Stephen Frears interview: Victoria And Abdul

Director Stephen Frears chat to us about British cinema, Victoria & Abdul, and directing Dame Judi Dench...

Arriving in cinemas tomorrow is Victoria & Abdul, a film that tells a previously little-known story of a friendship between Queen Victoria and a man called Abdul towards the end of her life. It’s a thematic follow on from director John Madden’s Mrs Brown, and this story is directed by Stephen Frears. He took some time out to chat to us abou tit…

You spent the whole day talking about the film. One of the things I’m sure you’ve been asked, and I apologise for asking it, but I think the answer may inform where the rest of this interview goes. There’s an obvious similarity, particularly with casting, to Mrs Brown.


What was it you felt you could do differently?

Ad – content continues below

Didn’t think about it.

You completely put Mrs Brown’s existence out of mind?

I don’t mean to be rude to John [Madden – director of Mrs Brown], it was so clear Judi should play it¸ that was the end of it. I mean, I didn’t know she would.

It never really crossed my mind that there was another possibility.

It strikes me that, for what is a very warm and enjoyable film, one that will play very well to middle England…

Are you being faintly insulting?

Ad – content continues below

I’m not, I’m not at all. There seems to be a deep sense of the political about it. Is this a little Trojan horse?

If it is it’s a huge one, isn’t it? It just comes out straight forwardly and says, ‘good for Muslims’. I don’t think it would go down very well with Donald Trump. But I don’t expect the revolution to take place.

No, but there’s been a political movement over the last few years in the UK and the US…

Yes, I know all this. It’s a provocative film. I imagine that’s why Lee [Hall – the screenwriter] settled on it.

What’s the hope with it? Do you think it will achieve anything?

Well you don’t, you don’t indulge, well, I don’t indulge in things like that; I mean, know which side I’m on, and I know what my values are, but the idea people are going to rise up… You know.

Ad – content continues below

I understand you’re a Republican.


It strikes me as a little bit of an odd subject choice.

No, not really, when you go into it. Actually when you look at both – I used to say at the time of The Queen that I’m not a monarchist, I’m a queen-ist – we all like the Queen because she reminded us all of our mothers. Victoria, in this film, is such an eccentric figure, absolutely taking the piss out of the conventional people, so I guess I’m a queen-ist again.

It’s rather interesting, it’s somehow the queens who are the ones who have done best, aren’t they, in British history.

I wonder why that may be? 

Ad – content continues below

I imagine it takes a lot of balls to be queen. That’ll be quote of the week, won’t it? It’s a tough job, isn’t it?

You raise an interesting point there. In what is a patriarchal society, the most successful people in charge – in that role – seem to have been queens.

As queen? Because it’s very, very interesting watching a prime minister struggle at the moment, who hasn’t got the qualities she thought she had.

There are, of course, the rumours that have leaked out over the years concerning Queen Elizabeth’s attitude to Margaret Thatcher…

She was rather critical of her, wasn’t she? Good for her.

Do you imagine her attitude would…

Ad – content continues below

Yes, well, when you look at Theresa May, you do think ‘oh, I see , Mrs Thatcher was more considerable than I gave her credit for’. What’s going on at the moment is so interesting, this woman dangling on a rope, it’s so savage what’s going on.

It’s curious that one can’t predict how many strange and silly things will be said in a week.

Well, her capacity to say silly things is limitless.

In terms of subject matter, then, let’s stick on this theme. You have, over the years, made films about people who have been unsuccessful…

Somebody said that the other day. It hadn’t crossed my mind. I said, I think, ‘I suppose failure is more interesting, success isn’t terribly interesting’.

Does this mean Theresa the movie is imminent?

Ad – content continues below

Oh, what a terrible thought. No, I promise. Well I don’t know, someone might write something brilliant.

I’m quite looking forward to Stephen Frears’ Brexit.

Someone would get it. Someone would write it. But not yet.

With regard to Victoria And Abdul, as a man who is aware of politics, it can’t have escaped your notice that we’re in an age of identity politics.

I never quite know what they are. What are identity politics? Whether you’re a man or a woman? Whether you’re trans?

Well, I think it goes beyond that. If you’re familiar with websites like Reddit and Tumblr…

Ad – content continues below

No, I don’t. I’m not internet generation. I can write email!

It does seem there’s a push towards stopping somebody who is not of a culture, making product about that culture.

That happened to me in America. I made a film about Muhammed Ali, and the American journalists said ‘but, you’re not black’. I said, ‘the woman who wrote the film, her mother was actually shot by the South African police, and her father was in the ANC’, ‘nope. You aren’t black, you can’t do it’. Well I’m not a Muslim.

