King Ralph | 1991
- DIRECTOR |
- David S Ward
The screenwriter of 70s classic The Sting directs this broad but amiable version of Emlyn Williams’ novel Headlong, which saw a young English stage actor in the 1930s unexpectedly inheriting the throne of the UK. The story is updated to the present and, in order to extract maximum fun from national stereotypes, the central character becomes Vegas lounge singer Ralph Jones (John Goodman).
What once would have been a cheapo studio-set comedy is given a real lift by the use of an astonishing number of real locations scattered across no fewer than 11 counties in the UK, which is why this is such a substantial entry.
Naturally, there are establishing shots of Buckingham Palace, at the end of The Mall, the reigning monarch’s London residence (though only since 1837) but, not surprisingly, the palace authorities have not yet opened the doors to feature film makers. You, however, do have the chance to take a peek. The State Rooms, used for official and state entertaining, are open to the public each year for most of August and September.
Various different houses are stitched together to pride an alternative.
The rear of the palace, where the entire Wyndham family (not, of course, the Windsors) is electrocuted during a waterlogged photoshoot, is Wrotham Park, on Barnet Road north of Barnet in Hertfordshire. Since only the rear is seen, you’re unlikely to recognise it as the secret training HQ in Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Guy Ritchie's 2019 The Gentlemen, and as the country house in Kenneth Branagh’s 1992 Britpack drama Peter’s Friends.
The book-lined office of ramrod-backed Sir Cedric Willingham (Peter O’Toole), where he informs secretary Duncan Phipps (Richard Griffiths) that the next in line to the throne is – gasp! – an American, is the Library of grand Palladian home Hagley Hall, Hall Drive, south of Stourbridge, West Midlands.
There’s a brief second-unit shot of Glitter Gulch, Fremont Street, in Las Vegas as the news is conveyed to Ralph, and he’s seen careering past the Four Queens Casino.
But the action swiftly moves on to the UK as Ralph’s motorcade sweeps across Tower Bridge (in films, all new arrivals in London are required to enter the capital via this photogenic landmark).
One of England's largest houses, Blenheim was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh as the family seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, the Churchill family, and was named after the Battle of Blenheim. Built around 1720, it went on to become the birthplace of wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.
It’s in the house’s Long Library that Ralph is introduced to the delights of English cuisine – Roast Beef, Bangers and Mash, and – fnar, fnar – Spotted Dick, and on its lawns that Ralph is taught the arcane rules of cricket.
Blenheim Palace previously supplied the exterior of ‘Elsinore’ for Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film of Hamlet, and has also hosted filming for the 1998 film of TV’s The Avengers, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and The Young Victoria (it’s also seen as the Palace in TV’s kitschy regal soap The Royals).
When Ralph is taken to see the pictures of his forebears in the Palace’s ‘Portrait Gallery’, it’s a very rare screen appearance for the interior of Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner in London. It’s the Waterloo Gallery in the former home of the Duke Of Wellington, and was once graced with the impressive address ‘Number One, London’. The collection of paintings at Apsley House contains about 200 of the finest works of art in London, pictures originally belonging to the King of Spain, and removed from the Spanish royal palaces by Napoleon Bonaparte's brother, Joseph.
The Palace’s internal courtyard is the Fountain Court of Somerset House on The Strand. Once the registry of birth, marriages and deaths, it’s now an arts and cultural centre. The court has been a regular on screen – probably most famously as the ‘St Petersburg’ square in GoldenEye. It subsequently changed allegiance to become the ‘Ministry of Defence’ in Tomorrow Never Dies. It’s been seen as the exterior of ‘Devonshire House’ in historical biopic The Duchess, with Keira Knightley; in Shanghai Knights (where Jackie Chan invents the kung fu movie at the end of the film); as the ‘Diogenes Club’ in Billy Wilder’s superb The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; and even as ‘Beverly Hills’ in Bride And Prejudice.
