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Who’s had sex with the most British monarchs (on screen)?

One actor can boast he’s played potential lovers of both a King and a Queen.

While reading about the imminent return of posh royal soap opera The Crown, something suddenly occurred to me: when Matt Smith accepted the role of Prince Philip, he may have become the first screen actor ever to have played people who have had it off with both Queen Elizabeths. Now, at this point you might reasonably object that (a) Elizabeth I was widely to believed to have died a virgin, and that (b) Smith has never played anyone who has even slightly plausibly had sex with Elizabeth I. But you’d be wrong.

Because Smith played BBC TV’s Doctor Who, who – when he was played by David Tennant – was heavily implied to have got lucky with Good Queen Bess (“...so much for the Virgin Queen, you bad, bad boy!”) He even ended up marrying her in the show’s 50th anniversary episode, though things clearly didn’t work out, as an older version of Elizabeth wanted him executed (in a prior episode – time-travel, eh – we’ve all been there right lads?). Tennant regenerated into Smith, therefore Smith has played someone who’s bedded Elizabeths I and II. But can anyone beat that?

Trawling IMDB cast lists, I found 15 actresses who have have played wives or lovers of two different monarchs – The Crown’s own Eileen Atkins (Mary of Teck, wife of George V) has done it, having also played Eleanor of Aquitaine (Henry II’s missus) in the terrible Russell Crowe movie Robin Hood.

Natalie Dormer, before she was Margaery Tyrell, wife of different claimants to the throne of Westeros in Game of Thrones, played both Anne Boleyn (The Tudors), and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother (2011’s W.E.). Helena Bonham Carter also played both of those roles – in a 2003 TV movie, Henry VIII, and The King’s Speech, respectively.

Other notables include Zoë Wanamaker, who married Richards I & III as Berengaria of Navarre and Anne Neville; Glenn Close, who played another Eleanor of Aquitaine and Alexandra of Denmark (wife of Edward VII), and Joely Richardson, whose been Catherine Parr (Henry VIII) and Wallis Simpson (Edward VIII).

But the joint record holders are Claire Bloom and Jeanette Sterke, with three kings a piece. Sterke played Richard II’s wife Anne of Bohemia in 1955 TV movie Richard of Bordeaux, and then in the BBC anthology series BBC Sunday-Night Theatre became both Anne Boleyn and Maria Fitzherbert, who was briefly the wife of George IV before the marriage was declared to be invalid.

Claire Bloom’s “royal career” has spanned over five decades – she played Anne Neville in the 1955 film of Richard III, Catherine of Aragon in the 1979 TV movie Katharine of Aragon and most recently Mary of Teck in the King’s Speech. (While we’re counting, she also played two actual monarchs - Anne and Victoria, plus Doctor Who’s mum. Beat that!).

Male preference in succession means there have been fewer opportunities for men to play the husbands and lovers of our monarchs – truly, political correctness has gone mad – so no man has played the lover of more than two of our monarchs. So, does Smith hold the male record?

Well, maybe. The only other actor who may have been able to claim to have (at least notionally) bedded two Queens on screen was the late Robert Hardy, who in two different BBC dramas played Prince Albert and Robert Dudley – Dudley was a favourite of Elizabeth I and has often been supposed to be her lover, even if there’s no evidence that the relationship was ever consummated.

Dudley was also played by Robin Bailey, who thus has a plausible claim on two monarchs, having earlier played Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland and rumoured lover of Richard II – making him the only screen actor to have played potential lovers of both a King AND a Queen.

But Smith is, as far as I can tell, the only person to have the "double Elizabeth". For now: the next series of The Crown will see the part of Prince Philip recast as time marches as on. And if Olivia Coleman, the show’s next Queen Elizabeth II, had her way, her choice for Prince Philip would immediately match Smith’s record – because she wants David Tennant. Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey indeed. Peter Capaldi, Jodie Whittaker: you may have new career goals.

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.