A year in the death of Richard III

Logistics note

Exactly a year ago, as I write, I was getting lost in Leicester. I never did get to the bottom of it, but my satnav struggled with the city’s layout, and drew me into a suburban housing estate when I was hoping to find the university. I didn’t know it then, but I would return to Leicester many times over the following nine months, and learn to abandon the satnav once I entered the centre. The university, it seemed, was off the radar.

Well not any more! I made it to the Richard III press conference, just. And how pleased I was that I had. It was one of those things you never forget, superbly staged and managed, pure theatre in a way that formal theatre can too easily miss. And by that I don’t mean it was hollow, or a clever fabrication. As I wrote at the time, “we were being shown a substantial research project that was a case study in how archaeology works at its best, from questioning and planning, to fieldwork, analyses and conclusion”.

The organisation, of course, was well hidden, but just consider the text at the top, the opening words of a long “logistics note” that dealt with issues like parking for satellite trucks, catering, who can and cannot register to be let in, and what can and cannot be revealed. Masterful!

Thinking back over the year, I came up with these favourite three incidents.

1. Best exhibit: The display of Richard III’s remains at the University of Leicester, February 4 2013. 

Richard III, Leicester

This was an immensely powerful and curious thing. There was a note in the press conference programme – easy to miss, there was so much there – that read, “There is an opportunity for journalists to bear witness to the remains and evidence. No photographic or recording equipment is permitted in the room but journalists are invited to accompany University staff over to view the remains. Report to the Help Desk in the foyer.”

The portentous wording evokes the mood of the day: everything felt dramatic. And it was meant to be taken literally. We were led outside and round the block, into the library building, upstairs through four floors (from which we could see students working at keyboards, but no books) and round a corner into what felt like a forgotten service room. We were briefed in this room (I remember perhaps five of us). “No recording equipment” meant just that: no photos, no filming, no writing, phones off, silence. Then we were taken into the adjacent room (apparently a careers service seminar room) through double doors. There was a notice on the first door that read “Silence, No Photography”. Nothing else. Not a hint of what lay beyond. I was asked not to photograph the notice.

You’ll understand that all of this is from memory. I see Richard’s skeleton laid out on a table on black velvet, under a clear case. It looks like some of the university’s photos – released for the first time that morning – in a sort of expanded anatomical arrangement, so that bones do not rub against bones. There are, I think, two chaplains, and at least two security men. It’s a temple, a shrine. It reminds me deeply of Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God, his diamond-studded platinum human skull, exhibited with heavy security against a black ground in a dark room in London down a Piccadilly back street; a work about wealth, power and the relentless sweep of death.

2. Best joke: Guardian Letters Sep 16 2012.

Richard III, Leicester

The identification of bones found in Leicester as those of Richard III (Report, 13 September) may be supported by the telling absence of any trace of a horse.

Percival Turnbull, Barnard Castle, County Durham

3. Best TV moment


“So what we’re actually seeing here”, says Jo Appleby, in one of the two Channel 4 films, “is that this skeleton in fact has a hunched back.”

Philippa Langley’s jaw drops. That is not a turn of phrase, her jaw actually drops. “No,” she says, quietly. She straightens up. “No,” again.

This is the scene when Philippa Langley is shown, apparently for the first time, the fully uncovered remains of Skeleton 1 – later proved to be the remains of Richard III – in the Leicester car park, as they lay in the ground.

But can we ever know what really happened? It was staged by a Darlow Smithson crew, rightly keen to capture Langley’s reaction. Appleby would have been briefed, cameras arranged, the director would say something like, OK, Philippa, you can now have a look, and presenter Simon Farnaby was ready to steer the conversation. Three cameras waited: Darlow’s two, and a third in the hands of the university’s Carl Vivian. Darlow caught the falling jaw. Vivian thinks Langley knew what she was doing, she was playing to the camera. I suspect if you were to ask Langley now, even she could not be sure. Did she stage the dropping jaw? Did it reflect how she felt? What was real, and what was fiction? The past year, caught in a few frames.

Digging for Richard III: Out May 5

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