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Portrayal in Steve Coogan’s Richard III film had defamatory meaning, judge rules

Steve Coogan at the UK premiere of The Lost King (Ian West/PA)
Steve Coogan at the UK premiere of The Lost King (Ian West/PA)

The portrayal of a university academic in a Steve Coogan film about the discovery of Richard III’s remains did have a defamatory meaning, a High Court judge has ruled.

Richard Taylor is suing Mr Coogan, his production company Baby Cow, and Pathe Productions for libel over his portrayal in The Lost King, which follows Philippa Langley and her search to find the controversial king’s skeleton.

The lost remains of the Plantagenet king were found in a Leicester car park in 2012, more than 500 years after his death.

At a preliminary hearing in February, Judge Jaron Lewis was asked to decide several early issues in the case, including the “natural and ordinary” meaning of Mr Taylor’s portrayal and whether it was a statement of fact or opinion.

Lawyers for Mr Taylor, formerly deputy registrar of the University of Leicester, said the film – of which Mr Coogan was a writer and a producer – presented him as being “dismissive, patronising and misogynistic” towards Ms Langley.

In a preliminary judgment on Friday, Judge Lewis ruled the film portrayed Mr Taylor as having “knowingly misrepresented facts to the media and the public” about the discovery, and as being “smug, unduly dismissive and patronising”, which could be defamatory.

He 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.

“The poor way in which he was depicted as behaving towards Ms Langley was contrary to common shared values of our society and would have been recognised as such by the hypothetical reasonable viewer.”

The ruling means the case can now proceed to trial, for which a date has not been set.

At the previous hearing in London, William Bennett KC, representing Mr Taylor, said the film showed him as a “devious, weasel-like person” and a “suited bean-counter”, who was “mocking” Richard III’s disability.

Steve Coogan attending the UK premiere of The Lost King at the Ham Yard Hotel, central London, in September 2022
Steve Coogan attending the UK premiere of The Lost King at the Ham Yard Hotel, central London, in September 2022 (Ian West/PA)

Mr Bennett said: “It’s a straightforward, plot-driven film where everything that is said and done matters.”

Andrew Caldecott KC, representing Mr Coogan and the two companies, said the film states it was “based on a true story”, adding: “It is not a literal portrayal of exact words… and would be understood as putting forward Ms Langley’s perception.”

He continued that while the film was “clearly strongly critical” of Mr Taylor and the university for “sidelining” Ms Langley during the discovery process, “no reasonable viewer” would conclude that Mr Taylor’s motive was “sexism or misogynism”.

While Judge Lewis ruled that aspects of Mr Taylor’s portrayal could be defamatory, he said he did not think a viewer of the film “would have come away from the film thinking that it was saying that the claimant was a misogynist or sexist”.

He also said someone watching the film would not think Mr Taylor was “equating Richard III’s physical deformity with wickedness or moral failings” from the portrayal.

In a statement following the ruling, Mr Taylor, who is now chief operating officer at Loughborough University, said: “I am pleased that the first stage of our action has been successful, and that the judge has agreed that the film has a defamatory meaning towards me.

“Had the producers of the film taken the courtesy to speak to me at any point during its production, I could have referred them to the extensive material, much already in the public domain, that demonstrates why the narrative of their film is simply untrue.”