Portrayal of official in Steve Coogan Richard III film was defamatory, says judge

Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan as Philippa and John Langley in The Lost King
Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan as Philippa and John Langley in The Lost King - Graeme Hunter

Steve Coogan’s film about the discovery of Richard III’s body defamed a British university official, a judge has found.

Coogan co-wrote the script for the 2022 film The Lost King, in which actor Lee Ingleby played Richard Taylor, University of Leicester scholar, part of a team that found the body of the Plantagenet king beneath a car park in 2012.

Mr Taylor sued Coogan, production company Baby Cow and distributors Pathe over the portrayal, which the former claimed depicted him as a sexist and “arrogant villain”.

It was claimed that he was shown trying to “steal” credit for the discovery from writer Philippa Langley, played by Sally Hawkins.

In a preliminary judgment on Friday, Judge Jaron Lewis said: “The character Mr Taylor was portrayed throughout the film in a negative light.

“At no point was he shown in a way that could be described as positive, or even neutral.

“Whilst an individual scene may not in itself cross the threshold of seriousness, taken together the film makes a powerful comment about the claimant and the way he conducted himself when undertaking a senior professional role for a university.”

‘Saint-and-sinner’ narrative

Mr Taylor’s lawyers claimed that the film followed a “saint-and-sinner” narrative, in which Ms Langley, a Richard III Society member and writer, played a key role in uncovering the king’s remains, was shown as the relatable underdog.

Mr Taylor, on the other hand, was shown as an “appalling, Machiavellian and despicable” character and a “Svengali” figure, his lawyers claimed.

The deputy registrar at the University of Leicester at the time of the discovery, Mr Taylor was shown in the film attempting to sideline Ms Langley, and ensure the university took credit for the find.

It was said that this was achieved through a number of scenes, including one in which Mr Taylor was shown organising a press conference to announce the find, without inviting Ms Langley to speak.

The judge found that the overall portrayal would be seen as negative by the reasonable viewer, but rejected claims that the feature showed Mr Taylor as a misogynist.

The result of the preliminary hearing at the High Court means that the case can progress to a full trial, in which Coogan will have to defend the portrayal, along with Baby Cow and Pathe.

Mr Taylor launched legal action in 2022, claiming that the film portrayed him as a devious and “weasel-like” figure. He said he was “shell-shocked” after learning how he had been depicted.

Defending Mr Taylor

The University of Leicester published a statement saying it supported Ms Langley’s efforts to unearth Richard III, and defending Mr Taylor, “who helped oversee and coordinate the project”.

Ms Langley managed the Richard III Society’s Looking for Richard Project with experts from University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

The team found the ruins of a church beneath a car park and, within its confines, human remains. The body was found to have the mark of severe scoliosis of the spine, suggesting it was Richard, who was known by contemporaries to have “unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower”.