A tale of two Windsors

Mike Bartlett’s triumphant King Charles III and the plodding Barbara Windsor biopic Babs.

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I go to the theatre quite a lot and mostly – don’t hate me! – enjoy it. All the same, I’d be lying if I said that my heart doesn’t do a backflip whenever I read the honeyed words: “This play has a running time of 90 ­minutes with no interval.” Hardly ever am I so enraptured that I don’t peer furtively at my wrist at least once – which must be why King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s dazzling blank-verse imagining of the accession of the organic-plant-whisperer-in-chief to the throne sticks with such limpet-like determination to the barnacled rock of my mind. When I saw it at the Almeida in London in 2014, directed with an irresistible combination of nonchalance and mischief by Rupert Goold, every second was heaven, every half-hour but the blinking of an eye.

Would it work as television? Yes, Goold was in charge (10 May, 9pm), and leading all the crucial members of his fantastic original cast: Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, Oliver Chris as William, Richard Goulding as Harry, Margot Leicester as Camilla. Nevertheless, the play’s success rested to a large degree on the conventions of the theatre. Wasn’t there a danger that what had seemed witty and majestic on stage would look carping and rather beggarly on screen? It would be much cut, of course – at the theatre, it ran for two hours and forty minutes – and though this might not unbalance the narrative, it would certainly dilute the cumulative pleasure of Bartlett’s verse.

All this before we even get to the problem of context. King Charles III was staged when even David Davis thought of Brexit as little more than a fantasy. Mightn’t the constitutional crisis at its heart – new king refuses to sign a bill limiting press freedom – seem a touch trifling now?

But then I sat down to watch it and within five minutes I knew – another internal backflip – that it was going to be all right. An old man whispered to camera the treacherous words: “At last!” A deep-voiced duchess with Farrah Fawcett hair calmly spooned marmalade on to toast. A ginger prince headed out to meet his awful mates and a blond one took dictation, metaphorically speaking, from his stick insect of a wife (Charlotte Riley joined the cast as Kate). The playwright’s royalty, as I remembered them,
were all present and correct. There followed a perfect 90 minutes of television.

Bartlett’s depiction of this strangest of families is at once skewed and ­unerring, and therein lies both its power and its charm. How hard it is, for instance, to imagine the real Kate putting down her children’s overpriced Fair Isle cardigans and picking up a parliamentary bill instead; the only ambition I can ascribe to her has to do with houses, clothes and a certain paltry fame by association.

But who doesn’t wonder what Oedipal grudges William may hold against his father? As for Charles, it isn’t hard to believe in this version of him. For one thing, he is played so brilliantly by the late Pigott-Smith, his self-pity and stoicism almost inseparable, one beginning where the other ends. For another, we can all too easily imagine the real-life future king acting as wilfully as this fictional monarch-in-waiting. “Without my voice and spirit I am dust,” he says. “This is not what I want, but what I must.” As self-justification goes, this seems to me to be fair enough, even if the person doing it does happen to be a prince.

Earlier the same week (7 May, 8pm), the BBC showed Babs, a biopic of Barbara Windsor by Tony Jordan. Oh, the irony. Written for television, it felt like a bad fringe play, most of the action consisting of plodding conversations between a middle-aged Babs (Samantha Spiro) and the ghost of her father (Nick Moran), a feckless East End bus conductor. Like Prince Charles, Windsor (a stage name purloined from the royal family) apparently sees her whole life through the prism of her parents and the supposed wrongs they did her.

But who cares, really? She hasn’t done so badly. For Charles, though, the worst years could still be ahead. Let us hope his valet Sky-plussed the film that bore his future regnal name. And let us hope that he, unlike the rest of us, did not enjoy it too much.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning