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The lying game. From The King’s Speech to The Crown, historical dramas are full of lies. Playwright Francis Beckett prefers the truth

Blog | May 31, 2023

Turning history into drama, you have some artistic licence.

You can be cavalier about the precise facts, alter the sequence of events and even invent some, and you have to invent a lot of dialogue.

But is there a line you mustn’t cross?

In November, two former prime ministers, Tony Blair and John Major, attacked The Crown for depicting Prince Charles (now King Charles) lobbying them to help force his mother to retire.

I know the problem. I’ve just written a historical play, Vodka with Stalin. It tells the story of the troubled relationship between Stalin and the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The meetings with Stalin happened, but I invented a pivotal scene between Communist leader Harry Pollitt and Labour Party leader George Lansbury.

My other play, A Modest Little Man, about Clement Attlee, has been performed in London and Liverpool. I wanted to build up the importance of my central character. So I was less than fair to big figures in his Cabinet, such as Nye Bevan and Herbert Morrison.

It was on Attlee’s behalf that I felt indignant when I saw the 2017 film Darkest Hour. Writer Anthony McCarten gives us a war cabinet in 1940 that believes Britain to be defeated and wants to negotiate with Hitler. Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is isolated and alone until King George VI gives him support.

Which is rubbish. Churchill’s crucial support came from Attlee and Attlee’s deputy, Arthur Greenwood. Churchill, Attlee and Greenwood outvoted the defeatists, Chamberlain and Halifax, in the five-member war cabinet.

I cannot see a good dramatic reason for not telling the truth here.

In 1940, Britain was hours away from a German invasion that military chiefs thought would succeed. That the government was not panicked into negotiating was mostly the work of Churchill and Attlee. That’s a dramatic enough tale. Why not tell it?

There’s also a widely mocked scene in the film, in which Churchill takes a trip on the London Underground and speaks to Ordinary People who buoy him up with their John Bull spirit. It’s laughable but transparent, unlike the falsehood about defeatism, which is neither.

There’s another example in the 2010 film The King’s Speech, about the speech therapist who enabled King George VI to speak without stammering.

Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill urges Edward VIII to abdicate in 1936. He tells the future George VI (Colin Firth), ‘Parliament will not support the marriage [to American divorcee Wallis Simpson]. There are those who are worried about where he will stand when war comes with Germany.’

This is the opposite of the truth. Churchill wanted the King to face down Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and stay on the throne. Churchill was even touted as the leader of a potential ‘King’s Party’.

It lent weight to the stammering story if you could link it to the much bigger issue of fighting Hitler, even though no one made this connection at the time. In a film that simplistically pits the goodies (pro-abdication) against the baddies, it’s convenient to have a national hero like Churchill on the side of the goodies.

As history gets more recent, offence is more likely. I have seen in Neil Kinnock’s archive a hurt private letter he wrote to David Hare after seeing the latter’s 1993 play, The Absence of War. Though the leading character was called George Jones and was not Welsh, Hare admitted he was a thinly disguised Kinnock, struggling through the 1992 general election, which Kinnock unexpectedly lost.

Kinnock wrote to Hare, ‘No one watching it, or writing about it, will make the distinction between what is biographical and documentary and what is fictitious and theatrical.

‘George is remote, garrulous, innumerate, a noble soul manipulated into respectable coma and searching for scapegoats.’

Hare felt Kinnock was seeing it not as drama, but as reportage, which it isn’t.

I have some sympathy with Kinnock. As he wrote to Hare, the play ‘echoes the mythology’. No one seeing it was going to say, ‘It’s only a play.’

It’s safer to set your play a long time in the past. In Robert Bolt’s 1966 A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More is brave and principled. In Hilary Mantel’s novels, later plays, he is a cruel, self-righteous bigot.

Both are right. More was the sort of man – like many Catholics of his time and many 20th-century Communists – who bravely confronts death for his beliefs, convinced it was those who got the line wrong who ought to be killed. Equally, Thomas Cromwell was Mantel’s far-seeing, serpentine statesman and Bolt’s cynical manipulator.

Both Bolt and Mantel emphasised those parts of their protagonist that help their audience to care about him. That’s what Hare did with Kinnock, and I hope I have done with Attlee and Stalin. No piece of writing offers the whole truth about anything, not even this one.

But there is a line that to cross is to distort the story of our past to the point where your drama becomes a lie.

Darkest Hour crossed it, because it made great characters in our history do exactly the opposite of what they actually did.

Francis Beckett’s Vodka with Stalin is Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate, north London, in February