The odd cou­ple

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - WILDLIFE -

‘Was it love? On one oc­ca­sion she said, “Hold me tight”’

I t was a story that was cry­ing out for a film. Queen Vic­to­ria, old, fat, bored, wid­owed and still griev­ing, had pretty much given up and was slowly eat­ing her­self to death. Her dis­so­lute son Ber­tie was im­pa­tient to get rid of her so he could be crowned Ed­ward VII. It was 1887, her Golden Ju­bilee year, and she was brac­ing her­self for the on­slaught of trib­utes and fealty from over­seas roy­alty. Bri­tain had ruled In­dia for the past 29 years and as a gift she was sent two In­dian ser­vants, Mo­hammed Buksh and Abdul Karim. Karim, a clerk at the prison in Agra, was 24. He came over for a cou­ple of months and stayed for a decade.

Ini­tially his du­ties were as a ser­vant, but af­ter less than a year he had be­come the ‘Mun­shi’, the Queen’s teacher (she learnt Hin­dus­tani from him) and of­fi­cial In­dian clerk. Vic­to­ria was Em­press of In­dia and fas­ci­nated by the coun­try, but had never been there. She be­came be­sot­ted with Abdul: there were daily lessons, a salary in­crease, por­traits com­mis­sioned and he in­tro­duced her to curry, which be­came a sta­ple on royal menus.

As her in­fat­u­a­tion in­creased, her fam­ily and the Royal house­hold grew i ncreas­ingly re s e n t f u l . Ra c i s m wa s fairly en­demic at the time, and Karim had starte d to get a bit up­pity. The Queen put him in charge of the In­dian ser­vants, gave him his own co t t a ge , s hi pp e d hi s wif e a nd mother-in-law over from In­dia, put him in his own car­riage on the royal train, and his fa­ther – a med­i­cal assi stant in the Agra jail – was awarded a knight­hood.

Abdul was de­voted to her, but hi­er­ar­chy was ev­ery­thing in those days. There was a re­bel­lion in the Royal house­hold and a stand-off with the Queen. (Even her beloved John Brown, de­spite his close­ness to Vic­to­ria, had al­ways re­mained a ser­vant.)

It was a nar­ra­tive with a lot of charm but it was bound to end badly. And it did. Af­ter Vic­to­ria’s death, Karim’s house was raided by Ber­tie and al­most all of the many hun­dreds of let­ters from Vic­to­ria were de­stroyed. Karim was packed off back to In­dia, where his health de­clined and he died eight years later, aged 46.

But no one thought to de­stroy the Queen’s Hin­dus­tani jour­nals, a prod­uct of her daily lessons with the Mun­shi. And when writer Shra­bani Basu was re­search­ing a book about curry she be­came cu­ri­ous about its preva­lence in the Vic­to­rian house­hold, and equally cu­ri­ous about the por­traits of the strik­ing In­dian courtier in the Dur­bar Wing at Os­borne House. She dis­cov­ered that 13 vol­umes of the Queen’s Hin­dus­tani jour­nals were kept in the ar­chives at Wind­sor Cas­tle, and asked to see them. Then, in Agra, she came upon Abdul Karim’s tomb and tracked down his rel­a­tives – which led to the in­evitable trunk con­tain­ing his jour­nals, and a whole new light was thrown on the re­la­tion­ship.

When pro­ducer Bee­ban Kidron heard about Basu’s book on the ra­dio, she couldn’t be­lieve her luck. Cross Street Films, the pro­duc­tion com­pany she runs with hus­band Lee Hall (who wrote Billy El­liot), pitched for the rights and won. ‘We wanted to do it from the point of view of Abdul, the stranger look­ing at the strangenes­s of court. And to be funny and ac­ces­si­ble,’ says Kidron.

Cross Street teamed up with other pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Work­ing Ti­tle, to pro­duce the film. Hall wrote the script and Stephen Frears was asked to di­rect. ‘He’s brave and ir­rev­er­ent,’ ex­plains Kidron. ‘And I felt he would get the hu­mor­ous, fa­ble-like take on the sub­ject.’

And Frears, ev­ery­one hoped, might bring in Judi Dench to play Vic­to­ria. ‘No­body else made sense,’ he says. They had worked to­gether on Philom­ena ( 2013), and Dench had fa­mously played Vic­to­ria in John Mad­den’s Mrs Brown, the 1997 film about her re­la­tion­ship with the Scot­tish ser­vant (played by Billy Con­nolly). So it was a nice con­ceit that, 20 years later, Dench might play her again.

