Why do the same British actors always play Kings and Queens and their underlings? There are, it seems, a handful of interchangeable actors tasked with portraying a finite set of monarchs in new and dizzying combinations of age and relation.
In Hamlet when the prince of the title asks the players “can you play the Murder of Gonzago”, he makes reference, scholars believe, to the alleged actual poisoning of the Duke of Urbino in 1538. Hamlet sets into action Claudius’ undoing, but also enshrines a principle that will be readily familiar to anyone who’s spent any time observing the careers of British actors -- once a monarch, always a monarch. Growing up in a home cluttered with VHS tapes of British television series, déjà vu accompanied nearly any viewing relating to royals and their retainers, as a lord in one series would mutate into a prime minister in another, or ascend to become a prince. There are, it seems, a handful of interchangeable actors tasked with portraying a finite set of monarchs in new and dizzying combinations of age and relation.
My latest encounter with this disjuncture came in The King’s Speech. Derek Jacobi, of I Claudius, Gladiator and countless other productions, appears as Archbishop Cosmo Lang, in the same room as an actor portraying Stanley Baldwin. I’d seen Baldwin rendered on screen recently, in an almost identical time period, in HBO’s 2002 television film, The Gathering Storm played by none other than: Derek Jacobi.
Borges wrote, on meeting an older self, in the story “August 25, 1983”: “In the pitiless light, I came face to face with myself.” His voice was “not exactly my own; it was the one I often hear in my recordings, unpleasant and without modulation.” For a British character actor, this seems less a one-off dream than a fort-nightly routine. If you’ve been paying attention to the surprisingly small galaxy of British character actors, almost any one or two productions about historical British notables can serve instantly as a Rosetta Stone to countless other portrayals of Historical Britons, with a sorely overworked slate of actors compelled to again and again take up the reins of state and infest the viewer’s mind with hazy memories of prior roles.
In the surreal world of English cinema and television, Anthony Andrews, the actor playing Baldwin in The King’s Speech had previously appeared as not one but two of his opposites in the film, playing the Guy Pearce character (Edward VIII) in the television drama The Woman He Loved and the Colin Firth character (George VI) in the mini-series The Cambridge Spies.
Geoffrey Rush did not play an interchangeable role, and his nationality may have disqualified him from the rule, but as Lionel Logue, the King’s speech therapist, he seemed naturally familiar with the role of a royal retainer, no doubt aided by his two turns as Francis Walshingham, chief minister to Elizabeth I in Shekar Kepaur’s two Elizabeth films.
Other royal fortunes have palpably improved; not one, but two of the actors in The King’s Speech had portrayed less-fortunate historical Britons: wives of Henry VIII. Claire Bloom, Queen Mary in the film, had earlier portrayed Katherine of Aragon in a 1979 miniseries The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth while Helena Bonham Carter portrayed Anne Boleyn in a 2003 Henry VIII.
Returning to dada impossibilities, Michael Gambon, the imperious George V of The King’s Speech, had already played that character’s father, appearing as Edward VII in the 2003 mini-series The Lost Prince. It’s here that the string of royal connections can lead to truly bizarre places. George V, in that film, is another familiar face that I imagine you’d be hard-pressed to name: Tom Hollander, who’s also lived a lengthy royal life, representing George III in the HBO John Adams mini-series (which was directed by Tom Hooper, director of The King’s Speech.)
The actor who played Benjamin Franklin in that series, Tom Wilkinson, is another face-you-surely know from numerous other roles, including that of George III’s chief American commander, Charles Cornwallis in The Patriot, and tying things together, once again, as Robert Vansittart, and anti-appeasement MP and ally of Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm, which you may recall from some paragraphs ago, when Derek Jacobi was still Stanley Baldwin.
We’re not finished with The Gathering Storm yet. Another of Churchill’s confidantes, Desmond Morton, an officer who routed information to him about German rearmaments, is rendered by an exceptionally eponymous character actor, Jim Broadbent, whose credits stretch from Iris to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Don’t recall him? Well he played William IV in Young Victoria, a film nominated for three Academy Awards last year. William IV? Who was that? He was the predecessor to Queen Victoria, who you may remember as Emily Blunt (Young Victoria) or Judi Dench (Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown), who was in turn succeeded by Edward VII, who you may remember as Michael Gambon. His son, George V, you will also likely recall as Michael Gambon. And Michael Gambon, of course, is the father of Colin Firth.
Julian Fellowes, who wrote Young Victoria, along with Gosford Park (which also featured Michael Gambon, of course) has carved out a side career playing Churchill in a diverse range of minor productions, from Stephen Spielberg’s Young Indiana Jones Chronicles to an Irish TV production on Irish independence The Treaty. He starred aside a young Brendan Gleeson, who played Irish rebel Michael Collins. Gleeson is of course familiar from supporting roles in films from The Gangs of New York to Braveheart, but what has he done more recently? Being Irish, he might presumably be thought unfit for the throne, but his most recently television work was in HBO’s 2009 film The Storm, where he played none other than... Winston Churchill.
And we’ve not yet begun to scratch the surface. George VI is the only royal Colin Firth has portrayed on screen, but at this point it should come as no surprise that his younger brother, Jonathan Firth, previously appeared as his character’s grandfather, Prince Albert, in 2001’s television Victoria and Albert. And this leaves additional galaxies still untouched. Judi Dench also played Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. Or Sam Neill, who’s appeared repeatedly as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, in Showtime’s The Tudors and as Charles II, a distant relation of Henry VIII, in the bawdy 1996 film Restoration. Rupert Everett has fulfilled double duty with dissolute monarchs, appearing as Charles II in Stage Beauty and as George IV, then Prince of Wales, in The Madness of King George. And who was Queen in that film? Why Helen Mirren, of course, who has also appeared as both Elizabeths, in The Queen and a 2005 television series, Elizabeth.
And we’ve not even touched upon the Shakespeare histories, which would bring another level of shape-shifting impossibility of descent and ancestry, or the ultimate nexus of British character talent, the Harry Potter series, which seems to double as a Burke’s peerage of royal representation. Those films feature not one but two Churchills (Timothy Spall and Brendan Gleeson), a Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), a William VI (Jim Broadbent), a Henry V (Kenneth Branagh), and an Edward VII and George V (Michael Gambon), of course. Don’t know the names? Don’t worry, I’m sure you’d recognize them.