‘He wasn’t grumpy – he was bad-tempered’: Why Prince Philip was so hard to pin down onscreen

Following the royal’s death, Jennifer Vineyard examines the various portrayals of Prince Philip in TV and film over the years, with the help of an expert

Wednesday 14 April 2021 11:54
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<p>Clockwise from top left: James Cromwell, Tobias Menzies, Prince Philip and Matt Smith</p>

Clockwise from top left: James Cromwell, Tobias Menzies, Prince Philip and Matt Smith

There were numerous portrayals of Prince Philip over the course of his long life, which ended aged 99 on Friday 9 April. Actors including Tobias Menzies, Matt Smith, James Cromwell and Christopher Lee all played the part.

However, according to one of Philip’s biographers, no one ever captured the man’s essence on screen. The reason, says Ingrid Seward, author of Prince Philip Revealed, is that no one ever had the opportunity to study him closely. As a man accustomed to walking a few paces behind his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, in public, he remained partly out of view.

Seward, who has interviewed many members of the royal family, including Prince Charles and Princess Diana, began talking to the Duke of Edinburgh in the late 1970s. Some of their early meetings were disasters, she says. “He was rude to me.” But she eventually formed a clearer view of Philip’s complicated persona – his irascible character, his acerbic wit, his generosity of spirit.

Here, she helps assess the accuracy and relative merits of his film and television portrayals through the decades, which evolved along with the public perception of the monarchy.

Courtship biopics

Two TV movies based on the courtship between Charles and Lady Diana Spencer aired within days of each other in September 1982 on competing US networks.

The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, on CBS, starred Stewart Granger as Philip. In Charles & Diana: A Royal Love Story, on ABC, Lee played the prince. (Neither is currently available to stream, though portions have been posted online.)

Each film followed a fairytale narrative, portraying Diana as a Cinderella figure on her way to becoming a princess bride. In both, Charles’s parents – Philip especially – were depicted as warm, loving nurturers. (In The Royal Romance, Philip even gives his son a big hug on his wedding day.) The cast of Royal Romance had some legitimate royal connections – Granger was a family friend (on the Mountbatten and Brabourne side), and one of the royal cousins, Catherine Oxenberg, played Diana. But neither film captured the actual family dynamic, Seward says.

“Philip was quite rough on Charles,” Seward says. “Charles wasn’t the child he had hoped for – he wanted a son in his own image.”

Soap opera biopics

By the 1990s, the honeymoon was clearly over. As Charles and Diana’s marriage fell apart, Philip’s public image had become frostier, transformed from that of an amiable father into that of a grumpy old man. But “he wasn’t grumpy,” Seward says. “He was bad-tempered, which is quite different.”

These Philips micromanage his son’s love life, telling Charles to find a suitable girl to marry. In Diana: Her True Story from 1993, Donald Douglas’s Philip says to Charles: “You courted half the girls in the country. How long does it take to find a Protestant virgin?” Later, after Charles’s marriage to Diana grows wobbly, Philip tells him, “How do you expect to be king if you can’t manage your wife?”

In Charles and Camilla: Whatever Love Means from 2005, Peter Egan’s Philip continually intimidates Charles and his girlfriends, finding them unworthy of his son. (“Are you what they call a socialite?” he asks one played by Hayley Atwell. “The last thing Charles needs is undesirable press attention.”)

“Philip could be a bit scary,” Seward says. “He could be very rude. You have to be strong and stand up to him.”

When Philip gives his son a hard time for taking so long to find a bride later in Charles and Camilla Charles takes this as an ultimatum. But in real life, Philip wrote his son a letter, suggesting kindly that he make up his mind and not keep Diana hanging on, lest he ruin her reputation.

The Queen

James Cromwell as Prince Philip opposite Helen Mirren in ‘The Queen’

Seward helped consult on The Queen, Stephen Frears’ 2006 film about how the Queen responded to Diana’s death. (Peter Morgan, who would go on to create The Crown, wrote the screenplay.) But she found Cromwell’s perpetually exasperated Philip to be a caricature.

