The Story Behind the Story
Stephen Poliakoff's drama, The Lost Prince, charts the little-known tale of Prince John, the youngest child of George V and Queen Mary. John's short life encompassed one of the greatest periods of upheaval in history: the complex build-up to the First World War and the political traumas that beset the great European monarchies at the beginning of the 20th century. Set against a backdrop of enormous political change, The Lost Prince recounts the human story of a remarkable boy struggling to grow up in a unique and sometimes bizarre family. Suffering from epilepsy and learning difficulties akin to autism, Johnnie was excluded from public life and forced to lead an increasingly isolated life. However, he drew strength from the unfailing support of his devoted nanny, Lalla.
Poliakoff describes the drama as "history seen through a half-open door." Producer John Chapman says that the writer-director has "created an extraordinarily poetic screenplay in his unique style. It offers a fascinating insight into this traumatic period in history, much of which is virtually unknown.'' So where exactly did the story come from? "Years and years ago, when I was writing Clever Soldiers, a play about the First World War, I read one sentence in a general history book about Prince John," explains Poliakoff. "The idea had lain dormant at the back of my mind until it was reactivated with a bang in 1998 when in a national newspapers I saw a huge photograph of Prince John staring out of the page at me. It was in the Duke of Windsor's photographic collection which had just come into the public domain. 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 that photograph," says Poliakoff. "I quickly discovered that there was practically nothing published about Prince John, 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." Poliakoff gradually pieced together a picture of Johnnie and his world from the few snippets of information that were sprinkled over a wide range of royal histories, including biographies, diaries, letters and articles.
"For me, the truly haunting fact about Johnnie was that his short life from 1905 to 1919 encapsulated such a fascinating period of history. He was born at the height of Edwardian grandeur, but the tragedy of the First World War soon swept away many of the great European houses. Johnnie's whole life traced that arc. He actually died on the day they negotiated the Treaty of Versailles." Poliakoff confirms that he enjoys "looking at history from a fresh perspective. It's easier to believe events if you see them from an oblique angle, from the point of a view of a young child rather than the King himself. Johnnie is to an extent a visionary. He stands apart from events, yet has a certain wisdom about them," Poliakoff explains. "That is particularly poignant when a great tragedy is engulfing both his family and the whole of Europe."
"We see the extraordinary speed at which massive change was happening from Johnnie's viewpoint. The whole patchwork of European crowned heads unraveled in less time than Tony Blair has been Prime Minister. The First World War came about because of a series of terrible accidents. The irony is that a child is looking on bemused at an adult world, which has absolutely lost control and which results in the worst destruction Europe has ever seen. Without ever going to the trenches, we view the darkening of the world from this surprising angle. We witness this family caught up in an incredible, worldwide catastrophe and that makes the drama all the more powerful."
"This is not a normal royal biopic," Poliakoff observes. "Here, history is seen in a heightened way, through the eyes of a child. I've never been drawn to social realism because I don't believe that's how people are. On the surface they may be, but in fact they're full of contradictions and unconventionality. People are far more complex than they're given credit for. If you walk down the street, it's teeming with extraordinary, grotesque faces and you think, 'Dickens was right!' Life is vivid, not even-tempered and grey and English. It's easier to portray that through the eyes of a child without seeming quirky for the sake of it. For example, at one grand gathering in The Lost Prince, a cake is filled with goldfish. The camera lingers on that because a child would be entranced by it. If we were zoomed back in time to that banquet, that'd engross us, too. This approach allows one to enter the very fabric of an era in a quite unselfconscious manner."
The writer-director asserts that for all its darkness, the drama is in the end life affirming. "Although tragic, it is ultimately a celebration of Johnnie's life. He is a unique human being, a grace note, and a beacon of light amid the encircling gloom. That's why Lalla remained so obsessed with him for the rest of her life. It's why five days after his funeral Mary wrote, 'I'm missing the dear boy already,' a passionate phrase that leaps out of the otherwise arid pages of her diary. Why she is touched by Johnnie is exactly why we are touched by him, too."
"What appealed to me at once was the idea of telling a story through an innocent," producer Chapman explains. "It's like looking at seismic events through the keyhole. Like The Last Emperor or Fanny and Alexander, this film intertwines a familial story with massive tectonic shifts in world politics. This little boy lived through a cataclysmic period in history when the great powers of Europe represented by one family had a collective nervous breakdown. Audiences will be able to relate to these events through Johnnie's eyes." Chapman emphasizes that Johnnie has a lucid, yet detached stance on these world-shattering events. "This is a celebration of apartness," he asserts." Johnnie has learning difficulties, and he has a very unusual view of the world. He sees things clearly but differently. He is like the boy who is clear-sighted enough to say, 'The Emperor has no clothes!' The script bristles with his insights."
"As always, Stephen's research was meticulous and included time spent at the Royal Archives at Windsor," Chapman says. "The Lost Prince captures the smell and the atmosphere of the Royal household. I'd defend it very strongly as a piece in the spirit of what actually happened.'' Chapman goes on to pay tribute to Poliakoff 's skill as a filmmaker. "He has an uncanny ability to inhabit his characters as he is writing them," the producer explains. "He has profound empathy for his characters, which he brings to life so memorably as a director. The visual side of his films is also exquisite; the brilliance shines through in every frame. He has great integrity and acute vision, qualities that are all too rare in any field these days." The producer closes by underlining the mainstream appeal of The Lost Prince. "It's of genuine public interest and very much a story which is able to reach out to all ages and all classes. You can't say, 'Oh, it's just another period drama,' because its perspective is so individual. It's a highly original piece of work which simply socks you in the jaw."
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