Did her heart sink or leap at the idea? It cau­tiously leapt, Dame Judi Dench tells me on the phone. For sev­eral rea­sons. ‘I have some­times been back to re-ex­am­ine some­thing, but not in film, only in Shake­speare. But I did think Lee’s screen­play was re­ally very good in­deed, and I can’t re­sist Stephen Frears.’ She was riv­eted by the story, and had al­ready done the home­work in her last foray as Vic­to­ria.

She cite s a par­tic­u­lar s cene, when, to the con­ster­na­tion of the Royal house­hold, Vic­to­ria to ok Abdul to a re­mote lit­tle house called Glas Allt Shiel, on the Bal­moral es t a t e , where s he us e d to re­treat with Brown, and to which she said she would never re­turn af­ter he died. ‘They don’t un­der­stand any­thing, those stupid aris­to­cratic fools,’ she says of her fam­ily in the film. ‘Toad­y­ing around. Jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion… They couldn’t bear me bring­ing dear John Brown here. Yet I was hap­pier here than any­where in the en­tire world. Oh, I miss him, Abdul. And Al­bert… I am so lonely. Ev­ery­one I’ve re­ally loved has die d and I just go on and on.

‘No one re­ally knows what it ’s like to be Queen. I’m hated by mil­lions of peo­ple all over the world. I have had nine chil­dren, all vain, and jealous and at log­ger­heads with each other. And Ber­tie’s a com­plete em­bar­rass­ment. And look at me! A fat, lame, im­po­tent, silly old woman. What is the point, Abdul?’

‘It must have been glo­ri­ous to have some­body to talk to,’ says Dench now. ‘Some­body to learn from, and to ex­change ideas with. And she was pro­pri­eto­rial with him; he kind of be­longed to her – I’m sure that just hav­ing some­body to re­lax with must have been won­der­ful for any­one in that po­si­tion.’

Abdul is played by Bol­ly­wood star Ali Fazal, along­side a stel­lar the­atri­cal cast: Tim Pig­gott-smith, Michael Gam­bon, Olivia Wil­liams, Paul Hig­gins, Ed­die Iz­zard – there is even an ap­pear­ance from Si­mon Cal­low as Puc­cini.

Kidron and Frears headed to In­dia to find Fazal. Af­ter the au­di­tion, Frears said, ‘I can see Queen Vic­to­ria be­ing quite taken with him…’, and Fazal came to the UK for a screen test, his first time in the coun­try. Frears in­structed him to watch Peter Sell­ers in Be­ing There as a ref­er­ence.

‘I re­mem­ber read­ing Vic­to­ria’s let­ters,’ says Fazal on the

phone from In­dia, ‘ the ones that sur­vived, and be­ing un­able to de­scribe their re­la­tion­ship – was it love? Was it in­ti­macy? Was it friend­ship, or ma­ter­nal? There were let­ters she signe d as “your lov­ing mother ”, or she would say, “I miss my friend,” and on one o cca­sion, “Hold me tight .” Those are strong words for a monarch.’

There was no ev­i­dence that their re­la­tion­ship was sex­ual, but there was a ro­man­tic el­e­ment to it. Ac­cord­ing to Frears, Vic­to­ria liked to be held: ‘Brown would lift her down from the horse and put his arms around her, and she liked that very much.

‘Any­way, she al­ways liked sex. It was just the chil­dren she couldn’t stand.’

For all that Abdul was de­voted to her, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a chancer as well. ‘What ap­pealed to him was the in­tel­lec­tual stim­u­la­tion they shared,’ says Fazal. ‘But there was a ma­nip­u­la­tive side to him too, and I still be­lieve he was an op­por­tunist, though I think it was called for to be an op­por­tunist in a world that was not yours, in a coun­try that was not yours. You’re go­ing to have to climb up the lad­der with con­stant ob­sta­cles and peo­ple against you, and it re­quires a lot of balls to do that; you have to be a bit street-smart.’ O ne of the best things about the film is the glo­ri­ous sets. The court rou­tine would be for the Queen and the Royal house­hold to spend the late sum­mer in Scot­land, at Bal­moral, then re­turn to Wind­sor for the au­tumn, and move to Os­borne House on the Isle of Wight for the win­ter and Christ­mas, then back to Wind­sor in Fe­bru­ary. In the spring there would be a Euro­pean so­journ – Florence, say, or Nice.