“It’s true that he disliked fools,” though, she says. “And sometimes he could be like, ‘I can’t bother with this.’”

That applied to Diana after the separation. But it hadn’t always been that way. Philip tried to help his daughter-in-law adjust to the royal family and, later, to help save her marriage. (Some of this was depicted in the most recent season of The Crown.) He wrote Diana several letters of encouragement, which were revealed at the inquest into her death, in 1997. But when his efforts failed, he stopped supporting her.

“Philip really worked hard at it,” Seward said, but eventually Diana turned against him.

“I remember Diana telling me how much she hated Philip,” she said. “Diana told me that she had told William and Harry to never, ever, ever shout at anyone who couldn’t answer back, the way Philip did.” (In Philip’s defence, Seward also noted that his staff loved him, and that as he grew hard of hearing, the volume of his speaking voice increased.)

Philip didn’t really take his grandchildren on a stag hunt to distract them in the wake of their mother’s death, as depicted in The Queen – Seward said that was done by other members of the royal family. It was, however, “the sort of thing he would have done,” she said, “so that was OK.”

The Crown

Tobias Menzies played Philip in the throes of a midlife crisis in ‘The Crown’

Smith and Menzies played Philip in The Crown, which premiered in 2016, and Seward took issue with both portrayals.

“They make him seem grumpy and bored,” she says. “He was never bored. He led a really active, packed, busy life.”

She thinks Smith in seasons one and two failed to carry himself the way Philip did. “Everyone knows that he walks with his hands behind his back, that he’s got a very military stance, even in his 99th year,” Seward said, adding that this posture made him seem taller than he actually was. She said Smith’s Philip was also too pouty and petulant, even if Philip did struggle to find a role for himself when his wife first became queen.

“Philip does not sulk,” Seward says. “That is so not him.”

Seward found that in seasons three and four, Menzies offered a more nuanced portrayal of a man in midlife crisis, but there was no such crisis. “The moon landing, no, no, no,” Seward said, referring to the “Moondust” episode, in which Philip becomes obsessed with the Americans’ 1969 moon landing and wallows in feelings of failure because of his own, less-consequential position in life. (Jonathan Pryce will take over the role in season five.)

“Once Philip established himself, he was fine,” Seward said. “He accomplished so much, and he travelled all over the world on his own.”

Matt Smith’s portrayal in ‘The Crown’ was ‘too pouty and petulant’

Overall, Seward insisted, The Crown didn’t get Philip’s sense of humour, his shyness, his love of cooking programmes on television or his extensive knowledge of art. Yes, he did occasionally make insensitive – and even racist – remarks. “I’m not defending him,” Seward said. “But he would say something jokingly, and it would sound rude or racist.” Philip called this “dontopedalogy”, the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it.

Seward says The Crown also took considerable creative licence. An episode devoted to the so-called Balmoral test – a purported series of social traps laid for guests at the royal family’s Scottish estate – is “complete rubbish”, Seward said. Philip did not actually take Diana stag stalking on his own, as he does in that episode. But he did bond with his future daughter-in-law in other ways.

“Philip really did look after her as an outsider,” Seward said. “He would sit her next to him at black-tie dinners. He felt that was his duty, since he could see that she was terrified.”

The Queen’s Corgi

Could it be that a poorly reviewed animated film portraying the royal couple came closest to getting Philip’s personality right? The events of the 2020 film The Queen’s Corgi are clearly fiction, depicting a meeting between Philip and Donald Trump. In real life, the prince generally declined to attend events the Queen hosted for the US president and his wife. (Philip retired from royal duties in 2017.)

That aside, the animated Philip (voiced by Tom Courtenay) is annoyed by the Queen’s devotion to the diminutive breed of dog in the same way that Philip was in real life.

“Philip didn’t like the Corgis,” Seward says. “They bite – they’re quite nippy little animals. You can imagine him being irritated at them trying to get into bed with him!”

© The New York Times

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