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Screenwriter and historian Deborah Davis knew that there was a terrific story to be told about Queen Anne and her two favourites: the wilful, beautiful Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, whose attachment to Anne prompted the Queen to make a gift of Blenheim Palace to the Marlboroughs, and Sarah’s cunning cousin Abigail Hill, who replaced Sarah in Anne’s affections.
Twenty years after delivering the first draft of her screenplay, Deborah’s vision has been realized as Yorgos Lanthimos’ hit film The Favourite, starring Olivia Colman as Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah, and Emma Stone as Abigail.
Deborah talks to Matt Dicks about the origins of her multiple award-winning screenplay - and shares more of the sensational historical story that inspired the film.
Hello Deborah. What's life been like since the film's release?
Pretty transformational. Ever since it was shown in Venice the response has been so positive. I was helping out at a village fete when the news came through that the film had won two awards at the Venice Film Festival. That was when the excitement started…the reviews were so fantastic that the buzz built from there.
Your original screenplay is now two decades old; in fact, you went to scriptwriting classes so that you could learn how to tell this story. Could you tell us about that time in your life?
I studied history at university and I was always interested in the stories of kings and queens. I loved the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria - but I knew nothing about Queen Anne.
When I found the story, I thought: this has got to be a film. I did a load of courses, and eventually ended up at the University of East Anglia, where I had tremendous guidance in scriptwriting from the course director, Val Taylor. She was very supportive of the script. We learned all forms of scriptwriting there - writing for radio, for screen, for theatre.
What really drew you to the accounts of Queen Anne and her favourites?
I thought it was the perfect story about women in power. It’s about the country being run by three women from a bedchamber. I loved the idea that for men to gain access to the Queen - the political leaders, the Tory opposition - they had to go up the backstairs, via her favourites. It struck me as a fantastic story, and something that had not really been seen before.
You did extensive research; you’ve read Sarah’s memoirs, for instance, and the private letters between Anne and Sarah…
The primary sources - letters, diaries, memoirs - are fantastic. Really explosive. I think it’s generally agreed by historians that Anne’s letters to Sarah are love letters. She wrote things like: ‘I would rather live in a cottage with you than reign Empress of the World.’
Anne was absolutely besotted with Sarah from a very young age. Sarah came to court when she was thirteen - she was five years older than Anne. Sarah’s first job was as maid of honour to Anne’s stepmother, who was James II’s second wife. So they grew up together; Sarah was Anne’s protector.
Anne was alone and vulnerable - she didn’t get on well with her sister, Mary. Their mother had died of cancer when Anne was little. Anne couldn’t remember her mother’s face.
Sarah was a very strong character from the start. She engineered to kick her mother out of court, because she was queering her pitch and being a pain - and eventually, she succeeded. Sarah was absolutely beautiful; full of character and strength and will. She looked after Anne, and this became an important role throughout her life.
Sarah married John Churchill when she was young. Their influence over Princess Anne grew after William of Orange invaded England during the Glorious Revolution and took the throne with Mary, Anne’s older sister. Anne’s father, James II, was kicked out of the country. (John Churchill had been James II’s right-hand military man, but he defected to William of Orange.)
During the Glorious Revolution, Sarah played a huge part in Anne’s escape from the palace. James II wanted to arrest Anne - to stop her from going over to the rebels - but Sarah engineered their escape down a staircase that had been specially constructed for the purpose into a waiting carriage.
Of course The Favourite takes a large degree of artistic license in its telling of events. But how close do you think the film gets to the reality of Queen Anne?
I think Anne had a tough time navigating between the two political factions, the Whigs and the Tories. She said constantly that she didn’t want to be a prisoner of either. In her favourites, Sarah and Abigail, she had two [very different] women; Sarah, was a staunch Whig who was in alliance with Sidney Godolphin, the Whig Lord Treasurer (equivalent of the PM); Abigail, was a Tory, plotting with Robert Harley, leader of the opposition.
But what must be understood is that Yorgos is his own director, with his own vision. He was much more interested in exploring the genre of costume drama than recounting historical events. For him, anachronism was something to play with, not to avoid. He played with the juxtaposition of past and present.
Sandy Powell’s costumes look 18th century, but they’re not at all. They’re based on a checker-board theme, in black and white, and she includes contemporary materials like denim and leather. That tells you what Yorgos was trying to achieve at every level of the film. [It’s the same] with the music; I believe the film ends with an Elton John piece. The dance scene was choreographed by the South American choreographer Constanza Macras - it’s been described as ‘voguing.’ The whole thing is a play on period and present.
Could you descibe your working relationship with director Yorgos Lanthimos, and your co-writer Tony McNamara?
I worked with Yorgos for about two years. We used to go back and forth - we met at the offices of our producer, or in restaurants, or we skyped. One of the things we’d do is that I’d write scenes and read them to him - and he’d say to me: ‘Don’t perform them because you can’t act; just read them normally.’ He was right!
Tony then came on to do a re-write with Yorgos. Although we didn’t work together, we were both there to serve the director’s vision.
Will you continue to explore stories of royalty in your future work?
Yes - I’ve written period dramas for radio. (One of the benefits of going to East Anglia was being assigned a BBC radio producer). I’ve written about Louis XV and Madame de Pompador, and the secret friendship between the King’s mistress and the Queen. I’m working at the moment on a stage play about Alexander Pope and the age of satire, which is set in 1727, just as George II comes to the throne. I’ve got lots of ideas for films. One is about George IV’s daughter. It’s a comic romp about Princess Charlotte of Wales.
Who is the monarch that you are most interested in?
It has to be Elizabeth I. She was absolutely extraordinary. She used her great intelligence and character against her enemies, who included family - namely her sister, Mary - and emerged as the greatest monarch in history.
Elizabeth suffered huge threats to her existence. Her mother was murdered by her father when she was just two years and eight months old. Anne [Boleyn] agreed to have her marriage [to Henry VIII] annulled in order to receive the least cruel form of execution; it made Elizabeth a bastard. So she led a very precarious life. Her life was in danger until she became Queen - and I think the title of the [second] Cate Blanchett film is right, it was a golden age. Elizabeth is a very exciting character, and one who presided over a very interesting period in English history.
Soon after this interview, The Favourite won seven awards at the 2019 Bafta Film Awards - including Outstanding British Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Olivia Colman) and Best Supporting Actress (Rachel Weisz). The film received twelve Bafta nominations overall.
The Favourite’s many other accolades include ten Academy Award Oscar nominations at the 2019 Academy Awards (including Best Original Screenplay). Olivia Colman won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. She also received the Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy at the 2019 Golden Globes.
This interview has been edited for length.
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