The Lost King – A life-affirming true story

Screenwriters s Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan were inspired to craft the screenplay for The Lost King when they read the headline: ‘Mother of Two from Edinburgh finds Lost King in Car park,’ exploring the inspirational true story about the discovery of Richard III’s remains by Philippa Langley in 2012.

The Lost King is an astonishing true story about an ‘ordinary’ person tracking down the remains of an
English king which had remained hidden for over 500 years and celebrates a woman who refused to be defined by other people, who were overlooked, and who found her voice, and also explores the facts behind the myth, revealing a very different King from Shakespeare’s villainous creation.

‘First and foremost, it’s a true story. It is about women being overlooked, and ignored. About the little person refusing to take no for an answer. And about not always accepting everything we’re told as gospel,’ says screenwriter Jeff Pope, who wrote the screenplay based on the 2013 book The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones.

Steve Coogan, writer, producer, and star of the film adds: ‘People don’t like injustice. People do like David and Goliath stories, and this is a David and Goliath story of the amateur vs. the establishment.’

Jeff Pope

In 2012, having been lost for over 500 years, the remains of King Richard III were discovered beneath a car park in Leicester.  The search had been orchestrated by an amateur historian, Philippa Langley, whose unrelenting research had been met with incomprehension by her friends and family and with scepticism by experts and academics. She refused to be ignored and took on the country’s most eminent historians, forcing them to think again about one of the most controversial kings in England’s history.

You can stream The Lost King for free on AMC+, rent on Apple TV, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video

The first challenge was persuading Philippa Langley to allow the filmmakers into her life

‘When somebody comes to you and says they’d like to tell your story, you don’t think for a moment it actually will happen,’ says Langley ‘It’s not something you approach lightly because you are literally placing your life into the hands of others. But I felt listening to Steve, listening to Jeff, how much they love the story – I thought it was right to go with them.’

Pope continues, ‘We realised as we started to dig into the story that here was a woman who showed incredible perseverance and tenacity. She challenged local authorities, the media, archaeological experts, and historians who dismissed her, and refused to let go.’

Once Philippa had come on board, Coogan and Pope were able to begin crafting the film’s screenplay.

Director Stephen Frears describes their writing dynamic: ‘Steve is a witty writer, a delicate writer, and Jeff is a very good dramatist. So, between the two of them, they do everything. They write in this fresh way that nobody else does, they tell a story in a very original, arresting way.’

Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan in The Lost King. © Pathé Productions Limited and British Broadcasting Corporation 2022 / All Rights Reserved.

Also part of the original creative team behind the film Philomena, producer Christine Langan knows Pope and Coogan’s writing and working style, as well as what Frears brings to the equation: ‘They have a unique tone, an amazing tone they engender together. They have complementary skills and they’re very playful. It’s a great dynamic. And Stephen really pushes them in a good way. He’s a firm believer in the value of story, over and above everything.’

Frears adds, ‘The truth is, you go on writing a script all the way through making a film; you finish a script when you finish the film.’

Instilling a similarly gentle comedic tone as they had in Philomena was important to the filmmakers. Coogan explains, ‘We write dramas which are about something, and we use comedy to sugar the pill of what might ostensibly be inaccessible topics. We don’t want to be elitist, we want to reach out to as many people as possible and intelligently present a thought-provoking story with humour, so it’s fun and not boring. It’s a device, it’s not an end in itself. Comedy’s great, because it wins people over…’ Continuing his thoughts on comedy, Coogan elaborates, ‘And, of course, there is comedy in life, comedy in the strangest circumstances. Even in bleak situations, people find comedy, they seek out comedy.’

Harry Lloyd and Sally Hawkins in The Lost King. © Pathé Productions Limited and British Broadcasting Corporation 2022 / All Rights Reserved.

Actor Harry Lloyd, who plays the various versions of King Richard throughout the film, commented: ‘I loved all the ways that Jeff and Steve, like with Philomena, fill it with such ordinary, everyday detail. It feels very grounded and lived-in and you totally believe in the normality of Philippa and her world.’

Agreeing about the importance of normality on screen, Coogan adds: ‘I like characters with positive attributes depicted on-screen. Because it gives the lie to the idea that people who are not duplicitous are boring dramatically. They’re not. Decency can be interesting.’

Returning to the feminist themes within the film, still applicable today, Frears notes, ‘I only know strong
women who have spent their life fighting against the system. And quite possibly I embody the system, so I only know about women being fighters. It’s a good story, and it would not be as good if it wasn’t a woman.’

Coogan continues, ‘It’s not just about a person, it’s about a woman in a strongly patriarchal society, who
asserts herself and takes control of her life. I thought it would resonate with a lot of women who feel a bit
invisible at a certain point in their lives. It’s a conversation about sexual politics, as much as anything.’

