Stephen Frears on Kings, Queens and ‘catastrophic’ politicians
“You think you’ve reached the bottom and somehow the Tories manage to effortlessly make it worse.”
This observation is delivered as soon as I enter the annex of the Soho hotel where I’m to interview lauded director Stephen Frears. Here to promote his new film about finding the remains of Richard III, he’s installed himself behind a giant iMac and is following the collapse of the pound with a combination of horror and glee, something he continues to do throughout our interview.
Getting an answer out of the 81-year-old director often feels as difficult as searching for a long lost king under a Leicester car park, but every now and then he provides me with an economic update: “The pound just fell to a 40 year low!”
Dressed in a Picasso-style long sleeve breton stripe t-shirt, he could comfortably pass for two decades younger. He has a habit of talking so quietly that my dictaphone struggles to pick him up, perhaps hoping that if he doesn’t make an audible sound I might eventually get the message and leave him alone.
Over five decades he’s crafted a filmography to rival any living director, but there’s something inscrutable about his career. While some directors spend a lifetime searching for the perfect expression of themselves, creating films that bear their unmistakable mark, it’s hard to see a throughline from Dangerous Liaisons to My Beautiful Laundrette to Philomena.
“No,” Frears agrees. “Making films that way sounds very, very uninteresting.”
The Lost King tells the story of Philippa Langley, the amateur historian whose obsession with Richard III eventually led to one of the most dramatic archeological discoveries in British history. Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, it combines social realism with a plot device in which Richard himself becomes a character, appearing to Langley in full regalia and often riding a white steed.
It’s a difficult movie to pin down, part historical drama, part character study, part rom-com in which the love interest is a 500-year-dead monarch. “You mean it was too much for you?” asks Frears.
Well, no, not exactly… How would he describe it?
“I can’t answer your question – making it complex and rich is part of the job. It’s all of those things, that’s what makes it interesting. It’s a melange.”
It’s proven to be a rather controversial melange. The film portrays Leicester University, who were also involved in the dig, as dismissive and callus, mocking the eccentric historian only to jump in and take the credit at the eleventh hour. The academics involved are none too happy.
“I think guilt might have played a part there,” says Frears. “They made claims that simply don’t stand up. They say ‘we paid for it’ but they didn’t. Phillipa paid for the first two weeks of the dig, during which they found Richard III – they then paid for the third week, after Richard had been found.”
Frears didn’t meet Langley until after the film had wrapped, saying he “was making something in my imagination… I didn’t want to muck around with that”. I wonder if it was difficult making a film about a living person?
“Well, she wasn’t the queen, she couldn’t put me in prison,” he replies.
He’s referring to The Queen, the film he made with Helen Mirren in the lead role as Elizabeth II. He also made a film starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria – what is it about the royal family that keeps him coming back?
“If you’re my age you’re taught in school about the British monarchs and the British empire, although when I grew up I discovered there was a little more to it than they were telling us. I used to know the names and dates of the kings and queens of England. So my life was dominated by them and I guess by Shakespeare. I saw Richard III at Stratford when I was 13 or 14, and I remember going on a bus from school to see Laurence Olivier’s film version in Norwich – you couldn’t escape the bloody thing.”
Frears has described himself not as a monarchist but as a “queenist” – was he affected by the death of Elizabeth II?
“It’s sad when anybody dies. She seems to have been an extraordinary woman. Does that make the institution better? No. She was the only person in the institution who was interesting. She had this way of concealing herself that allowed people to project onto her.” He trails off, eyes on the iMac. “The pound’s at a record low against the dollar.”
I see. But about the queen…
“Well, she’s like my mum. She represents values that have been lost, things like decency and tolerance. If you’re my age growing up in the 1940s you always saw her opening new towns and things like that and whether she admitted it or not she must have been affected by what was going on in Britain, and what was going on was a social revolution.”
Frears is less enamoured with the current political situation, which he describes as “catastrophic”.
“You have a system where you can only end up with Liz Truss or Jeremy Corbyn. It’s ridiculous – you have the extremes at either side getting the final vote. I can see that Boris was somehow larger than all of that but he was a different sort of catastrophe. Liz Truss is quite straightforward.”
The rest of our interview reads like the quickfire round on a gameshow.
Have cultural shifts like the reexamination of the British empire changed the way you approach a project?
What’s the secret to your longevity?
“I don’t have one.”
You have worked with some of the best actors in the world, does one stand out?
Quentin Tarantino says he watches at least three films a day – does your viewing compete with that?
“No, he beats me hands down.”
Would you describe yourself as a film nerd?
What do you like to do in your spare time?
“I read a lot.”
What do you read?
“Well, right now I’m reading about the collapse of the pound.”
What part of the job do you like most?
“I like the whole thing. I like every bit of it. Well apart from this bit.”
Are there any stories you’re itching to tell?
“No, I just read the scripts.”
Why did you pick The Lost King?
“I read it and I liked it.”
I try to imagine a day in the life of Stephen Frears, sitting behind a mahogany desk reading through a heaving pile of scripts, maybe smoking a cigar.
“Your imagination is going out of control,” he chides.
This interview clearly isn’t going very well but I don’t detect any malice from Frears. I get the impression he genuinely doesn’t burden himself with introspection, that he really does just read the scripts then make the movies, then read more scripts.
And then time is somehow up on the only interview I’ve done where I’ve probably spoken more than the interviewee. He gives me a warm smile, asks me what I’m doing for the rest of the day, and then he’s staring once more into the iMac, glad to have a break from all these silly questions.