Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Steve Coogan, Richard III and conspiracy theories

The Lost King sounds as though it should be one of those gentle films in which people take of their clothes for a calendar photoshoot or sing sea shanties and Dame Judi Dench has to appear by law.

But it's been causing no end of a row today.

Members of University of Leicester Archaeological Services, who are unhappy with the way they are depicted in the film, were interviewed for an article in this morning's Daily Mail.

So there you will read:

One of the film's worst inaccuracies has undermined the reputation of the lead archaeologist on the dig, Dr Richard Buckley, 64.

The movie portrays him as being dismissive of Langley and of refusing to help her, only agreeing to become involved when his department is threatened with closure and he faces losing his job; he sees the project as a way of saving his own skin.

But this simply isn't true.

Buckley's job was never under threat and his department wasn't facing closure. He actually worked for a commercial arm of the university called University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), which undertook commercial digs all over the country. ULAS was thriving and did not rely on funding from the university.

Neither did Buckley dismiss Langley out of hand. All the academics involved in the project say he was enthusiastic from the start.

I have seen emails between Buckley and Langley from the days and weeks after their first contact and his are full of ideas, suggestions, co-operation and positivity. Buckley did express caution over the odds of success, but he signed up to the project nonetheless.

And by the time people had digested that, Steve Coogan, who co-wrote and appears in The Lost King, had gone on the Today programme to defend the film: 

"They've played this quite badly.

"Had they at the start been generous towards Philippa, and elevated her to the front and centre position, which is where she deserves to be, this film wouldn't have been necessary.

"But at every turn they marginalised her, edged her out, because she wasn't cut from the right cloth."

That's not how I remember the media coverage at the time, even if I've never been quite clear what Philippa Langley's role was. The dig, for instance, was largely paid for by Leicestershire Promotions and the university.

So I was a little concerned by an early promotional piece for the film where Zoe Williams told us that Langley

was in Leicester, trying to piece together from her research the whereabouts of a long-gone church, and she walked across the fabled car park.

Because the location of Greyfriars in Leicester has never been a mystery: part of it is still above ground. The archaeologists were keen to dig the site so its exact layout could be established, but David Baldwin, another hero of the finding of the king, had got it about right in 1986. That's why the dig took place in the correct area, though coming down on Richard's skeleton on the first morning was a bit of a bonus.

A story about a lone eccentric who proves the establishment wrong makes for an appealing film, but it has little to do with what went on in Leicester that autumn.

And, as the archaeologist Mike Pitts said on Twitter today:

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