Creating The Lost Prince
by Stephen Poliakoff
British playwright and dramatist Stephen Poliakoff has written for the stage, for television and for film. He was appointed writer in residence at the National Theatre (London) for 1976 and the same year won the Evening Standard's Most Promising Playwright award for Hitting Town and City Sugar. In 1980 he received a BAFTA (British Academy for Film and Television Arts) award for Best Single Play for Caught on a Train. Close My Eyes won the Evening Standard's Best British Film award in 1992, Blinded by the Sun won the Critics' Circle Best Play award in 1996. Shooting the Past won the Prix Italia in 1999, the Royal Television Society's Best Drama award and the Broadcasting Press Guild Writer's Award in 2000. Perfect Strangers, an elaborate family drama, won the RTS Best Drama award in 2002.
One morning in the spring of 1998 I saw a photograph of an ungainly looking boy staring out of the front page of a national newspaper. He was dressed in the customary sailor suit that most Edwardian upper-class children wore, but there was something about his gaze that was both unsettling and welcoming. This was the first time I had seen what Prince John had looked like and I was immediately fascinated. The headlines that accompanied the article screamed out that this was the first time a photograph had ever been published of the hidden prince. This in fact turned out to be nonsense because several photographs of Johnnie, as he was known to his family, had appeared during his lifetime, quite frequently when he was small and before he was sheltered away from the world.
I had known about the existence of Johnnie for many years ever since I wrote the play Clever Soldiers, about the First World War, when I was a student at Cambridge. I had read one sentence about him in some general history book which blandly referred to Johnnie as the 'brain-damaged' youngest child of George V and Queen Mary, and how he had been shut away until he died. The image of a hidden prince had stayed with me but I had never been drawn to find out any more about Johnnie until I saw him staring out of a photograph on that spring morning.
I quickly found out that there was practically nothing about Prince John published in the public domain, most royal biographies confining themselves to a few sentences about the poor epileptic and autistic prince who had to be sheltered away from the rest of his family and the world. But as I gradually pieced together a picture of Johnnie from the few snippets of information that were sprinkled over a wide range of royal histories, I realized that a different boy was emerging. It turned out Johnnie was very far from being the monster child that grew enormous for his age whilst having the mental age of a three year old which is the way, for instance, one article on the Internet described him. Johnnie had learning difficulties and was prone to severe epileptic fits but he was also capable of interesting and humorous observations about people and situations and inspired devotion and love from his nurse Lalla, a devotion that lasted nearly half a century after his death.
But for me the truly haunting fact about Johnnie was that his short life spanned one of the most momentous periods of our history. He was born into the extravagant world that was the court of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at the height of British Imperial power. But when he died at the age of thirteen and a half, on the very day the politicians sat down to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, the whole of Europe had changed completely. Several monarchies had collapsed, Emperors had fled into exile, there had been the Russian revolution, and the entire adult world had been engulfed by the worst catastrophe of the twentieth century, the First World War.
The longer I thought about the story the more it revealed the chance to write about these events from a unique angle, the gaze of a child. Johnnie at the beginning of his life was right in the middle of this imperial family, often the center of attention because of his funny and charming remarks, only to find himself being hidden away at the very moment the adults around him completely lost control of their destiny.
All the major public events in the story are absolutely true, the suffragette throwing herself at the feet of Queen Mary inside Buckingham Palace, the disastrous Irish conference, the speed with which the royal family changed their German name, and perhaps most intriguingly George V's involvement with the fate of the Russian royal family. George V's desperate and successful efforts to get the invitation to his Russian cousin to come to England revoked have long been in the public domain but have never been, to my knowledge, dramatized before. The sequence of events show George V to be capable of cunning and pragmatism during the darkest days of the war when the royal family was filled with what can only be described as panic about the survival of the monarchy.
An interesting problem for me was how to cast the piece so that we didn't end up with a collection of historical waxworks, grand English actors giving embalmed performances. George V with his ferocious temper, his small stature, his love of the Navy and small rooms and stamps, could easily topple into becoming a comic caricature. He was still relatively young when Johnnie was born -- just 40 -- and I wanted somebody who could grow from the diffident Prince of Wales to the bustling King.