Commenting on the inspirational aspect of the film, Harry Lloyd says, ’Philippa’s story should inspire people to do things they don’t think they’re capable of achieving. It’s about her proving to herself that she is extraordinary – she even says it at the beginning ‘I think I’m interesting and no one else does’.’
Frears concludes, ‘It’s a ridiculous idea ‘oh I’m going to find a King buried under a car park’. It’s a completely absurd idea, but she did it!’

Philippa Langley and her quest

‘I met Philippa Langley about 8 years ago in Edinburgh’ recalls Coogan (I had lunch with her and asked her to tell me her story.’

Langley vividly recalls the actual date she and Steve met for the first time, as it was St George’s Day, 23 April 2014 – a Saint so close to Richard’s heart he fashioned his personal standard with the cross of St. George. It also, entirely coincidentally, happened that the production’s first day of principal photography was St. George’s Day 2021.

For Langley, this was ideal timing for her story to be heard. ‘What impressed me was how knowledgeable he was about the whole story, about the search for Richard’, she said. ‘It wasn’t long after that he and Jeff Pope came up to Edinburgh. It was intense, we had three days together non-stop going through everything. Jeff is like an investigative journalist, drilling down into every moment. They also looked at my original materials, my documents, and emails.’

Philippa Langley

Coogan remembers, ‘When I was talking to Philippa, the story hadn’t quite finished, in reality, for her. Coogan rejoins, ‘Philippa wasn’t just a subject of our film, she was a resource and knew a lot about it unsurprisingly. Was Richard the way he was depicted? No. What was he like? No one can say for sure. But a lot better than the way Shakespeare depicted him, certainly. And within that, of course, is the opportunity to shine a light on people being judged without us knowing the full picture. That also applies to Philippa, so there’s a symbiosis of pursuing both Richard and Philippa that we use in the film.’

The seven and a half years that Philippa spent researching the whereabouts of Richard’s remains had to be condensed for dramatic purposes

Coogan continues, ‘When you’re dealing with true stories, you have to cherry-pick aspects of the story you know will help when you’re constructing a narrative. In terms of the big picture and underlying truths, you have to be honorable, but it is a constraint. For example, you can’t invent an ending that didn’t happen. So you start with the ending and reverse engineer your story.’

Langley explains that her interest in Richard III began by buying a book in 1998. ‘The book was by Paul Murray Kendall, a biography, and he used contemporary sources from Richard’s lifetime to talk about the man. This is what I found utterly fascinating because it’s the opposite of Shakespeare. We have evidence he was loyal, brave, devout, and just.’

Detailing the various research she undertook, Langley expounds, ‘When I looked to try and find what
information I could, it’s scattered everywhere. There are 17th and 18th-century documents, there are rough plans and layouts. And there’d been an archaeological dig in 2007. It was all these things that told me the church where Richard was buried, and potentially Richard’s grave, was situated opposite St. Martin’s Church in Leicester, which is now the Cathedral. And that was where I’d had this intuitive experience – where I felt I was walking on Richard’s grave – and saw the letter ‘R’ – on the tarmac, clearly for reserved parking. What was most important about this was my research didn’t challenge that view. There was nothing I could find that made me think, okay, it’s not in that location. It was that experience which became the catalyst for a complete 180-degree change in my research focus. I was no longer interested in his life, I was interested in his death and burial.’

As for the sensation she felt standing in that carpark, Philippa comments further, ‘This intuition aspect has
received quite a bit of interest, in some cases, quite a bit of ridicule. But when we look at some of our most amazing scientific discoveries, they have begun with intuition. We’ve got Howard Carter’s intuition with Tutankhamun; Edith Pretty’s intuition with Mound One at Sutton Hoo; and only recently, an archaeologist called Paul Gething, who discovered the ancient Bowl Hole Cemetery in Northumberland. Maybe someday scientists might look into intuition.’

Describing her experience to the screenwriters, Pope recalls his heart beating when Langley recounted the
sensation, ‘She walks into the car park and gets the strangest feeling. She described it as something coming up through her feet and legs, which got stronger and she almost felt faint. Stopping at the point when it was strongest, she looked down, and beneath her feet was the letter R.’ As Harry Lloyd adds,

‘There is a magical element. When Philippa walked into that car park – there were all kinds of coincidences and weirdnesses. When history is shrunk down into a moment and suddenly you can touch it, I find that the nearest thing we have to magic today.’

A self-confessed skeptic, Frears grudgingly admits, ‘It’s mysterious. Somewhere between thorough research and intuition – I don’t know where you draw the line. Or maybe it’s a fluke, as a historian friend of mine said. But, you know, she got it right. You can’t really argue with that.’

