Charles becoming king amid a constitutional crisis-and the Duchess of Cambridge Seizing her opportunity: Kate the power player


A controversial new BBC drama imagines Charles becoming king amid a constitutional crisis-and the Duchess of Cambridge Seizing her opportunity: Kate the power player

Even with a hairnet to keep her swept-back brunette mane immaculately coiffed between scenes and a pink hot-water bottle clutched to her stomach to stave off the cold, Charlotte Riley looks the spitting image of the Duchess of Cambridge.

We don’t immediately think of Kate as a ‘tough cookie’ who won’t back down from a fight, but that’s how Peaky Blinders star Charlotte portrays her in controversial new BBC2 drama King Charles III.

Richard Goulding (Left) and Oliver Chris with Tim Pigott-Smith
Richard Goulding (Left) and Oliver Chris with Tim Pigott-Smith

‘This is Kate behind-closed-doors,’ she says. ‘I like to think she’s as feisty and forthright in private as she is in our show.’

We’re at Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham in South Yorkshire, which doubles for Buckingham Palace in the one-off 90-minute drama.

Adapted by Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett from his award-winning play, it imagines what happens when Prince Charles, played by the late Tim Pigott-Smith, ascends the throne after the death of the Queen.

Charles has waited a lifetime to accede but when he finally does he finds himself wrestling with his conscience. A law has been passed by Parliament that will severely limit the freedom of the Press, but when the time comes for Charles to sign it he won’t, believing his job as king is to protect the rights of his people.

A political stand-off ensues, one that causes the entire country to rethink the role of its sovereign. Parliament is dissolved leading to uproar on the streets, and the prime minister locks horns with the monarch.

Charles’s hesitation divides his family, with William (Oliver Chris) and Kate realising his actions may in turn threaten their own family’s future. This is where Kate comes into her own in the drama, pushing her husband to take control.

Meanwhile, an unhappy Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) starts a relationship with a commoner, not an American actress like his real girlfriend Meghan Markle but a British republican.

The drama dispenses with the playful, smiling Duchess we see at public engagements and portrays her as a very ambitious power player. ‘She’s almost like the CEO of a business,’ says Charlotte.

‘There’s a hint of Lady Macbeth in there. She’s pragmatic and wants to move things forward for the Royal Family. She encourages William to become the man she knows he can be, to lead from the front. 

‘She’s doing what she thinks is right. Given the world she comes from, she’s saying, “Why aren’t these things talked about? We need to talk like normal people and crack on.” 

‘You have to drive this machine to be more relevant in the society we live in, and there’s no shame in that.’

Oliver Chris, the Late Tim Pigott-Smith and Charlotte Riley as William, Charles and Kate
Oliver Chris, the Late Tim Pigott-Smith and Charlotte Riley as William, Charles and Kate

Both Charlotte and the real Kate are 35, born just 11 days apart, but their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Whereas Kate was born into an upper-middle-class family from Berkshire, Charlotte had what she describes as a typical working-class upbringing in the North East, sharing a bedroom with her siblings in a small house in a village near Stockton-on-Tees.

But she’s used to playing ‘posh birds’ as she jokingly calls them (she was most recently seen as American heiress Rachel Lombard in BBC2 spy drama Close To The Enemy).

‘I had to do a lot of work on Kate’s voice,’ she says. ‘She’s a lot more Received Pronunciation than we think so I had to get the balance between sounding like her but also being able to open up her voice. She’s quite contained – but in this drama she isn’t.’

Charlotte, who’s been married to Taboo star Tom Hardy for three years, is exuberant and fun in person, quite the opposite to calm and composed Kate, so she spent a lot of time studying Kate’s body language.

‘She’s quite held together, not just in terms of posture but she’s aware of her movement and body language,’ explains Charlotte. 

‘You’ve only got to look at footage of her and William to know that they’re incredibly aware of what body language does. So I started to do a lot of research on YouTube. I wanted to see how the public perceive her so I watched a lot of footage of people meeting her when they do the rounds and shake people’s hands. 

‘Interestingly, when somebody puts their arm around her, which they’re not supposed to, you can see her grit her teeth, thinking, “Don’t do that.” And she doesn’t have dresses that have pockets, so what do you do with your hands?’

But the key to trying to empathise with Kate was the feeling of being an outsider, which any newcomer to the Royal Family surely must have.

The rest of the cast had all performed the play in the West End and on Broadway, but Charlotte replaced Lydia Wilson for the TV drama.

I was talking to a friend about how nervous I felt as I was an outsider and she told me to use it for the character, as that was the situation Kate was in,’ she explains. 

‘Not that I was allowed to feel like an outsider for very long because they all took me under their wing pretty quickly. But Kate is an outsider really, and she’s made it work.

‘I hope I’ve done her justice in the sense of portraying the side of her I like to think is there. She’s a very intelligent woman, and I hope she might think, “Oh, that’s all right.” 

‘As for the Royal Family, I hope they think it’s thought-provoking and an interesting take on what could potentially happen in the future – it’s food for thought. Having done this I have a deeper understanding of the restrictions, the protocol and the massive weight of responsibility they have.’

The late Tim Pigott-Smith, the actor famous for his roles in The Jewel In The Crown, Doctor Who and Downton Abbey, reprised his role as Charles for the TV drama with Margot Leicester as a very spirited Camilla.

Tim, speaking before his unexpected death last month at the age of 70 just days before he was due to appear in a production of Death Of A Salesman in Northampton, said he barely did any research for his role.

‘Someone asked me if I’d done a lot of research but I haven’t had to as Charles is only two years younger than me so we’ve grown up in parallel and I’ve watched him go through various phases of his life,’ he explained.

When I was offered the part I was working with a friend who did voices for Spitting Image. I asked how he would do Charles and he said that Charles fiddles with his cuffs and that he pulls his mouth down to the side when he’s talking and doesn’t really open his mouth.

Charles coronation, with John Shrapnel (Left) as the Archbishop
Charles coronation, with John Shrapnel (Left) as the Archbishop

‘Watching a video of him I discovered that he does this thing with his hands outside his pockets, they hover outside but they never go in which is wonderfully indecisive and suits the character in the play. We didn’t want to do imitations but occasionally there’s a suggestion of the actual man.’

Like the play, the television script is written in blank verse – regular metrical lines but unrhymed – which only enhances the drama.

‘It’s a modern verse, almost like a rap,’ Tim said. ‘It’s absolutely brilliant how relevant the play is because it provokes a huge amount of debate about the state of the monarchy. It’s a very clever story but not at the Royal Family’s expense. It’s proper drama. It’s wonderful that it’s going to be seen on television.’  

King Charles III is on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC2.


Tags: Prince William, Prince Charles, Kate Middleton, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge

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