A TV drama that begins with an image of the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II and goes on to include two appearances by the ghost of Diana, Princess of Wales seems bound to shock some viewers.
Mike Bartlett’s mock-Shakespearean fantasy King Charles III – in which the current Prince of Wales finally succeeds his mother but sparks a constitutional crisis – was a long-running stage hit in London and New York, but feels even more daring on the BBC.
The broadcaster is so respectful of relations with the monarchy that it still employs a Royal Liaison Officer. Now, though, the TV version of King Charles III carries a new level of shock, after the sudden death of Tim Pigott-Smith, who played the title character on stage and screen.
The single consolation is that this great performance is preserved forever in the medium that also immortalises another of Pigott-Smith’s career stand-out roles, as the sinister military policeman, Colonel Merrick, in ITV’s 1980s Indian Raj drama The Jewel in the Crown.
“We’re still all in shock, but at least we finished it and people will be able to see that amazing performance,” says writer Mike Bartlett, who also wrote the BBC1 thriller Doctor Foster, during a round of interviews that, poignantly had been scheduled to include Pigott-Smith.
Scenes of royal funerals and coronations that seemed clearly fantastical on theatre take on an eerie realism on screen, with Beverley Minster playing Westminster Abbey and Harewood House standing in for Buckingham Palace.
“What struck me is how Tim adjusted his performance from being quick and vigorous on stage to still and reflective on screen,” says Rupert Goold, who directed both the theatre and television version for BBC2. “And Tim has natural kingly authority. When we were editing, there were profile shots your really thought should be on a coin.”
The leading man’s death adds additional emotional impact to a play that was written as a tragedy: a modern version, in verse, of Shakespeare’s tragedies about England’s kings. Like King Lear and Richard II, Charles III, as imagined by Bartlett, is threatened with losing his kingdom, while the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, like the Macbeths, have to decide how much they want power.
This Charles, says Bartlett, is “a man who has waited all his life for a job – and then it goes horribly wrong. And I thought that was the kind of situation that Shakespeare was drawn to.”
In the most audacious parallel, the tendency in Shakespearean tragedy for a dead person to turn up offering advice is honoured by Diana’s ghost, speaking prophecies to her ex-husband and sons. Although the apparition is seen at a distance – “The director of photography was resistant to even going as close as we did,” says Goold – these moments are disturbing.
So, as the BBC is traditionally deferential to Buckingham Palace, were there any difficult editorial conversations with the Corporation?” “There was one,” Goold admits. “The issue of greatest sensitivity was always how the funeral of the Queen would be presented and what that would mean for a BBC that covers such events for real.
“But we also changed one line in Diana’s prophecy about Charles as King because it somehow felt too mocking. But, given what things could have been like, the BBC was very good. And you have to remember that, even with the stage version, we’d been through long conversations with lawyers and certain actors refusing to be involved because of how it might affect their future relationship with the honours system.”
Apart from Diana’s ghost, another source of possible controversy is that, within the scheme of the play, William and Catherine are the baddies, conspiring with politicians to oppose the monarchy of Charles III.
“Are they the baddies?” queries Bartlett. “I think, within the story of the play, Catherine is doing everything she can to save the family she’s married into when her father-in-law seems to be threatening that.”
The makers of the drama accept, though, that more people are likely to be more shocked by the play on TV than in theatre, where audiences are more likely to know what to expect. “The TV audience is much bigger and broader,” says Goold. “But I hope that people who think it’s going to be anti-monarchist will watch the whole thing because I think it’s nuanced.”
Rather than advocating a Republic, Bartlett’s play is a debate about two different visions of monarchy. “A good play should be in conflict with itself,” says the writer. “It reflects a debate within me between the respect for the monarchy I was brought up with and a counter-feeling that it’s all ridiculous now.”
During the London stage runs, no Royals officially came to see the play, although a friend of Charles in the audience advised Pigott-Smith afterwards that the Prince of Wales wears a signet rather than wedding ring.
Pigott-Smith and Goold both subsequently visited Buckingham Palace on state business, when they received honours for services to drama: Pigott-Smith was given his OBE by Prince William, while Goold’s CBE was pinned on by Prince Charles. The play on which they collaborated does not seem to have been mentioned on either occasion…