The formal gardens where Ralph meets the Prime Minister (James Villiers) to be informed of the upcoming visit of King Mulambon of Zambezi, are the rear of Harewood House, Harewood, near Leeds, West Yorkshire. Designed by architects John Carr and Robert Adam, between 1759 and 1771, for wealthy trader Edwin Lascelles, the 1st Baron Harewood, the Grade I-listed building is still home to the Lascelles family, and a member of Treasure Houses of England, a marketing consortium for ten of the foremost historic homes in the country.
Behind the scenes, things are not going so smoothly. Devious Lord Graves (John Hurt) nurses his family’s own claim to the throne and is scheming to discredit the new king. Graves’s country home was not terribly well-known back in 1991 (it had appeared in 1982 comedy The Missionary, with Michael Palin), but it’s very familiar today. Yes, it’s Downton Abbey. Otherwise known as Highclere Castle, Newbury in Hampshire. It’s also appeared as the Raichand mansion in the Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham..., and in Shekhar Kapur’s 2002 version of The Four Feathers, with Heath Ledger.
Graves gets an opportunity when Ralph meets up with commoner, Miranda Green (Camille Coduri). Quick to absent himself for a little R&R, the first place Ralph heads for is Brewer Street in Soho, the nearest thing London has to a red-light district, and its famous strip joints, including the old Raymond Revuebar, which you can see in the background of the scene.
If you’re thinking of frequenting one of these establishments, beware – many are notorious rip-offs for gullible tourists and none are likely to be quite as grand as the one in which Ralph watches reluctant stripper Miss Flamingo Mirage, aka Miranda Green. In fact, it was the lavish Café De Paris, 3 Coventry Street, W1, between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square.
During the Blitz, when most of the West End closed down, the Café remained open on the assumption that it was bomb-proof. Tragically, this turned out not to be the case, and a direct hit killed 34 people.
Rebuilt, it continued to provide entertainment for the glitterati until it hit a slump in the Eighties, when it found fame as a movie backdrop, for Absolute Beginners, Scandal, The Krays; it was a glamorous nitespot in Lone Scherfig’s 2009 Oscar-nominated An Education and a decadent 'Vegas' club in X-Men: First Class. In 2020, following the Covid lockdown, it finally closed its doors for good. It had to be recreated in the studio for the Sixties scenes of Edgar Wright's Last Night In Soho.
The entrance to ‘Buckingham Palace’, through which Miranda arrives for low-key assignations, is another screen favourite. It’s the East Gate of the Old Royal Naval College, on Park Row in Greenwich, London SE10. The same gate is also seen as the palace entrance in 1992 Jack Ryan thriller Patriot Games.
The college itself is seen in countless productions, including The Madness Of King George, Four Weddings And A Funeral, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Mummy Returns; The Duchess, Young Victoria, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Les Misérables and many others.
Ralph and Miranda enjoy a quiet evening playing Scrabble in front of the fire in the Withdrawing Room of Belvoir Castle, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, about seven miles west of Grantham in Leicestershire. No stranger to the screen, Belvoir (pronounced ‘beaver’) is also seen as ‘Buckingham Palace’ in The Young Victoria, and appears in Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes, Merchant-Ivory’s The Golden Bowl, and as ‘Castel Gandolfo’ in The Da Vinci Code. You can even see its kitchens in Jan de Bont’s splurgy 1999 remake of The Haunting.
It’s in Syon House, Syon Park, Park Road, Brentford, west London, that Ralph rehearses his meeting with King Mulambon, with Phipps standing in for the king, and it’s in Syon’s Great Hall that he finally greet the African dignitary, and invites him to go out for a beer. The Great Hall can also bee seen in Joseph Losey’s Accident, The Madness Of King George, The Wings of the Dove, Emma, Gosford Park, The Golden Bowl and in the 1998 film of The Avengers.
Syon’s elegant white Great Conservatory is where Ralph is coached in how to walk like a king. You might remember it as becoming ‘Heaven’ in the original 1967 film of Bedazzled, with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook.
