” I had goosebumps ! – the discoverer of the remains of Richard III in a parking lot is celebrated in a film by Steve Coogan | Film

I can remember where I was when it was announced that the remains of Richard III had been found under a car park in Leicester 10 years ago. It made headlines around the world, most likely because of the juxtaposition: “It’s a parking lot and it’s that king,” says Philippa Langley. “So it’s a very nice story.”

His agreement surprises me. Langley spent eight years searching for the Hunchback King’s remains, having tried to restore his reputation over the previous decade. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that she thinks he is objectively the most interesting thing ever – and, from her point of view, this story doesn’t need to be embellished with the bathos of a private car park. But maybe she was just being polite.

Now 60, Langley dresses like a casual person (double denim) and talks like a true believer, as passionate as she ever was for Richard III and contemptuous of the bad reputation unfairly accumulated on him by that rascal Shakespeare. We meet in London to discuss the film Steve Coogan (along with Philomena director Stephen Frears and co-screenwriter Jeff Pope) is making about the discovery. The film’s digressions into Richard’s real character are frequent. “When you look at the contemporary sources of his own life,” she says, “it’s a very different man you see: loyal, brave, pious.”

Langley is the founder of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society and was appointed honorary president in 2015. The following year the organization will celebrate its centenary. It’s full of amateur Ricardians, but also medieval historians, specialists in ancient writing, experts in all fields. They don’t all agree, but they stay together in the service of their idol.

Believer … writer and royal detective Philippa Langley. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

“There are people,” Langley said in amazement, “who really love Shakespeare’s play.” She corrects herself a little. “Well, of course, it’s Shakespeare. It is one of the most dramatic works of all time. But then there are a lot of people who think that an injustice has been done. Nonetheless, as a story, The Lost King is niche. It lacks the element of suspense since, however you cut it, we already know they find Richard III, and he remains dead.

But The Lost King is not about Richard III at all. I think it’s about Langley, brought alive in a vivid and quite stressful way by Sally Hawkins – whose ex-husband John is played by Coogan – and the intensity of her fascination. Going deeper, I think his deeper philosophical inquiry is about the wisdom we collectively get from obsessive, stubborn people.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1992, Langley read a biography of Richard III by Paul Murray Kendall and discovered the disconnect between the real man and what we generally think of him – warrior, manipulator, murderer, not to mention “Distorted, unfinished, sent before my time / In this world that breathes, barely half-composed”. She thinks of writing a screenplay to rehabilitate him.

Langley was driven by the injustice of it all, but when I try to find out why that injustice might have spoken to her, there doesn’t seem to be any. She was moderately interested in history as a child, but didn’t do it as a degree. She worked in advertising and marketing. She didn’t see herself as having been the victim of any sin, in particular. She’s just from the north, she said with a shrug. “I was taught from an early age that you don’t give in and don’t give up.”

Langley had, at that time, phenomenal difficulties. She had been diagnosed with EM, was unable to work, had two little boys, her marriage had broken down and she was taking trips to Leicester for which she had to ‘bank sleep’ for two or three days in advance. “I could never tell any of them [the academics and, later, archeologists], because it was one of those diseases at the time: if people knew you had it, you were kind of weird. I couldn’t risk them asking, ‘Who is this person?’ »

Then, in 2004, an event that I assumed was artistic license when it appeared on screen actually happened. She was in Leicester, trying to piece together from her research the location of a long-lost church, and she walked through the fabled parking lot. “I felt like I was walking on her grave. I had this intuitive experience. I was covered in goosebumps and freezing cold, on this beautiful, warm spring day. Amazingly, she shared this experience with her friends and family and, more amazingly, they took her seriously, or at least didn’t laugh.” So the following year, in the spring, I went back there, to test if it was real. I had the exact same experience at exactly the same place. But this time, I saw a hand-painted letter R on the tarmac. Well, it clearly means “reserved”. But that’s what changed my focus.

From there – still skinny, still chronically ill – Langley is moving heaven and earth, or at least Leicester council, to get the parking lot dug up. It’s like something out of a Fay Weldon novel (except her husband is adorable). She needs a lot of things: money for excavations, archaeologists to believe her, more money for penetrating radar pre-excavation – and above all, she needs to keep her cool. “I was ostracized and marginalized. I was extremely vulnerable. Because I’m not a doctor. I am not a teacher. But in the end, I ended up finding my voice.

Discovery… helpers lift the lid of the medieval stone coffin discovered at the Leicester site.
Discovery… helpers lift the lid of the medieval stone coffin discovered at the Leicester site. Photograph: University of Leicester/EPA

It’s a bit like the story of Joan of Arc, in the sense that one can’t help but worry that if you had been there, you would have been on the side of the sneering soldiers, not the side of the lone firebrand. . I mean, seriously, would you dig a spot because it gave someone goosebumps (twice)?

The rest is history, but history has been remade: one would not necessarily say that Richard III’s reputation has been restored, but the international enthusiasm has breathed new life into research. Incidentally, says Langley, there was great modernity in Richard, who enacted laws that “attempted to elevate the rights of ordinary people and give them access to justice.”

Although she is not free to give me details, new discoveries have already been made, by young historians going back to the sources. “You have to question the traditional story,” says Langley, “because by questioning it, you make the most incredible discoveries.”

It’s the end of the parking lot lead – and indeed, in terms of the larger narrative, the end of Langley as well. The University of Leicester essentially shelved it: Langley’s name was not on the excavation certificate and all credit went to its archaeological department. “I felt my role had been greatly diminished,” she says. “I had done research. I financed the excavations and ordered them. I didn’t really understand why they needed to do this to me. I used to be on good terms with the archaeologist. Well, I was ready for reburial.

Langley’s project didn’t end with the discovery of the monarch’s remains, you see. “It was always a recovery and reburial project,” she explains. “You don’t look for something unless you know what you’re going to do when you find it.” And it brought him many new battles and new enemies, right up to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The powers that be wanted to put the body in a “kind of shoebox”, when she wanted a real coffin. “I had gone to see the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and they showed me, in the strictest confidence, how they reinterred the dead. It was so respectful and so sensitive. I was in awe.

Lying in state… The remains of Richard III before his reburial at Leicester Cathedral.
Lying in state… The remains of Richard III before his reburial at Leicester Cathedral. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

She wanted Richard III presented anatomically, with a relevant monument to the real him, with an appropriate royal coat of arms, since he was a real monarch and certainly not a murderous usurper. She also wanted him to be buried in a Catholic holy place, but that’s where the archbishop drew a line. “Very disappointing,” she said, “but it’s one of those things.”

Here’s the thing: his disappointment doesn’t seem very genuine. She looks like someone who pretends to have given up. I wouldn’t be surprised to wake up in the year 2032 and hear on the radio that the loyal, brave and pious Richard III had his tomb moved from Leicester Cathedral to a more Catholic location, thanks to this one, super remarkable fan.

The Lost King will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September and hit UK cinemas on October 7 and Australian cinemas on December 26.

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