film, but his role has been described to him by colleagues who have. He says his character as described (and played by Mark Addy) sounds ‘monstrous’.

‘It is billed as being the true story when clearly a lot of it just isn’t true,’ he says. ‘Certainly, there is no truth to our department being under threat of closure or my job being on the line or anything like that. That was just nonsense.

‘As archaeologists, we were interested in the archaeology and working as a team. And Philippa was part of that team. I’m very disappointed because I thought we worked together really well.’

The portrayal of deputy registrar Taylor, played by Lee Ingleby, is particularly cruel. He is shown as a slick marketing man who undermines Langley at every step in order to grab the limelight for the university.

In reality, credit was shared — though she has always claimed she was ‘sidelined’.

‘My relationship with Philippa was a good one,’ says Taylor. ‘I still have extremely constructive and warm correspondence between the two of us from the time.

‘To see myself portrayed as undermining her, being a sexist, patronising bully and mocking disability is horrendous and utterly false.

‘I had the utmost respect for Philippa. At the time, my daughter, Maya, was eight years old and was doing a school project on the Tudors. I told her I was very proud to be working with someone who was an expert on them, and I suggested she email Philippa — and Philippa helped her.

‘Would I have done that, and would she have responded, if we didn’t have such a good relationship?’

Taylor is so upset by his portrayal that he has called in libel lawyers. ‘I don’t want money,’ he says, ‘but I would like them to cut the scene where my character is making fun of Richard’s disability, and I would like something in the film credits to say that while this character bears my name, it is not based on me.’

I spoke to the Leicester academics who have been given a screening of The Lost King, and all said Taylor and Buckley were decent, well‑respected men and nothing like their characters in the film. They also confirmed that Buckley’s unit was never at risk of closure, and that Taylor is the antithesis of a sexist bully.

The team are baffled as to why the film-makers, and Langley in particular, have taken against them to such an extent. In a recent interview in the Guardian, Langley said they had left her feeling ‘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.’

The academics say they tried to include her in each part of the process — but there is only so much someone who is not trained can do on an archaeological dig and in the subsequent scientific analyses. Certainly, her brilliant contribution is widely credited on the university website.

Nevertheless, the film shows Langley being excluded from the press conference which announced that the bones were, indeed, Richard’s. Again, this is not true.

There were two major press conferences: one to announce the discovery of bones in September 2012, and another to confirm their identity in February 2013, and she spoke at both of them. She can be seen on YouTube speaking on a panel in the first one, and in the second she gives a talk near the 18-minute mark.

I posed questions to the film companies, Coogan, Pope and Langley through Freuds, the PR firm handling the launch.

In particular, I wanted to know why the writers’ ‘ethical responsibility’ to find the truth had led to them not engaging with the university or Richard Taylor. Pope met Buckley once but no other members of the team were approached.

They responded: ‘The writers did not consult with Richard Taylor because the version of events surrounding the discovery of the remains of Richard III as presented by [him] and the University of Leicester, both at the time of the dig and in the subsequent ten years, has been extensively documented in books, articles, presentations, broadcasts, etc.

‘The university also wrote to the film-makers in May 2021 setting out in detail their version of events and have created podcasts over the intervening months repeating their version of events.’

I was granted an interview with Pope and asked whether he thought the film’s portrayal of Taylor was fair. He said he thought it was both fair and truthful. I asked whether he had ever met Taylor or spoken to him. The answer to each question was ‘No’.

I asked whether two scenes in the film relating to the re-burial of Richard III — and which portray Taylor in a negative light — were accurate and fair. Pope said they were.

However, David Monteith, the Dean of Leicester Cathedral, who has seen the film, said that in real life Taylor wasn’t involved in either — in fact, he had left Leicester the year before to take up a post at another university.

Monteith told me: ‘It’s really unfortunate that this has happened to Richard Taylor. He is a person of huge integrity and honour, and he has been unfairly characterised.

‘I would say two things to the film-makers. One, don’t claim this as the truth. And two, when you make pieces based on real events, there needs to be a greater level of respect.’

When I put this to Pope, he said: ‘I’m a Spurs supporter and what you’ve done is speak to a load of Arsenal supporters, but you haven’t spoken to any Spurs fans.’

This is a reference to my not having interviewed him, Coogan or Langley, yet I requested interviews with them all in early July, asking first that I be allowed to see the film. In all, I asked Freuds PR for a screening ten times over almost three months, but none was forthcoming.

At the tenth time of asking, I was told I could see it, but only after this article was published. As a result, it is based on interviews with journalists and academics who have seen the film.

Taylor and his colleagues argue that in order to present the university as male and sexist, the film-makers have airbrushed out some of the lead women on the Richard III project.

These include Professor Sarah Hainsworth, senior forensics engineer, Professor Turi King, who led the genetic analysis, and Professor Lin Foxhall, who was head of the university’s archaeology department. None are in the film.

Through Freuds, the film-makers said: ‘Turi King and Sarah Hainsworth had nothing to do with the search for or discovery of the remains of Richard III. They analysed the DNA of the remains of Richard III once they had been discovered — that is not what the film is about.’

Hainsworth told me: ‘Richard Taylor is a model professional. I worked closely with him as part of the Richard III team and have always been struck by his integrity. He has always maintained the highest standards of honour and decency.’

Foxhall said: ‘As head of the archaeology department, I worked very closely with Richard Taylor and Richard Buckley. They are both consummate professionals and the loveliest men to work with. Richard Buckley worked with Philippa and included her at every step of the way. We couldn’t have been more cooperative.’

Mathew Morris, excavation director of the dig, who has seen the film, told me: ‘The way Richard Taylor is depicted in it is very disappointing as he was Philippa’s biggest supporter.

‘To suggest the university didn’t listen to her is untrue. She got the

project done precisely because the university did listen to her, and support her, and underwrote a large amount of the cost which enabled her to go ahead with her fundraising.’

A spokesperson for the university said: ‘We do feel the portrayal of the University of Leicester’s role in the project is far removed from the accurate work that took place.

‘We worked closely with Philippa Langley throughout the project, and she was not sidelined by the university. Indeed, she formed part of the team interview panel for every single press conference connected to the king.’

What should have represented a triumph for the hard-working academics from the University of Leicester’s Richard III project has left them feeling cold and disappointed.

Two weeks ago, Richard Taylor says he sent a letter to Baby Cow Productions, of which Coogan is creative director, and asked him to intervene. I have seen the letter and it strikes a desperate chord.

To date, Taylor hasn’t had a reply. I asked the film-makers whether he could expect one. They, however, have insisted that Coogan had not received a letter, adding: ‘We do not believe there are errors to be corrected.’

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