Film and theatre grant an audience with real people from the past

Michael Sheen, pictured as Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa, has made a career out of protraying such

Michael Sheen, pictured as Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa, has made a career out of protraying such real-life characters as Tony Blair, Brian Clough and David Frost. - Credit: BBC

The reviews are in and Dame Helen Mirren has scored another hit playing The Queen in The Audience, a new play at The National Theatre.

Helen Mirren reprises her role as The Queen in Peter Morgan's new play The Audience which is current

Helen Mirren reprises her role as The Queen in Peter Morgan's new play The Audience which is currently running at the National Theatre. - Credit: Archant

Mirren won an Oscar and a BAFTA for playing our monarch in the 2006 film The Queen, which charted the Queen’s relationship with new Prime Minister Tony Blair in the days following the death of Princess Diana.

The role was such a popular success for Mirren that she has gone on record saying that she would be very nervous of being persuaded to play the role again. However, she was persuaded, thanks to the quality of author Peter Morgan’s writing – Morgan also wrote The Queen – the line-up of acting royalty, (Mirren’s co-stars include Edward Fox as Churchill, Haydn Gwynne as Mrs Thatcher, Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson, Nathaniel Parker as Gordon Brown and Paul Ritter as John Major) and the fact the play was as much about the various prime ministers as it was about The Queen.

If you then combine the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis has also done the Oscar BAFTA double with Lincoln, then it swiftly becomes apparent that we have an on-going fascination with trying to capture in drama the essence of real people.

In addition to Steven Spielberg’s portrait of the final days of Abraham Lincoln, other current films featuring characters from history include Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Samuel West as George VI and Olivia Coleman as Queen Elizabeth in Hyde Park on The Hudson.

Interestingly, Toby Jones gave us quite a different version of Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl on the BBC over Christmas, which makes us wonder: “How much is drama and how much is biographical truth?”

Truth is very much a subjective quality. Tippi Hedren has in interviews portrayed Hitch as a callous, controlling, sexually frustrated dictator and it was her view of The Master of Suspense that provided the material for The Girl – which chronicled Hedren’s time making The Birds.

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In response to the TV drama, both Kim Novak, who starred opposite James Stewart in Vertigo, and Eva Marie Saint, who famously scrambled across the face of Mount Rushmore with Cary Grant in North By Northwest, have said that they didn’t recognise Hitchcock as portrayed in the BBC TV movie.

Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in Hitchcock presents the British-born film-maker as a complicated individual, with a penchant for outrageous practical jokes, but he’s not the sadist that Toby Jones makes him out to be.

Peter Morgan, as a writer, is fascinated with putting living people or real historical characters into drama. In addition to writing The Queen and The Audience he has also penned The Deal and The Special Relationship, the other parts of his Tony Blair trilogy; The Last King of Scotland, which looked at the rule of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin; The Damned United, which examined Brian Clough’s short tenure at Leeds; Frost/Nixon, the powerful televised confrontation between David Frost and disgraced US president Richard Nixon, as well as Longford, a TV bio-pic of the prison reform campaigner. His current project is an, as yet, untitled bio-pic of the life of Freddie Mercury, starring Sacha Baron Cohen.

He has said that his work – on stage, on film and TV – was drama first and history second. He takes the essentials of the character’s personality and meshes them with known facts about the event. He has never proclaimed that they represent a genuine peek behind the scenes at a real-life event.

Much of Peter Morgan’s work has been aided by the chameleon-like presence of actor Michael Sheen, who has an uncanny ability to appear uncannily like the people he portrays. It’s not that he always looks especially like the people he plays. It’s usually suggested with clothing or the haircut and by the way he holds himself and the way he walks.

It is more than an impersonation – Sheen has the ability to embody the essence of the person, which is what makes him believable in a wide variety of disparate roles.

Playing living people is one thing – in some ways it can be more daunting than trying to conjure up the personality of someone who’s dead, because the genuine article is walking about, demanding you make a comparison – but playing a historic figure can be fraught with danger.

Historic figures tend to fall into two camps – they are either heroic icons or evil ogres. If you try to rewrite history, and suggest that perhaps they weren’t as wonderful or as dastardly as we had been led to believe, then you had better tread carefully.

German director Oliver Hirschbiegel did exactly that with his carefully constructed portrait of Adolf Hitler in Downfall, the story of Hitler’s last days trapped in his bunker in Berlin as the Americans and the Russians closed in.

Told through the eyes of Hitler’s young secretary, Traudl Junge, the film portrays Hitler as a man rather than an inhuman monster. Portraying him as inhuman lets us off the hook. It is as if he’s not a product of our world, when he so clearly was. His tirades, his temper-tantrums, his irrationality, are all shown. He is clearly divorced from reality when he orders his impotent generals to bring up non-existent reinforcements. But actor Bruno Ganz allows you to see the man behind the facist figurehead. You get to see him being charming with his secretarial staff, playing with Goebbels’ children, loving with Eva Braun; then the next minute he is screaming and cursing at his military advisors, accusing them of betrayal.

It is difficult to know where reality lies. Just as we don’t know what is said between The Queen and her prime ministers, we don’t know what went on in the mind of a mad-man like Hitler. But, dramatic licence allows us to speculate using diaries and letters from the people themselves and testimony from those who were there at the time.

Today Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Abraham Lincoln as a man and a politician who has to strike deals and make compromises in order to get his legislation through. Compare his portrayal with that of Henry Fonda in The Young Mr Lincoln and you’ll see how far we’ve come in our portrayal of great figures.

Fonda portrays Lincoln as a solid, upright young lawyer whose destiny is to reshape the country for the better. He’s not human, he’s superhuman; and it’s hard to see him, even as a young man, as someone who is real.

Richard Attenborough did a lot to humanise historic portrayals, starting with Young Winston in 1974, followed by Gandhi and Chaplin. These were real people rather than historic icons to be looked up to and admired – a lesson he learned from playwright Robert Bolt, author of Lawrence of Arabia and Man For All Seasons.

History is always more valuable when we can see its human face.

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