An important aspect for both Langley and the filmmakers was the representation of her ME (chronic fatigue syndrome), and the impact her health had during the period the film depicts

Describing her personal relationship with the condition, Langley reveals, ‘ME is a post-viral, autoimmune condition. I got mine because of having bad flu. People tell you about long COVID, and how it’s
affecting them, it’s very similar to ME. Total exhaustion is one of its main components together with a lot of muscular pain.’ Langley continues on the subject, ‘The portrayal by Sally of ME in the film is really important and powerful. I hope by bringing ME to the fore – maybe the scientists who are investigating ME and the scientists who are now investigating long COVID, might talk, as it could be very useful.’

From a story-structure perspective, Pope acknowledges how Philippa’s ME helped the screenwriters with the on-screen emotional connection between Philippa and Richard. ‘Somehow the combination of a king who was maligned and history tells us had a physical deformity, fused in our heads with Philippa who was struggling at work because this condition robbed her of energy, and was being unfairly judged as a result.’ Langan agrees, picking up the thread: ‘Philippa understood what it was to be misunderstood or misrepresented and she intuited that there might be a man beyond Richard the villain – a leader, a thinker, who was not celebrated or remembered in the right way.’

Richard, Shakespeare’s Usurper

Richard III sits within the group of Shakespeare’s plays known as the ‘histories’, which deal with events in England’s historical past after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

By the very nature of the play being categorised as a ‘history’, Shakespeare’s theatrical version of Richard III is the most commonly known depiction of the man over the past four centuries and is consequently cited as fact.

Langley asserts, ‘One of the most powerful aspects of the film is that it’s a counterpoint to Shakespeare. So many people think Shakespeare is history that it is real, and everything is true. However, it is important to remember Shakespeare’s play was written over 100 years after Richard’s death. It was based on a narrative from Thomas More, who was five years old when Richard was King.’

Pope adds: ‘We went to Leicester, and started to delve deeply into the world of Richard III about whom, like most of the audience, I just knew the headlines – the Princes in the Tower; ‘a kingdom for my horse’ –
essentially, an evil king, who murdered his young nephews.’ Having learned more about the real Richard III, Pope re-evaluated his perspective: ‘One of the things that really appealed to me about this story was that in a little way, we can educate and inform a wide audience about this really quirky piece of history, I cannot think of a more reviled monarch in British history. This film is Philippa’s story. But in telling it, there’s also a little bit of redress for Richard, a little bit of two fingers to history as we’ve been told it at school, and that does really appeal to me.’

‘There are certain things in life that can’t be explained. Philippa Langley finds a 500-year-old lost king by getting a weird feeling as she stood in a car park – that’s one of the things in life which cannot be explained. What it tells us, though, is we have to keep an open mind. All that we see, and are told, is not necessarily the truth. We are all taught at school that Richard III was an evil king, and Shakespeare’s play continues that, as one of history’s baddies. This film will throw that all up in the air again, it will say ‘was he?’ Pope comments

Sally Hawkins in The Lost King. © Pathé Productions Limited and British Broadcasting Corporation 2022 / All Rights Reserved.

The Actor’s Worldview

Discussing the challenges for the filmmakers, Pope continues, ‘The most difficult part of the film to crack was to put the audience in Philippa’s head because so much was Philippa’s thoughts. We needed a way to unlock that, and after much discussion around the subject, we decided to have Richard III appear as a vision to Philippa. It’s been used before in movies, and we were wary of how to make it original and fresh.’

Initially, Langley was not keen. ‘When they told me they were going to bring Richard in, as a character for the Philippa character, it was difficult because I’d gone through quite a bit of denigration at this point. But we talked it through, and it became clear, that if I’m going in search of something – someone – the audience has to know what it is I’m in search of.’

Once Langley was on board, Pope continues, ‘We set a few ground rules. One was that Richard III was an
extension of her subconscious. When she’s talking to Richard, she’s talking to herself. After we established the ground rules, then we thought this is something we can have fun with, it doesn’t have to be po-faced.’

Considering the wider brush strokes of that character, Christine Langan observes: ‘There’s a theme and
metaphor in the journey Philippa goes on, and what Richard comes to represent for her. That’s why it’s rich, makes it universal – we should all have a Richard III, who guides us on an incredible journey.’

As the actor responsible for realising this vision, Hawkins says, ‘It’s a clever device, quite hard to work out.
Clever to use the actor she’s seen as this apparition, and clever because it’s funny as well. She feels a bit mad and she’s not quite sure what’s going on – whether she’s losing her mind, but decides its worth the adventure.’