The bar to which Ralph takes Mulambon (Rudolph Walker) and his entourage for a game of darts, is the Prince Alfred, 5a Formosa Street, Maida Vale W9. A real treat, all carved wood and etched glass, it’s also seen in Neil Jordan’s Graham Greene adaptation The End Of The Affair, Michael Radford’s B Monkey and Chen Kaige’s Killing Me Softly.
The waste ground on which Mulambon evens up the score with spears is opposite the Alfred on Castellan Road. It didn’t stay empty for long in the heart of Maida Vale, and has been developed into a block of luxury flats.
Ralph sneaks out to meet up with Miranda in Piccadilly Circus, although the apparently ‘nearby’ burger bar to which they retire for a quick bite is out in Berkshire. It’s Burger King, 150-152 High Street, Slough, Berkshire. Amazingly, despite redevelopment and pedestrianisation, this branch of Burger King is still serving up delightful meat-based treats.
The castle armoury, though, in which the increasingly disillusioned monarch threatens to quit is the Great Hall of Warwick Castle, Warwickshire. The Great Hall was constructed in the 14th century, rebuilt in the 17th century and then restored in 1871 after it had been badly damaged by fire. It does house various suits of armour, including two imposing pieces of equestrian armour as well as a miniature suit of armour believed to have been made for the four year old son of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester (who died at the age of six).
Ralph’s private apartment in ‘Windsor’ is the Tudor Suite Dining Room in the Astor Wing of Hever Castle, Hever Road, Hever in Kent, famous as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII. In truth, the Astor Wing is Edwardian, built in 1903, but it’s still a cool place to hire for that special wedding.
Willingham gives Ralph a pep talk about his responsibilities and Ralph relents, to greet the Finnish royal family as they arrive at St Pancras Station, now St Pancras International, Euston Road N1, on a state visit.
Ralph even acquiesces to the idea of an arranged marriage to the booming-voiced ‘fox’ Princess Anna (Joely Richardson).
The reception for the royal family, where Lord Graves mischievously advises Ralph to demonstrate his American flamboyance, is Lancaster House – famously more opulent that the Queen’s Palace itself. As Queen Victoria remarked (probably through gritted teeth) when she popped along the Mall for a visit “I have come from my house to your palace“. It’s tucked away behind high walls at the end of Pall Mall, and is now owned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Although conferences are held here, the breathtaking Louis XIV interior is rarely open to the general public. You’ll probably have to content yourself with seeing it on screen, and you have plenty of opportunities.
Lancaster House became the Tsar’s ‘St Petersburg Winter Palace’ in Warren Beatty’s Oscar-winning historical epic Reds. The same interior appears as itself for the Lancaster House costume ball in the Merchant-Ivory film of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, and subsequently becomes the improbably grand home of Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench) in Oliver Parker’s 2002 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest.
The disastrous banquet itself, with Ralph treating his guests to a lively rendition of Good Golly Miss Molly, is sadly nothing more than a lavish set built at Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire (as is the recreation of the ‘House of Commons’ toward the end of the film).
Ralph makes a last visit to Miranda to explain that their relationship will never work. To find a suitably working class area for ‘South London’, the production travelled to the terraced streets and allotments of Dalton, northeast of Rotherham, South Yorkshire – which is why it looks so surprisingly hilly and industrial, and nothing at all like South London. The whole area has been redeveloped though, for the moment, you can still see the chimneys of what was Corus, now the Tata Steel plant, just to the north.
Of course, Graves’s plot comes unstuck, and Ralph acknowledges he’s probably not the right man for the job, abdicating the throne in favour of another surprising claimant.
Free to pursue Miranda, Ralph visits her at the high street boutique in which she works. It’s Viva, 72 St John’s Wood High Street, St John’s Wood, London NW8 7SH – and also still in business.
Accepting the title of Duke, the country estate into which Ralph and Miranda move, equipped with recording studio of course, is Blenheim Palace again – revealing its exterior for the first time in the film.
As the final shot pulls out, look into the bottom left hand corner of the screen, where you can see the palace bridge over which the carriages rattle in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 Cinderella, which used the estate for the fairytale palace grounds.