The rise of the political biopic

Why do we want to see our political figures on the big screen?

Political biopics have always been popular. The past two decades has seen film chronicle the lives of President Kennedy in JFK, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and human rights leader Malcolm Little in Malcolm X, among countless others.

In an age of political dissent and dissatisfaction with governments world-wide, the political biopic is flourishing. Already released this year is J. Edgar, the biopic of the first head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Next year will also see the release of the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady and two major presidential biopics: Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, and Hyde Park on Hudson, starring Bill Murray as Franklin D Roosevelt.

Aside from the fact that politics makes for gripping drama, why is looking to history's iconic leaders becoming so popular? Biopics are not a source of political truth - they often obscure elements of history, ignore social relationships and distort important facts. The truth is subject to the imagination and artistic direction of the screenwriter, the actors and the director. In many cases, as film critic Ronald Bergan points out, the stars of political biopics "have substituted their own personalities for those of the persons portrayed".

Political biopics must tread carefully. There is the danger that a two hour film makes a bloated attempt to pin the protagonist to the psychiatrist's couch or tries to unearth a childhood trauma in an attempt to reveal some sort of psychological epiphany. In an effort to avoid this, Hyde Park on Hudson is instead told through the eyes of Daisy Suckley, Roosevelt's distant cousin and confidante.

They are also at risk of trying to cram as many details and events of the person's life into the film as possible, resulting in a directionless and uninspiring film. It is unnecessary and frankly rather boring to watch someone's life unfold from cradle to grave - famous or not. Frost/Nixon avoided this pitfall by only focussing on the post-Watergate interview given by the disgraced president, rather than rehashing his whole presidency or, indeed, his entire life. Similarly, Spielberg's Lincoln will focus on the final few months of Abraham Lincoln's life.

A good political biopic must also avoid glorifying the protagonist and ignoring their flaws and weaknesses. The key to the success of a political biopic lies in its ability to portray a humanised version of a seemingly stoical political figure. Despite Meryl Streep's storming performance as Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she is arguably too likeable in comparison to the lady herself. In addition, biopics that portray the protagonist as merely fulfilling their destiny are equally unappealing. All men and women are mortal and fallible and a biopic that implies someone is otherwise is both unrealistic and trite.

However, many biopics do the opposite and instead paint the political figure as a monster - a caricature of themselves. Oliver Stone's George W Bush biopic W does just that. Granted, he may be one of America's most unpopular presidents as a result of the war in Iraq, and has made more gaffes than Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry, but the soap opera-like film glosses over Bush's immense popularity when he first entered office. Perhaps because of the lack of aesthetic distance due to Bush being an incumbent president at the time of the film's making, Stone chose to capitalise on the mood of the nation and paint Bush as totally one-dimensional with a complete lack of self-understanding.

Far from revealing a benign truth, a political biopic should seek to provide intimate insight into a real human being. Their surge in popularity is arguably a reflection of society's desire to see our political figures in real terms and thus avoid the tendency to label them as simply good or bad; wrong or right. Frank Cottrell Boyce, the British screenwriter responsible for 24 Hour Party People, sums it up nicely: "It's important for biopics to challenge the idea that there's a fixed interpretation. There might be a definitive truth about the partition of Poland, but not about a human being."

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BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown and the tricky question of staging the Henry VI plays

The War of the Roses plays are great crowd-pleasing popular hits. So why are adaptations so hard to get right?

This week sees the arrival of the second series of BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown, subtitled “The Wars of the Roses”. It’s nearly four years since the first, commissioned and screened as part of the “Cultural Olympiad” that ran in parallel with the London Olympics. Both series were executive produced by Oscar winner and James Bond director Sam Mendes, but largely directed by people who chiefly work in theatre, rather than television or film. The 2012 run won four Baftas, including for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale’s performances.

The plays that comprised series one (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) are universally acknowledged to be a prequel tetralogy to four plays from earlier in Shakespeare’s career, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. It’s these four later-set, earlier-written plays that are being adapted into the three episodes of the second series.

Of these plays, Richard III, twice made into successful and important British films, is by far the most famous and frequently performed, attracting star names like Martin Freeman and Ralph Fiennes to London stage productions in the last three years alone. Indeed, its title character is so important in British culture it's hard to tell where the historical figure ends and Shakespeare’s character begins, as discussion surrounding that King’s reinternment in 2015 demonstrated.

The least well-known of the plays is Henry VI Part 1. The initial commissioning announcement for this series implied the first episode would consist of Part 1, with the second conflating Part 2 and Part 3. While believable in terms of the content of the plays, it’s not practical in terms of their respective lengths, and the first episode covers both Part 1 and Part 2.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is Henry VI Part 1 performed least of these history plays, it’s even less often performed in full. The first recorded production after Shakespeare’s own lifetime was on 13th March 1788 in Covent Garden: a good 170 years after the author’s death. The next was when Sir Frank Benson staged it in 1906, another century-and-change later. After those gaps, the mere 47 years until the next production, at Birmingham Rep in 1953 (starring Judi Dench as Joan of Arc), is nothing. For the first time in nearly 400 years it was possible for someone to have seen two productions of the whole play in one lifetime. I wonder if anyone did?