You, I presume, come down on the line of ‘if you can tell a story, tell a damned story’ then?

I’ve never thought about that before, but now you say it, yes. I can see what you’re saying. I remember them explaining to me why Suffragette had failed in America, and Shami Chakrabarti said ‘if they’d asked me, I could have told them’. I didn’t know the line – I remember Meryl wearing the t-shirt saying, what’s it? ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’, and I wouldn’t have known it was a reference to Southern soldiers.

That was unfortunate, but then again, there’s…

Ad – content continues below

Sharmi said it was a famous quote, which, I guess, no one knew.

With regard to that, then, in terms of Victoria bringing Abdul over and becoming friendly with him, at what point does her interest with that culture become a fetishization of that culture?

Hanif, whom God preserve, Hanif [Kureisshi – writer of Frear’s breakthrough feature, My Beautiful Launderette] said, ‘oh you like the launderette because we are exotic’. After sort of reeling back, I thought truth is, probably, what he was saying is absolutely right. Where I was brought up, there were no black people, there were no Asian people, a quarter of the map was pink. I remember, I think at the age of 13 or 14, I first met someone who identified as Jewish. I remember an African pupil coming to my school, they’re quite vivid [memories]. There weren’t people of other colour, for all I knew – I eventually turned out to be Jewish, so it’s a ridiculous thing to say – but I was brought up in a white, middle class community.

So for you then, there’s still a fascination…

In my life, I think multiculturalism is a triumph, and I think it’s made life a great deal more interesting. It’s more fun being alive now than it was in the 50s, I promise.

Was there any influence of Bollywood cinema or the cinema of India on Victoria And Abdul?

Ad – content continues below

I don’t terribly like Bollywood, I’m too snobbish for that.

Not a fan of dancing?

We thought of having a dance at the end, but Danny [Boyle] – it was great in Danny’s film.

It would have been quite nice to see Judi Dench having a little dance.

Quite right, I never thought of that.

On the subject of Judi, you’ve been working with her for quite a while. As an audience member, watching her age, I actually found it a little bit upsetting…

Ad – content continues below

Well you do identify with her, don’t you, she’s such a powerful actress.

Does that become difficult, directing a friend?

No, not her. It’s easy. Anyone can do it.

That’s a relationship you presumably will be continuing for more films?

I don’t know, I don’t know, but she’s a doddle to direct. She’s so clear, and has such a strong sense of narrative…

It’s the sense of narrative that makes her good to direct?

Ad – content continues below

Yes. Well, and her qualities as a human being that’s so affecting. She’s so interesting, and such a brilliant actress.

And Eddie’s merged into…

Eddie’s great, I don’t know where that came from. It wasn’t my idea, somebody else suggested him. ‘Oh, all right’. I don’t think I knew quite what to expect, and he was brilliant.

Apart from the beard concealing him, which I think…


I don’t know whether it helped, but it certainly was a surprise. It was hard to see him.

Ad – content continues below

Yes. I like the fact that he’s the least comic character in the film. He’s such a funny man, so funny on stage.It’s interesting, because I was just talking to him before I came in here, and he was saying that his aim is to be…He wanted to be a serious actor. He’s gone catastrophically wrong.

Do you think he’s on the right path now?

No, I think he’s a genius as a comic. He did it one night for us in the Isle of Wight and he was just brilliant.

It must have been a good experience, a private gig…

He did it in a public theatre, but we were all there. He was brilliant, brilliant. And when I went to see him at the Palace, I had to leave at the interval, I couldn’t deal with it, it was just so extraordinary.

It’s interesting that he’s become such a well-regarded actor as well.

Ad – content continues below

I don’t know that he is, is he? You know more than I know. I’m really proud of his performance in this film.

Actually, one of the most striking things about this film was the series of strong performances.

Well that’s not – there are a lot of very good actors in England, very, very good.

Were there any actors other than Eddie, who you hadn’t expected to have in the film and who were cast?

No, they’re quite conventional choices. Tim Pigott-Smith was a very, very good actor, ad they can do all that stuff. They’re very good at hierarchy, and they can do the jokes.

And in terms of the practicalities of filming, It strikes me that there’s a scale to it that’s unusual from a film of this size.

Yes, there has to be. It’s about the British Empire. It’s much like a David Lean film, except that it’s the wrong way round.

How do you go about achieving that?

I would give the credit to Eric Fellner [the producer of Victoria And Abdul]. Eric kept saying, ‘make it big’, and he actually put his money where his mouth is. If you want to do a scene in a hall as big as Greenwich, you need a lot of servants. And then they to wear costumes. It’s just money, and me taking a deep breath and thinking, ‘oh my God, I’ve got to do all these people’.

