Film

Stephen Frears: "Brexit lunatics seem determined to put the clocks back"

Victoria & Abdul director Stephen Frears says Britain is clearly struggling to accept the loss of its empire – and that today's royals are more conventional than their ancestors

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in Victoria & Abdul

Stephen Frears, the 76-year-old veteran director of My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, The Queen and Philomena, revisits a royal subject with Dame Judi Dench in Victoria & Abdul, about the matriarchal monarch’s friendship with a Muslim servant and how it rocked the Establishment.

It is based on a true story that almost feels like a fairytale, one that seems unlikely happening in the late 19th century, but would be even more fantastical today. And the relationship between Britain and its empire, attitudes towards immigrants are thoroughly raked over.

While Frears humanised royals more than most – Dame Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning turn in The Queen showed a vulnerable side to the nation’s figurehead as she processed the death of Princess Diana – it’s safe to say he’s not a fan of the institution himself…

TBI: Why are we still fascinated by films about the royal family? Is it because we still don’t know what goes on behind closed doors?
Stephen Frears: No, I think it’s because we’re a deeply conservative country. Perhaps there’s a bit of mystery.

Is it a good mystery?
Well it was in the 19th century. I’m not sure it’s much good now. I don’t understand how monarchy coexists with democracy but it seems to in this country.

Has our current monarch been around for so long we don’t remember any different?
She’s done rather well, hasn’t she? She’s a good advertisement for it. If you’re going to have a queen she’s been a rather good one.

The film is set in Victorian times but is it about today?
Obviously what’s interesting is the contemporary relevance, the contemporary echoes. That’s what was entertaining, it offended contemporary racism or contemporary conservatism, whatever you call it. That’s what I liked.

Britain is such a small country, the thought it ruled over a quarter of the world is quite phenomenal

Is it time to rethink the romantic notion of Britannia and the waves?
That’s all happened. Nobody thinks that stuff was any good. Apart from some idiots for Brexit.

Was there anything from our age of empire of which to be proud?
Only that Britain is such a small country, the thought it ruled over a quarter of the world is quite phenomenal. How much good was done it’s hard to say, but it clearly was an extraordinary achievement. It’s made modern life more difficult. People can’t quite cope with the way Britain now is. Isn’t that what’s going on at the moment? People unable to face up to the reduced ambition of this country. These lunatics seem determined to put the clocks back.

Judi Dench and Stephen Frears on the set of Victoria & Abdul
Britannia rules the waves: Judi Dench and Stephen Frears on the set of Victoria & Abdul

Do they know what they’re putting the clocks back to? Immigration is a direct consequence of the glory days of empire.
In my life immigration has been entirely for the good. Britain now is a much better country than it was. It’s very peculiar. Brexit is against European immigration, not against Commonwealth immigration.

Are people making that distinction?
Well, legally that’s what they’re doing, they’re getting rid of Europeans. So it’s oddly not racist. Though it clearly is racist in other ways.

There are scenes of the film set in Windsor Castle, but am I right in saying you didn’t film there?
No, you’re not allowed. We did it in a place in Leicestershire – Belvoir Castle.

Could that also serve as a cheaper venue for Harry and Meghan’s wedding?
I wouldn’t have thought so. I’ve never been to Windsor but I imagine it’s nice.

In 100 years will they be making films about the current crop of royals?
I hope not.

Why not?
They seem more conventional. Victoria was a rather interesting woman, much more eccentric than anybody realises. The idea of learning Urdu is very impressive. Something tells me that isn’t going to happen in this generation.

Do you think they’re allowed to show they might be unconventional and interesting people?
Presumably if they were unconventional they wouldn’t have a choice. You’re unconventional, you don’t have to try. It doesn’t feel like there’s someone unconventional trying to get out. Diana was the unconventional one, I suppose.

But when you made a film about her – The Queen – you made it not about her.
I’m not sure how interesting she was. Maybe there is an interesting movie [to be] written about her.

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in Victoria Abdul
A happy union: Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in Victoria & Abdul

If someone came to you with a great script about Harry and Meghan’s fairytale romance would you be interested?
It’d be nice, but I’d be surprised.

You gave Daniel Day-Lewis his big break in My Beautiful Laundrette. What was your reaction to news that he’s going to retire after The Phantom Thread?
Is that what he said?

He said the role made him “overwhelmed with sadness” so he won’t play another.
Much in life is sad, isn’t it?

He’s clearly an actor who cared a lot about his craft.
Of course. Everybody cares about their craft.

But none are as good.
Perhaps there’s a better actor. But he was a pleasure to direct.

Hopefully it won’t really be his last film.
People change their minds.

In your film about Harry and Meghan he can play Prince Charles!
[indistinct mumbling]

Victoria & Abdul is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. Win a copy in our competition

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