The film was shot in In­dia and the UK. Wind­sor and Bal­moral were recre­ated at Green­wich, Belvoir Cas­tle and Kneb­worth, but the big­gest coup oc­curred when the film-mak­ers were granted per­mis­sion to film at Os­borne House, which has never hap­pened be­fore. This was the Queen’s sea­side hol­i­day home, which she and Al­bert ac­quired in 1840 (and which was given to the na­tion by Ber­tie upon her death in 1901), an Ital­ianate house with won­der­ful gar­dens. It added a whole new di­men­sion to the film, and the ac­tors were elated to be there.

‘It was glo­ri­ous to be sit­ting at a desk and look­ing out of a win­dow at the same view Vic­to­ria would have seen 100 years ag o,’ sa y s De nc h . ‘Walk­ing down those cor­ri­dors and glanc­ing about, you think, well the paint might have changed – but i t was st i l l re­ally ex­cit­ing.’

Dur­ing fi l ming, vis­i­tors to the house were treated to an oc­ca­sional glimpse of Queen Vic­to­ria, or Ber­tie, which must have been su r r e a l . Th e y mus t ha v e thought they had stum­bled across a his­tor­i­cal re-en­act­ment, or an am­a­teur pageant, ex­cept the ac­tors were Judi Dench and Ed­die Iz­zard, who had nipped down to the Dur­bar Room in full cos­tume just to have a look. Paul Hig­gins, who plays the Queen’s doc­tor, Sir James Reid, was the only cast mem­ber with a build slight enough to wear real Vic­to­rian cloth­ing. He rel­ished walk­ing to the set from his ho­tel ev­ery day, tak­ing the old chain ferry and strid­ing up the hill to the unit base in the grounds of Os­borne House. ‘I al­ways walked to the house in Vic­to­rian clothes much like Reid would have worn, over lawns that he would have walked over as he chat­ted to the gar­den­ers – he was very in­ter­ested in gar­den­ing. It was such a great way to get into char­ac­ter.’

Alan Mac­don­ald, who worked with Frears on The Queen and sev­eral other of his films, was the pro­duc­tion de­signer. ‘Os­borne House would have been the most dif­fi­cult lo­ca­tion to recre­ate be­cause it’s based on an Ital­ian villa, and within it they created a sort of new fash­ion, which is a de­par­ture from the or­nate heav­i­ness and sub­dued nature of Vic­to­ri­ana wall­pa­pers and tex­tiles. Wind­sor Cas­tle and Bal­moral were tricky enough, but Os­borne House is a whole other world that hasn’t re­ally been seen on screen be­fore – the colours are like Neapoli­tan ice creams and sor­bets, and it was all about let­ting in light.’

A de­signer’s job, says Mac­don­ald, is to re­in­force the nar­ra­tive tone of the film. ‘It’s not just cre­at­ing rooms. Find­ing the lo­ca­tion is a chal­lenge, as is find­ing the fur­ni­ture, or build­ing a gar­den in Hamp­shire – but the real chal­lenge is in cre­at­ing this sort of jig­saw puz­zle, putting all th­ese pieces to­gether, and re­flect­ing some kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal as­pect of the story.’

English Her­itage was happy to com­ply, be­cause of the ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits it will reap from tourism. But there were re­stric­tions. ‘ We had peo­ple from English Her­itage say­ing, “Don’t step there; no, don’t sit there…”’ says Dench. ‘And if you wanted to move your glass slightly to the left, some­one would have to put gloves on and move it for you.’

Some of the fur­ni­ture was very del­i­cate, says Mac­don­ald. Too del­i­cate to sit on. ‘So you might have a scene where 20 peo­ple are meant t o b e si t t i ng in a room but only three peo­ple can sit down. So there’s a bit, for ex­am­ple, where Olivia Wil­liams [Lady Churchill, La d y o f th e B e dcham­ber and friend to the Queen] looks as if she’s sit­ting on a chair but, in fact, it’s a sort of crate.’

‘What ap­pealed to him was the in­tel­lec­tual stim­u­la­tion’

One of Mac­don­ald’s favourite mo­ments was dur­ing an out­door tea-party scene in Scot­land (filmed in a glen where some of The Queen was also shot), in which the Queen and se­nior mem­bers of her house­hold were hav­ing a mis­er­able for­mal pic­nic at a ta­ble buf­feted by the wind. A car pulled up dur­ing the film­ing, the door opened an d a h i gh - he e l e d bo o t poked out. Ed­die Iz­zard.

He wasn’t re­quired on set that day but, says Iz­zard, he likes to be where the ac­tion is. ‘Film is my first love and it was one of the first scenes we shot, and I just wanted to be there – so I drove my­self up.’ It was a cold windy day and Iz­zard lay down in the heather to keep warm.