Next was Terry Hands’ 1977 RSC production (with Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret and Alan Howard as the King – the actors saw their characters’ marriage’s foundation as “bondage in the chapel”) followed by another RSC production in 2000 (which has been revived more than once since) and one at The Globe in 2012/13.

The plays that make up The Hollow Crown series two work less effectively than those that formed series one when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do. Even the often-performed Richard III works better with the Henry VI plays behind it: The Hollow Crown’s Richard, Benedict Cumberbatch, has noted that you really need the Henry VI plays to understand the Richard who comes on stage and announces a winter of discontent, and both cinema versions incorporate pieces of Henry VI Part 3 to set the scene.

Accordingly then, a few scenes from Henry VI Part 1 are often excerpted and combined with Part 2 to create a composite play even in ‘Complete’ stage runs of Shakespeare’s Histories (e.g. the RSC in 1963 or Michael Bogdanov’s radical 1980s productions). One such scene is the moment when the various nobles pick either white or red roses from a bush to indicate their respective loyalties (while not the origin of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses”, this scene is what prompted Sir Walter Scott to coin it). The Red Rose of Lancaster, unlike the White Rose of York, is not contemporary to this stage of the conflict, being invented by Henry VII after his victory in 1485.

Other scenes, such as the funeral of Henry V or Plantagenet having his rights to the Crown explained to him, almost always make it through. Mostly, though, the play is dumped, much if not all of the material featuring Joan of Arc removed due to concerns about her portrayal as a witch. These traditionally came from a religious, rather than a feministic perspective, particularly in the years around Joan canonisation in 1920. Although Shakespeare must get points for having the play’s Dauphin predict that La Pucelle would one day be a Saint.

The Hollow Crown’s director/adapter Dominic Cooke has kept much of the Joan of Arc subplot, but interestingly cut the sub-plot featuring the peasant rebel and pretender Jack Cade, which forms a fair chunk of Henry VI Part 2. This is usually included, as it’s considered an important counterpoint to the aristocratic rebellion happening elsewhere in the play.

Almost always lost are the scenes featuring the English soldier Talbot (played in The Hollow Crown by Philip Glenister), usually because someone involved in the production considers the rhyme scheme in which they are written to be lacking. In context, this is rather odd, as not only was Henry VI Part 1 a massive hit when originally performed, but Talbot was regarded as the play’s most notable and successful element.   

For much of Shakespeare’s career he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (after 1603 renamed The King’s Men) the theatrical company for which he acted and wrote, in which he owned a one-eighth share, and which performed, over the years, at various venues across London built or owned by Shakespeare’s fellow actor, Richard Burbage, and/or Burbage’s brother Cuthbert or their Father, James.

Very few records related to this company survive. Earlier in his career, however, Shakespeare wrote for a variety of companies, including for those performing in venues owned and run by Philip Henslowe, the bear-baiter, financier, social climber and public official. Extensive papers related to Henslowe’s business dealings were deposited in the library of Dulwich College, the then poor, now private, school founded by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Ned Alleyn. From these we learn that a play “Harey Vj” was performed on 2nd March 1592 (Henslowe’s spelling is non-standard, perhaps eccentric even in the 1590s: at one point he renders Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as “Titus &ondronicus”, something which has always given me great joy.) “Harey” or Henry, was  marked “ne”, usually taken to indicate that the play was new, and the box office takings are indicative of a premiere: that that afternoon it took 3s 16s 8d. As admission to the Rose was a penny a head for groundlings, rising to up to 3d if you wanted to sit in the galleries, and its capacity was around three hundred, this a full house. The play was performed more than a dozen further occasions over the next few months. The practice of the time was to rotate plays, allowing people to see a large repertory in very quick succession, rather than the modern practice of long runs.

There are also few surviving documents in which people record their own responses to theatrical events of this period, but for Henry VI Part 1 we have one: The writer Thomas Nashe’s ‘Piers Penniless’, which was registered with the Stationer’s Office (the 1590s equivalent of copyright registration) in August 1592 sees Nashe praise the play, saying:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators, at least, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Henry VI Part 1 has been made for television by the BBC three times before, always as now as part of a longer sequence. An Age of Kings (1961) reduced it to an hour, and The War of the Roses (1965) was a version of the RSC’s 1963 productions, retaining their cuts. Only in 1983 did it play (practically) uncut, running for nearly three hours.(It was cut into two 90m episodes for the American market.)  This magical production directed by Jane Howell contained within a single set representing a children’s playground, which she later utilised for parts 2 and 3 and Richard III as well, is an abstract, defiantly unrealistic staging of the play about as far from The Hollow Crown’s mimetic, shot-on-location style as it’s possible to imagine. The rival dukes arrive on hobby horses, and at one point its Talbot, Trevor Peacock, does what we’d now recognise as a “Miranda Hart Look To Camera”. It’s quite a lot to live up to.

The new BBC version has an exception cast (I mean, look at it), and the production standards of the first series can’t be faulted. It’s hard to argue that first series of The Hollow Crown didn’t draw on richer and more complex plays than the second, but the Henry VI plays particularly showcase an earlier Shakespeare, whose work is more boisterous and direct; simplifying hugely, they have a little more action and a little less introspection. They’re exciting dramas of civil strife and internecine warfare, with quite a lot of sex and violence: great crowd-pleasing popular hits.

There’s no reason at all why they can’t be again.