Filming Diary: The King and I
(Or: a weak defence of why it’s normal for a twenty-something Englishman to have a long-dead Asian monarch as a bedroom pin up.) by Alex Bescoby, Co-Founder of Grammar Productions
Every morning I wake up under the studied gaze of a man I’ve never met, nor will I ever have the chance to.
That man is Thibaw, the lost, last King of Burma.
Last of the Arbiters of Existence, Lords of the Rising Sun and the Great Chiefs of Righteousness, he passed away a century ago. His black and white photo-portrait hangs on my bedroom wall, framed in a sombre, funereal black.
This morning, as I packed my life up yet again into boxes, I stopped for a moment to stand and meet his stare.
The King strikes an uncertain pose. His gentle lean is designed to ooze power, yet the awkward nervousness of youth seeps through. The face looking back at me is roughly my own age, but framed by the finery of another world, another time. (Evidently a time where you could get the measure of a man by the width of his collar.)
It is the face of a man who has taken my life in a rather bizarre direction, and is once again drawing me back to Burma. But it is a face that often unsettles me, each time for a different reason.
Some mornings he looks angry. “When are you going to finish that damn film about my family and me, Englishman?”, he challenges me with his eyes, accusatory. “I’ve heard you wittering about it for years now!” “I’m almost there, just a few more months” I assure him cravenly, via our usual telepathy (because talking to a picture out loud would clearly be too weird.)
Some mornings he looks wistful, perhaps longing for a home he’d never see again. It makes me wistful too. My mind shifts from the rumbling trains, piercing sirens and cantankerous traffic of South London’s early rush hour. Through his eyes I’m transported to the soupy warmth of Yangon, where whiffs of lazy plumbing and busy exhaust fumes weave a complex waltz with slow street-fried pastry and snatches of incense. Next, I’m in the dusty chaos of Mandalay, bathing in the shadows of his old palace, then steeped in the crowded calm of a Burmese sunset, where the whole world seems to breathe a little deeper.
Other mornings he looks steely and defiant, imparting an important life-lesson for our modern age. Even in our omni-photographed lives, it’ll likely be just one image you’re remembered by, if at all. One picture that for those who are left behind captures the essence of who you were. So make that image count, he seems to say. Dust yourself off, settle into that great gold chair, don the jewel-studded robes and brandish the mighty sword of state (or if those aren’t available to you, find suitable equivalents), and dare posterity to judge you. By that point, there’s not much more you can do.
But most mornings his face – no, his whole body – seems filled with regret, gently curving inwards as if at the tail end of an enormous sigh. I can almost hear the rustle of his robes as they re-settle around him, the heavy weight reminding him of the life he could have had.
It’s a regret that’s quite understandable, I reflect, given how his life turned out. Elevated to demi-god at 19, by 26 his gilded world had all but crumbled around him. Thibaw would spend the rest of his life as a prisoner in exile, stripped of his Kingdom, his power and his freedom by the British government - all for the sake of thwarting the pesky French, and so Winston Churchill’s father could win the 1885 ‘Best Christmas Gift for her Maj’ competition, hands down.
As I lift him from the wall, it’s that sense of regret that seems to linger like a fog. And that, I think, is why he’ll always be on the wall of wherever I call my home.
He reminds me that we never quite know what life holds just around the corner. So live for today, take risks, fall down often and rise up more.
And if those decisions happen to pull you into the warm embrace of a lost royal family, to be wrapped up in the wonderful legacy of a man like Alan Whicker, and to be a slightly baffled passenger as history unfolds around you – well, just buckle in and enjoy the ride.
“Here’s to you, Thibaw”, I say as I pack him away behind the cardboard lid – quietly of course, before anyone catches me talking to a picture.