The British royalty may be no more than a ceremonial institution but its contribution as a perennially favourite subject for artists of various persuasions is not to be taken lightly. After The Crown’s phenomenal success comes King Charles III, a BBC drama adapted from an award-winning play by Mike Bartlett.
King Charles III is a future history project that imagines a time of the Queen’s death and Prince Charles’ accession to the throne. Tim Pigott-Smith plays Charles, a man finally in possession of a title he has waited for all his life. Oliver Chris and Charlotte Riley play William and Kate, respectively, and Harry is essayed by Richard Goulding.
But until his coronation, Charles must attend to regular matters of the state. On one of his meetings with Prime Minister Tristan Evans (Adam James), he enquires about a bill that Evans has personally championed: the regulation of a press gone overboard with salaciousness and intrusion of privacy.
The to-be King refuses to grant his assent, citing cardinal British values that mandate full freedom to the press. Evans cannot believe that Charles should seek to restrict the scope of a bill whose provisions will reign in an institution that has caused such grievous harm to his family (the unspoken indication towards Princess Diana’s death is unmistakable). With neither man willing to budge from his position, a Constitutional crisis is in the offing.
While royal intrigues are not uncommon on the screen, what sets King Charles III apart is its imagining of possibilities involving people very much alive and active in public life. We know, for example, that Harry is the chilled-out royal who takes the trappings of his station lightly. We have seen Kate undergo criticism in the early years of her marriage for “prettifying” the royalty with her “plastic” sweetness.
Those stereotypes are less demolished than updated in the blinding scrutiny of Bartlett’s play – he also wrote the screenplay for the BBC film. Goulding’s Harry finds the royalty suffocating, certain in his impotence as the forever prince. He falls in love with a commoner, that abysmal word that has little relevance in a democratic society, especially when that commoner is as bright and sharp as Jess (Tamara Lawrance).
Kate, meanwhile, orchestrates a series of events that changes the course of the coronation and reveals the full extent of her power. She works from the sidelines, goading and guiding her reluctant husband to understand the true nature of his bequest, until she has fashioned a remarkable volte-face. The real Kate may find she endorses the portrayal since it so thoroughly revises her public perception.
And then, there is the spectre of Diana (Katie Brayben), shimmery in white, calling out to her husband and children from beyond the grave. Her tragic life story provides the backdrop to the scandal that unfolds in the film, because the viewer, as much as Charles and William, is unwilling to let go of her unfinished story.
Who knows how long the British monarchy will survive? In the film’s early scenes, Charles grandiloquently proclaims the royalty’s duty to act as the cohesive force binding British society together. If those emotions seem anachronistic, the film itself shows them to be so subsequently. But the pull of power, dressed in whatever virtuous spiel, is an always contemporary subject, and King Charles III reminds us why we continue to find an outdated British institution fascinating.