Is there a difference in approach, directing a scene with countless servants?

I don’t think so, except it was about the British Empire, so it had to have a lot of people in. I remember when I did my first film in Ireland, The Snapper, and thinking, ‘I see, I’ll get points for how many children I get into a shot’, so you notice all of that, and you try to do the right thing.

I’m curious about your process as a director…

Get on with it.

‘Get on with it’? There’s nothing more than ‘make it work’? Or is that because it’s such second nature?

It is second nature, and I can do it, and I can make it up on the spot, and I can layer it. Actually, that banquet, is based on a Sternberg film I saw in 1962, The Scarlett Empress, in Paris. And I must have remembered a particular shot, doesn’t the horse go onto the table? So it’s quite informed without being dependent on that. I don’t like it when references dominate films, but it is based on observation of how other people – of how scenes work.

As a man who has been a part of the British movie business for some time now, what state do you think it’s in?

Not good at all. It’s complicated, because a lot of very skilful people get supported by the Americans to make blockbusters. Well they’re not films I’m terribly interested in. I like a different kind of film, and it’s very hard to make those films, because in the end you are in competition with Harry Potter, and it’s tough.

Do you benefit from using the same crews at all?

I remember when we were shooting Tamara Drew, and David Heyman – whom I obviously know very well – brought Alexandre Desplat onto the set, who was doing the music for Harry Potter. And I said to him, ‘I didn’t know you were doing this’, and David Heyman said, ‘no, no, no, we subsidise you’. Well he’s quite right. And so he should.

What would you do, if you had absolute control…

Of what?

The world. Stephen Frears, dictator for life, what might you do to improve the British film industry?

It’s not like that, it’s gone. That moment when people used to go and see films all the time; when I grew up, I’d go to the pictures every week, or twice a week. I can remember seeing North by Northwest with my family. I can remember my brother taking us all to see On The Waterfront and High Noon, that’s all gone. It’s over.

I don’t like watching films on TV.

So that’s in terms of the actual cinema experience itself?

People have the right to do whatever they want. I personally think the cinema is where you should see films.

My daughter, the idea of a black and white film, she thought was completely ridiculous. To me the idea of a colour film is ridiculous. I try not to have those sort of prejudices. People can do whatever they want, there’s nothing you can do about it, you can’t turn the clock back.

Very true, I suppose.

Those battles are lost. All you can do is make better films.

You, presumably, would prefer people to see Victoria And Abdul on a large cinema screen though?

Stephen Daldry said to me last night – we had a very, very good screening at the Odeon Leicester Square – you go into those rooms with a lot of strangers, the collective experience is wonderful. You sit at home with your wife and kids, and its not the same.

I remember Terrance Stamp telling me that the Queen Mother said, “I like it when the lights go down.” It’s quite primitive, isn’t it?

And I can remember family holidays, and lorries would turn up, and be a sort of mobile cinema. It was great.

That sounds like a really exciting experience.

A mobile cinema? Well no, because they’d then be showing Odette, or whatever it was.

With the industry now, there is the non-theatrical route, with companies like Netflix…

I have no quarrel with television, but it isn’t the same, and if it gets films made… it’s like festivals, do I like festivals? No. I like going to the pictures. I like going to the cinema at the end of the road. That’s how I grew up, it’s what I still like. Therefore I don’t like festivals, but I can see if there weren’t festivals a lot of good films wouldn’t get shown, so as usual its almost impossible to take one position. Any position you take is multi-faceted.

You were honoured at Venice Film Festival last week, weren’t you?

Thank you very much, and I love going to Venice, but it’s still a sort of ghetto. I would prefer – I remember at Cambridge there were a lot of very good cinemas – I used to go to the pictures a lot, I like going to the pictures. And I call them the pictures, which is what I called them as a kid.

I remember going to a screening of If – I worked on If – with my wife. And at the end of the film she said “Oh what a terrific movie”, and Lindsay Anderson turned around and said, ‘Movie? Movie? Where do you live? It’s a film.’

He was always ridiculous.

If must have been a very strange experience to work on.

It was great. You just knew how topical it was. You could smell… I didn’t quite know… I remember, my job was making the collages on the study walls, and there was one picture of a girl putting a flower down the barrel of a gun, and you knew you were making something immediate.

The Laundrette had the same immediacy. You think this is what’s going on right now, and indeed when I got the script for the Launderette, what I actually said was “This is great, we should make this now’” and by a fluke we did. And so you plug into the zeitgeist.

On a good day you plug into the zeitgeist.

Stephen Frears, Thank you very much.

Victoria And Abdul is in UK cinemas from Friday.