Casting, as always, was key – particularly when depicting real people, both alive and dead. Pope elaborates on what the film’s cast had to balance, ‘You need to think Philippa could be my mum, my sister, my aunt, my wife. You want to connect to the character, to make entry points so people could look at her and think… I get obsessed with things…this could be me. Casting Sally Hawkins was really important because Sally has that wonderful ability to play that every-woman.’

Frears agrees, ‘The challenge was, to find an actress who can do it, and make it believable.’

Considering the role, Coogan has the perspective of wearing three hats – that of producer, co-writer, and co-star, ‘Philippa is a complex character, when we first see her, she tries the patience of her husband and, in some ways, the audience. To make a character interesting, you have to risk alienating the audience a bit. Sally brought this eccentricity and authenticity.’ Citing the famous George Bernard Shaw quote, Coogan adds ‘all progress depends on the unreasonable man, or in this case woman. It’s a celebration of that eccentricity.’

Harry Lloyd in The Lost King. © Pathé Productions Limited and British Broadcasting Corporation 2022 / All Rights Reserved.

Also based on a real person, albeit dead for several centuries, was the character of Richard III, played in all
three representations across the film by Harry Lloyd. Firstly as the traditional Shakespearian version that Philippa and Max go to watch in the play, he allowed Lloyd to flex his theatrical acting muscles. Says Pope, ‘Harry Lloyd has this ethereal quality. It was very special to watch Harry work with Sally, to see the relationship they built up.’

On working together, Hawkins found Lloyd’s minimal dialogue fascinating to bounce off, ‘I thought he was speaking, and I’d come to that scene and say ‘when you spoke’ because we were having a dialogue anyway – so rich in his face. He’s brilliant, he’s got this old-school Hollywood thing about him – like Laurence Olivier, this presence.’ Lloyd’s personal take on the vision Philippa encounters is an intimate one, ‘He’s reflecting and giving her some quiet confidence, reminding her that she herself is brilliant. Often the job of Richard in this film is not about helping her find him – he’s helping her find herself.’

A sentiment Coogan concurs, ‘In looking for Richard, she finds who she really is.’

Director Stephen Frears

Unanimously regarded as one of Britain’s finest directors, Stephen Frears has always embraced a wide variety of styles, themes, and genres.

He worked almost exclusively for the small screen in the first 15 years of his career, with programs such as One Fine Day by Alan Bennett and Three Men In A Boat by Tom Stoppard.

Stephen’s more recent TV work includes Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight for HBO and Channel 4’s The Deal.

In the mid-1980s he turned to the cinema, shooting The Hit (1984). The following year he made My Beautiful Laundrette for Channel 4, which crossed over to big-screen audiences and altered the course of his career. After directing its companion piece Sammy And Rosie Get Laid and the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears, he began working in Hollywood, with Dangerous Liaisons and the Grifters . Returning closer to home, he directed The Snapper and The Van, two Irish films based on Roddy Doyle stories and, after a second spell of making American films (The Hi-Lo Country and High Fidelity), based himself largely in Britain. Frears showed his versatility with two vastly different movies – Dirty Pretty Things, a realistic account of immigrant life in London, and Mrs Henderson Presents, a nostalgic backstage comedy-drama. For his 2006 film The Queen he was again nominated for an Oscar. His subsequent films included Cheri and Tamara Drewe. He followed these with Philomena, which won a BAFTA and was nominated for three others, along with three Golden Globe and four Oscar
nominations; The Program, which starred Ben Foster as seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong; and Florence Foster Jenkins, Frears followed this with Victoria & Abdul. Frears’ return to TV was with the acclaimed three-part BBC television series A Very English Scandal, which won Stephen a BAFTA for Best Director. This was followed by the Emmy award-winning short-form series State Of The Union for Sundance TV, and in 2020 he directed QUIZ, about the TV cheating scandal in “Who Wants To be a Millionaire”.

Writer & Producer Steve Coogan

Steve Coogan was born and raised in Manchester where he trained as an actor at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre. Shortly after Drama School, Steve landed his first job as an impersonator and comic on the satirical TV series, Spitting Image. In 1999 Coogan set up Baby Cow Productions. They are currently in pre-production with CHIVALRY which Coogan has co-written and in which he will be co-starring with Sarah Solemani for Channel 4.

Writer & Executive Producer Jeff Pope

Jeff Pope is an award-winning writer for Film and Television. Film credits include Philomena, for which Jeff picked up Academy Award, Golden Globe, BIFA and London Critics Circle nominations and BAFTA and Venice Film Festival wins for Best Adapted Screenplay. Other movie work includes Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, Essex Boys, and Stan and Ollie.