He looks like Ber­tie. How did his cast­ing come about? It was the cast­ing di­rec­tor who sug­gested him, and Frears went to watch him do stand-up. ‘My char­ac­ter ’s in­ter­est­ing – very dam­aged by his up­bring­ing, and his mother blamed him for the death of Al­bert. But he was the only one who could tell her to f— off re­ally.’ B er­tie was one of Karim’s chief de­trac­tors. ‘Vic­to­ria was on her way out; she’s eat­ing her­self to death – she’s go­ing to go in the next cou­ple of years and the throne will be Ber­tie’s,’ says Iz­zard. ‘And then sud­denly she gets a whole new lease of life; she’s got some­thing to live for. So you can see that Ber­tie would be pissed off.’

Iz­zard gained 26lb to play the part, and was given a beard and a cane. He rel­ished work­ing with Frears and was al­ready a friend of Dench, who of­ten goes to see his stand-up shows. Ac­cord­ingly, he ar­ranged a show to take place in the Isle of Wight dur­ing film­ing, to en­ter­tain all the other ac­tors and raise money for char­ity. ‘It keeps me match fit, and we all had this great sense of com­mu­nity – we’re on the Isle of Wight for a month – so I thought it would be fun for the lo­cals too. It’s like the cir­cus com­ing to town for one day. Where I grew up, in Bex­hill-on-sea, the cir­cus never came to town. So if I can ever make the cir­cus come to town, that’s such a good thing to do.’

Dench at­tended this event, and it was if the Queen her­self had ar­rived, says Mac­don­ald. ‘She is per­ceived as re­gal, but

she’s so warm and open and amus­ing and ir­rev­er­ent – not grand at all.’

It sounds li k e a ve r y en­ter­tain­ing film to work on. The prin­ci­pal mem­bers of the cast staye d in a small ho­tel with 12 rooms. There was much play­ing of Scrab­ble and other games. And Dench made them all watch Univer­sity Chal­lenge.

Frears stayed else­where. ‘I went to a hol­i­day camp, which I rather pre­ferre d, but I could hear t heir whoops of laughter while I was there. Judi is very good at all that – she’s Brown Owl. She looks af­ter ev­ery­body.’

Dr Reid was a key char­ac­ter. He was in per­ma­nent at­ten­dance to the Queen, see­ing her sev­eral times a day, and be­came her trusted com­pan­ion. He was a Scot who hated Scot­land. Hig­gins read his biog­ra­phy, Ask Sir James, in order to pre­pare for the role. ‘Ap­par­ently he was an ex­cep­tional doc­tor. Un­like some of her other doc­tors, he re­ally kept up to date. Vic­to­ria gave him time off to travel to Lon­don and visit hos­pi­tals and keep in touch with tech­nol­ogy and learning.

‘She came to rely on him and trust him, ex­cept when he told her not to eat so much and so quickly. She had a gar­gan­tuan ap­petite.’ (In one scene, Dench had to munch her way through 27 boiled eggs. Ev­ery­one was very im­pressed by this.)

Queen Vic­to­ria died in Reid’s arms on 22 Jan­uary, 1901, at Os­borne House. She was 81. ‘She was a mon­ster, but she was also rather bril­liant,’ says Frears. ‘I ad­mire her more and more.’

‘I grew up be­ing very scep­ti­cal of Vic­to­ria,’ says Lee Hall, ‘but when I read more about her, I found she was a much more in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter than I had as­sumed and I re­ally fell in love with her. She was more broad-minded than all the peo­ple around her.’

Af­ter her death, the Mun­shi was al­lowed to spend a mo­ment alone with the Queen as she lay in her cof­fin. Then, on the or­ders of the King, came the raid on his house and the de­struc­tion of the Queen’s let­ters. He re­turned to In­dia, and the land that Vic­to­ria had given him in Agra, a wealthy and ti­tled man, and ac­cord­ing to Basu, spent his last days sit­ting by the statue of Queen Vic­to­ria and watch­ing the sun set over the Taj Ma­hal. Vic­to­ria And Abdul is re­leased on 15 Septem­ber

‘Judi is Brown Owl. She looks af­ter ev­ery­body’

Fazal be­lieves his char­ac­ter, Karim, was ‘an op­por­tunist’, but ‘it was called for’

Scenes were shot at Os­borne House, Vic­to­ria’s win­ter res­i­dence, on the Isle of Wight

From left Judi Dench as Vic­to­ria and Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim in Stephen Frears’s Vic­to­ria And Abdul; the real Karim

Ed­die Iz­zard plays Ber­tie, the Prince of Wales, unim­pressed with his mother’s new friend

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