King Charles III is an odd duck.
No, I don’t mean Britain’s current reigning monarch (those italics protect me from lèse-majesté at a time when even a blank sign can get British anti-monarchists into trouble). King Charles III is the name of a 2014 play, and 2017 BBC TV adaptation of the play, both by award-winning British playwright Mike Bartlett. It is fascinating, especially now; fantastic in the literal sense, and some of its visions have already come true.
But it is also decidedly weird.
Many streaming TV viewers searching for content on the new King will have come across the 90-minute TV movie in the past week. At time of writing, it is the most popular result for the King’s name on Amazon.com and on Amazon.co.uk, above all the quickie biographies trying to make a buck. More than a few will have puzzled at the movie’s categorization: How could something called King Charles III be considered science fiction?
Answer: Because Bartlett, who has also written for Doctor Who, was dabbling in the sci-fi subgenre of future history. He imagined a turbulent few weeks in politics following the then-near-future death of the Queen, unfolding from her funeral through the coronation that follows.
Mild spoiler alert: They’re not good weeks for Charles (played on stage and screen by the legendary Tim Pigott-Smith) or for his consort Camilla, or the country in general. They are great weeks for William and Kate. And for Harry … well, we’ll get to him later in the clearly-flagged major spoiler section.
So far so intriguing, especially for those of us residents of the future who are effectively living when the play begins. It is particularly odd, as scenes of her coffin in somber parade fill the news today, to watch the BBC staging the same scenes from the Queen’s funeral in a TV movie five years ago. (It’s also chilling to learn that Pigott-Smith’s funeral came first; he died before King Charles III aired.)
Tim Pigott-Smith: RIP to a legend. We stan a King.
Credit: McPix / Shutterstock
And while it isn’t weird to see Charles turning to camera for a monologue revealing his deepest thoughts — viewers have been familiar with this trope since House of Cards — it is very weird that Charles and most of the other 21st century characters in this near-future 21st century speak in blank verse. Or, as most of us think of it, Shakespeare style.
Not always, not over the top, and not too many rhyming couplets (one memorable exception: “but now I’ll rise to how things have to be / The Queen is dead, long live the King. That’s me.”). But definitely enough iambic pentameter that only an actor of Pigott-Smith’s caliber could sell us on the role.
Bartlett has said he wanted to imagine what the person who wrote the Wars of the Roses cycle (Richard II through Richard III via a few too many parts of Henry IV, V, and VI) would make of the ongoing soap opera that is the House of Windsor. It’s a fascinating question, and doing the answer justice may be beyond any writer alive today. Bless Bartlett for having the balls to try, to breathe new life into the Bard’s tropes (such as the need for a ghost, in this case Diana), and for knowing he could only really do all this in the realm of future fiction.
But don’t miss King Charles III for the cod-Shakespeare or the sci-fi speculation; its themes are, surprisingly, more relevant than ever. The story uses the popular public stereotypes of these people everyone thinks they know (or at least, what those stereotypes were in 2014; Camilla, who controversially slaps William in the film, has improved her standing since then) as a starting point for creating three-dimensional characters he can thrust into difficult situations.
Through their eyes it offers perspective on a theme that couldn’t be any more timely: the corruption of power and popularity in a democracy, how authoritarianism gains a foothold in one, and the way the media shames women of color.
To explain further, and to get to the Harry bit, we’ll now have to issue an official SPOILER ALERT for anyone who’d rather go stream the movie themselves right now. Prefer to get the TL;DR then maybe watch? I’ve got you covered. Let’s get to the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction part first.
Prince Harry in the multiverse
Jessica, an anti-royalist, and Prince Harry, a royal, in ‘King Charles III’
What an odd plot it would have seemed in 2014: Prince Harry has a whirlwind romance with a Hollywood actor, becomes increasingly disillusioned with the treatment his new wife receives at the hands of tabloids, hears concern voiced in his family over the color of their kids, and walks away from being a royal altogether. That’s just the story that started unfolding in 2016, when Harry met Meghan.
Here’s the slightly less dramatic version from the earlier King Charles III multiverse: Harry, still single, meets an anti-monarchist named Jessica in a London nightclub after the Queen’s funeral. The pair have a many-splendored night of utter normality. Harry’s so in love he listens to her urging that he could just walk away from being a royal altogether.
When the tabloids print compromising photos of Jess, who also happens to be a woman of color, Harry introduces her to the King and tells his dad they want to step away from the family: “because like you I don’t believe that born a prince must mean I sacrifice my soul,” he says, pleading in the play’s most heartfelt moment for “an unpredicted life.” Charles consents.
But there’s no equivalent of the escape to Santa Barbara, no podcasts and Netflix deals. Because Charles also asks that they delay the announcement of Harry and Jess stepping away (Jexit?) until after the coronation. Then at the coronation, Harry dumps Jess cold to “resume the way I was before, a singleton, amusing mostly, clownish and unthreatening.”
Harry denies his own happy ending because of a deal with his brother — or as he is hailed by play’s end, alongside Queen Catherine, King William V. Shutting out Jess is one sign that a new and more subtly terrifying reign is about to begin.