Most people, including the actor himself, were very surprised when I chose Tom Hollander. He is a brilliant young actor who is mostly associated with a collection of contemporary British films, but who transformed himself out of all recognition. In contrast, the casting of Mary was simple because I immediately thought of Miranda Richardson, I had worked with Miranda before on my film Century in the early '90s and found her an extremely exciting actor to direct. It was essential I had someone as Mary who would neither sentimentalize her nor give her such a severe Germanic exterior that she became an impossible stereotype.
Mary was a character who intrigued me greatly. She had an obsessive love of the past and a hatred of all things modern, but she also had a ferocious energy. She acted almost as an archivist for the royal collection, writing hundreds of labels describing the origin of a multitude of objects in the royal houses, and she crawled on her hands and knees on the forest floor to collect chestnuts for the munitions workers during the First World War.
Mary did care about her children but she just found it impossible to show her love in any way at all. She saw Johnnie very seldom during the war; indeed she never mentions him in her diaries or letters. But when he died she was terribly shocked and within days she was speaking about how much she missed him already. When her eldest son David, the Duke of Windsor, wrote with typical callousness about how Johnnie's death was such a relief for all concerned, Mary made him travel to see her to apologize in person.
Opposite the composure of Mary I needed an actor who could be passionate and fearless and not self-consciously working class. I had known Gina McKee since early on in her career and she immediately seemed right to play Lalla, the nurse who had brought up all the royal children and dedicated her existence to Johnnie. Lalla Bill was a spirited, no-nonsense woman who was not afraid to speak her mind, even to the Queen. She had risen to prominence in the royal household by whistle-blowing on the sadistic nurse who had charge of the royal children at that time and was subjecting them to physical abuse. Lalla worked hard to educate Johnnie when everybody else despaired of him making any progress and she was totally shattered by his death. She remained devoted to his memory for her whole life and in retirement she had a giant, blown-up photograph of him as a toddler hanging over her mantelpiece.
The search for actors to play the young princes took three months and the casting department saw more than 600 children. I had written some very demanding roles for the boys, not just Johnnie but also young George, the future Duke of Kent. Georgie was a rebellious child, mercurial, talented and very mature for his age -- a young prince who was later to turn into a playboy, become a close friend of Noel Coward, experiment with drugs and generally tread a non-conformist path. In the end if you put in the hours you will always find good child actors because the pool of talent at that age is infinite; they have not realized yet just how difficult their job is. And the boys who played the princes showed themselves completely capable of taking on the complex roles I had given them.
All filming is a combination of the exciting, the exasperating and the absurd, and making The Lost Prince was no exception. There were some exhilarating moments, such as recreating a royal shoot with Michael Gambon, who was playing Edward VII and who is a great expert on guns and indeed a trained gunsmith. Any mistake during this day's shooting and I would never have heard the last of it -- fortunately we got away with it.
But there were some troubling moments, too. There is a sad stately home on the outskirts of Luton called Luton Hoo. It has been empty for many years and is often used for filming because it has the flexibility of a film studio. We were there to shoot Queen Mary's private quarters in Buckingham Palace.
There were ghosts at Luton Hoo -- not actual sightings or supernatural experiences, but memories and associations. For it was at this house that Queen Mary first got engaged, and later in life she visited the house often, as indeed did many members of the royal family. There is a large room in the stable block where Mary used to watch films when she came to stay and right next to this room is where I staged the murder of the Russian royal family. It was a bizarre experience, organizing the shooting just a few feet away from where Mary would have sat to watch some '30s musical.
I have always instinctively felt if one wants to dramatize history and historical figures like George V and Mary, Lloyd George and Asquith, it is best to do it through a half-open door, as they might appear to a child. For if we were to achieve that perennial fantasy of time travel and propel ourselves backwards into any time but our own, we would almost certainly find ourselves staring at it with the same mixture of cool detachment and deep curiosity that children naturally possess.
It was also a chance to celebrate a child with disability not as a victim, but as somebody who progresses through the story and achieves an inner equilibrium. While Johnnie is achieving this journey the adult world has been overtaken by disaster and had all their confidence and certainty drained out of them. At the end of the story all the major historical characters have become helpless shadows of their former selves.
For me, the most surprising modern echo of The Lost Prince is how, nearly a hundred years after the events I describe took place, we are only fractionally more flexible and wise about how we treat children who are 'different' from the Edwardians.
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