It 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 increasingly resentful. Racism was fairly endemic at the time, and Karim had started to get a bit uppity. The Queen put him in charge of the Indian servants, gave him his own cottage, shipped his wife and mother-in-law over from India, put him in his own carriage on the royal train, and his father – a medical assistant 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.
Judi is Brown Owl. She looks after everybody
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.
Royal romance | Queen Victoria's men
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne
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 cites a particular scene, when, to the consternation of the Royal household, Victoria took Abdul to a remote little house called Glas Allt Shiel, on the Balmoral estate, where she used 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 died and I just go on and on.
Lord Melbourne was Victoria’s first prime minister (1835-1841). He was 40 years her senior, and Victoria, only 18 when she acceded to the throne, learnt a great deal from him. On Christmas Day, 1839, after taking communion with him, she wrote: ‘[I] was very glad Lord Melbourne was there, the one whom I look up to as a father.’
‘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.
Was it love? On one occasion she said, ‘Hold me tight’
‘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 signed as “your loving mother”, or she would say, “I miss my friend,” and on one occasion, “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.’
One 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.
Windsor Castle and Balmoral were tricky enough, but Osborne House is a whole other world that hasn’t really been seen on screen before
‘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 ago,’ says Dench. ‘Walking down those corridors and glancing about, you think, well the paint might have changed – but it was still really exciting.’
During filming, visitors to the house were treated to an occasional glimpse of Queen Victoria, or Bertie, which must have been surreal. They must have 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.
Scenes were shot at Osborne House, Victoria’s winter residence, on the Isle of Wight CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
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 to be sitting in a room but only three people can sit down. So there’s a bit, for example, where Olivia Williams [Lady Churchill, Lady of the Bedchamber and friend to the Queen] looks as if she’s sitting on a chair but, in fact, it’s a sort of crate.’
One of Macdonald’s fav-ourite 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 and a high-heeled boot 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.’
Bertie 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.’
Eddie Izzard plays Bertie, the Prince of Wales, unimpressed with his mother’s new friend CREDIT: © FOCUS FEATURES
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.’
She was a monster, but she was also rather brilliant
It sounds like a very entertaining film to work on. The principal members of the cast stayed 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 preferred, but I could hear their 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.)
Victoria with Karim, aka ‘the Munshi’, who entered the Royal household in 1887 CREDIT: THE ROYAL COLLECTION © 2009 HM QUEEN ELIZABETH II
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
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Victoria was introduced to her cousin Albert by their Uncle Leopold in May 1836, and she proposed in October 1839. Later, she gave him the title Prince Consort. They had nine children and they remained inseparable until his death in 1861 from suspected typhoid. Victoria went into mourning and wore only black until her own death in 1901.
The Queen grew close to her personal attendant at Balmoral after Albert’s death. Her daughters joked John Brown was ‘Mama’s lover’. After his death in 1883, Victoria wrote to Viscount Cranbrook: ‘Perhaps never in history was there so strong and true an attachment, so warm and loving a friendship between the sovereign and servant.‘