All of which begs a lot of questions, such as: Did that universe influence this one? How much influence did the fake Harry and Jess have in nudging the real Harry and Meghan into flipping the script years later?
A Right (wing) Royal future
Mr. Unpopular: Charles confronts the House of Commons in the original stage play.
Credit: Alastair Muir / Shutterstock
Meanwhile, what’s this about authoritarianism on the rise? Depends who in the play you ask, which is one of its strengths. The King says it is contained in a new bill that limits press freedom. Here’s how King Charles describes it in his first speech to the nation in this universe:
A law that would give Government the right
And power to restrict, and then decide
What is acceptable to say in print.
Once fragile politicians can,
While claiming public sensitivity,
Go censoring what’s writ or not, it will
Be easier to govern as corrupt
Than bother being held unto account.
Let’s brush aside questions of how that law would work in practice (are they going to censor news websites based outside the UK too? Come and get us, fictional British government!) Point is, it’s a bad bill. It breaks long-held norms and weakens democracy … just as new Prime Minister Liz Truss’ government vows it will pass a bill that breaks international law by ripping up its Brexit agreement, and has already interfered in the BBC’s independence.
So what does Charles do? (In the Bartlett-verse, that is). He refuses to sign the bill, which has passed the House of Commons and the House of Lords. To quote Joe Biden, this is a big fucking deal. British monarchs are not presidents. One does not simply veto bills one doesn’t like. Or rather, one could, but one hasn’t for more than 300 years. Queen Anne (you may remember her as Olivia Colman in The Favorite) was the last to veto a bill, in 1708, and she only did that because her ministers asked: they’d changed their minds about making the law after it was passed.
Charles knows it’s a BFD, but his conscience won’t let him sign. The government prepares a bill declaring that the King no longer needs to sign bills to make them law, effectively unraveling the monarchy. Charles walks into the House of Commons and exercises another unused right — to dissolve it, and call fresh elections, without the prime minister asking first.
A standoff ensues. Protestors surround the palace. There’s a tank involved. But the real threat comes from within. William and Kate make a pact with the PM: They’ll sign the press bill, and save the monarchy, if they can get Charles to abdicate. Which they do, alongside Harry, by threatening to cut off his access to themselves and the grandkids.
Never mind Shakespeare, this is a stone-cold familial power move worthy of Succession.
And that, perhaps, is also a clue to what’s lacking in King Charles III: enough fleshing out to fulfill its potential for a great multiseason HBO series. Every character is forced into a position that tests their morality. Everything about their world is intriguing shades of grey. Charles risks his throne to defend the press, even as he avoids and dislikes them. The prime minister meanwhile actually has a good point about the media — he mentions the detestable 2010s Murdoch phone hacking saga, and Jess’ national shaming is an in-play illustration of how low the British gutter press will sink.
Never mind Shakespeare, this is a stone-cold familial power move worthy of ‘Succession.’
This PM, known only as Mr. Evans, also has a point that the peoples’ representatives should decide law in this century, not kings. You can almost hear the Twitter flame wars over this question rage on endlessly in the background.
One role that would benefit from fleshing out is that of the leader of the opposition (Mr. Stevens in the play, Mrs. Stevens in the movie). She appears to manipulate Charles into opposing the press bill only to betray him later, but her motive isn’t explained. Indeed, what she tells him makes sense, and has often been pointed to as a benefit of constitutional monarchy:
I’ve long believed that we could never see
A Nazi Party making British laws
Because the reigning monarch then would stand
His ground and being Head of State refuse
To sign, refuse to let the country lose
Democracy, and doing so, provoke Revolt.
Here is an idea that could withstand a lot more dramatization. Brits have long had this fanciful idea that a monarch’s power to withhold assent could help withstand any potential tide of fascism. OK, sure, Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III literally appointed the first ever fascist prime minister, Mussolini, and could do nothing as Italy fell under the jackboot except delay the country’s entry into World War II by nine months. But that was there and then! It couldn’t happen here and now!
What the world has hopefully learned since Bartlett wrote his play is that 21st-century fascism arrives slowly, in many forms, using the levers of democracy against themselves. Political donations from dictators can flood the zone, to an extent we’re only now learning. Companies like Cambridge Analytica can manipulate voters via social media. A close referendum can be twisted over time to serve the darkest desires of the hard right: see Truss’ law-breaking bill.
Americans have the same hazy hope for constitutional checks and balances, of course. But now we know a president can lose the popular vote twice, deny it both times, lead an actual insurrection with conspiracy theories about election theft, then try to seed state governments with conspiracy candidates who can put their thumb on the scales for him.
And yes, even the world’s supposed greatest democracy can find itself at the mercy of unelected rulers: Not one king, but nine judges.
So the odd duck that is King Charles III finds itself paddling presciently in the right direction, just perhaps not far enough. Whether the odd duck that is King Charles III can do anything to swim against his own, far more subtle tide of darkness, or whether we’ll see an abdication and a King William V sooner rather than later — this we’ll start to learn soon, post-funeral, as our own IRL play unfolds.