Steve Coogan: 'Lost King' rightfully puts history heroine at heart of Richard III story

Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan star in "The Lost King," in theaters Friday. Photo courtesy of IFC Films
1 of 5 | Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan star in "The Lost King," in theaters Friday. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

NEW YORK, March 24 (UPI) -- The Lost King star, co-writer and producer Steve Coogan says he wanted his new drama to give Philippa Langley -- the amateur historian who discovered Richard III's remains under a Leicester parking lot in 2012 -- the respect and recognition she was cheated out of in real life.

"He was missing for 500 years. I didn't really know much about him, wasn't particularly interested in Richard III," Coogan told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.


"But I saw a documentary and this woman, Philippa Langley, was in it and she was outside the academic establishment and, yet she seemed to be at the center of things," he added. "The official version from the University [of Leicester] didn't reflect that and I was puzzled by that inconsistency."

The Queen and A Very English Scandal director Stephen Frears helmed The Lost King, an adaptation of Langley's non-fiction book, The King's Grave: The Search for Richard III.


Coogan and Stan & Ollie scribe Jeff Pope wrote the screenplay for the fact-based film, which opens in theaters Friday.

It stars The Shape of Water and Paddington Bear actress Sally Hawkins as Langley, a woman estranged from her husband John (Coogan) and raising two young sons in Edinburgh when she becomes fascinated by how different the true history of Richard III was compared to how it is chronicled in William Shakespeare's famous stage play.

Langley is seen quitting her job, reading everything she can find about the controversial king and, determined to find his final resting place, contacting historians, archeologists and local politicians in an effort to find him.

Certain she has narrowed down the location, Langley raises most of the money needed to exhume him through crowdsourcing for the dig, which was assisted by some personnel from the university.

On the first day, in the first possible spot, Richard's skeleton is found. It should have been a happy ending, but the film shows Langley sidelined and her contributions downplayed by the university.

"The story of finding Richard was interesting, but her treatment was what motivated me," Coogan said.

"She had been marginalized by an academic institution, which had rendered her little more than a footnote in a story that she should have been at the heart of," he added. "I was so angry I thought, 'Well, we'll make a film and we will put her at the heart of the story and redress that balance."


The 24 Hour Party People and Alan Partridge star said he tried to assure Langley that although his background was in comedy, she should not worry that he was going to mock her.

"My best calling card was that I'd just had Oscar nominations around that time for Philomena," he said.

He told her he wanted to tell the story of a marginalized woman at the hands of a patriarchal institution, but not in a way that was "virtue signaling."

"She did not have the infrastructure and machinery at her disposal to put her version of events out there. The university had a huge public relations machine," Coogan said.

"They plastered, 'We found him,' on the sides of buses all around Leicester, even though she led the search, not them but she doesn't have that. I told Philippa our film will be the end of your story."

Hawkins perfectly captured Langley's personality, temperament, eccentricities and vulnerability, Coogan said.

"She is not cut from the same cloth as the academics," he said, adding it is important to see that and how it could make her "easy prey" to those who wish to diminish her and her contributions because she hadn't published papers and didn't have impressive letters after her name, indicating she had studied extensively in a specific field.


The university only offered financial support once the remains were deemed "highly likely" to be those of the dead medieval monarch, Coogan added.

"At that point the university said, 'We'll fund it from here,'" Coogan said. "Well, of course, they're going to fund it. She'd just found it! It drove me nuts."

The actor and filmmaker doesn't see the film as depicting academics generally as not wanting to be challenged.

"Politicians are challenged. Academics, if they do their job properly, are respected and there are proper disciplines of academia that need to be respected. They are evidence-based. They are dispassionate," he said.

"But sometimes in that understandable and noble endeavor, the humanity can get lost and I think Philippa scared them because she was half-academic and half-intuitive and the intuitive part gave them the heebie jeebies," he added. "But she was vindicated because that was how she found Richard III."

Another aspect of Langley's story that Coogan liked was how friendly she and her ex-husband were to each other even though they were no longer together.

"It was sort of a fraternal relationship. I hadn't seen that on screen. He certainly wasn't her savior. He was one of the doubters," Coogan said. "But he listened to her and just behaved honorably because he saw how much [the search] meant to her. He just didn't get in her way and when he saw she was being -- as he saw it -- bullied by the university, then he was right there by her side."


The university has released a statement, saying the filmmakers declined its offer of help with the movie and alleging inaccuracies in the way the story was told.

"We appreciate that while The Lost King is based on real events, it is a work of fiction, and recollections will vary from various people of what happened during such an incredibly exciting moment in history," the statement said.

"It is our view that the portrayal of the University of Leicester's role in the project is far removed from the accurate work that took place. We worked closely with Philippa Langley throughout the project, and she was not sidelined by the university. Indeed, she formed part of the team interview panel for every single press conference connected to the King."

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