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Francis Bacon on Film

Updated: Apr 2




Latest Portrayal March 2024

Mary & George (TV Series 2024)

WARNING: The following article contains spoilers and content of a potentially offensive and sexual nature.


The Flaw's the Thing

by Jono Freeman


Nicholas Gailitzine & Julianne Moore

I’ve been watching Mary & George, Sky TV’s latest 7-part television series offering. Although it sounds like a tame rom-com sit-com, nothing could be further from the truth and as a bit of a spoiler there is a lot of sex in this series. It’s about George Villiers (Buckingham) and his formidably manipulative and ruthless mother Mary Villiers and their quest for power and position by any and all means necessary.


The series begins around the year 1614 and has been variously described as a ‘Jacobean psychodrama’, an ‘epic historical romp’ and a ‘sensational true story’. It is ‘inspired’ by The King’s Assassin (2017) a non-fiction book by Benjamin Wooley, so it has some historical framework to build lots of lurid and sensationally ‘creative’ scenes upon.


It has a very forthright emphasis upon sexuality, presumably seeking to reclaim and re-present gay history and its plot centres around the attempts of Mary Villiers to get her son in front of King James I whose proclivities for the company of handsome young men are well documented. M&G looks good and sounds good but historical inaccuracies and misrepresentations are plentiful and it certainly takes artistic license to a whole new level.


Looking and Sounding Good

Like most things from this ‘our’ period, I know I’m going to instinctively enjoy it on some level. I love the aesthetic - the music and sound is right on and sets a perfect vibe. I like how the production is not too over- the-top: it’s modest, but still looks good - unlike some Netflix period docudramas, which often look too cheap and other period pieces that can be too gaudy and loud.


Flaws are the Focus

One of the things I felt immediately noticeable was how all the characters are relentlessly dislikable. Flaws definitely give an extra dimension to character and it’s neither necessary nor desirable to have perfect heroes, but surely, we should aim to have some connection or empathy to the characters? It would seem to be a bit of a trend of late, unlikeables being the desirables, in terms of protagonists. Flaws are the focus.


Obnoxious Bacon

Mark O'Halloran as Francis Bacon

From this period in history, Francis Bacon was one of James’ closest advisors and Attorney General and in past productions would possibly not have been granted any sort of part in the drama at all. Surprising then, that Bacon’s existence is validated, and he first appears in episode 3. Incidentally, by the end of the series I was feeling maybe it would have been better if he hadn’t of featured at all, but more of that later.


Compared to previous portrayals he is a little more dynamic here, looks a little better than the usual depictions, and has at least some style and charisma. He is well groomed and dressed, impeccable beard and full head of contemporarily styled hair, often in dark colours, distinguished, though not as extravagantly as the protagonist. He is extremely confident, speaking with a light and breathy tone of voice, which is self-assured and intellectual, matching his often witty and punchy dialogue. There is not much in the way of comedy in the series, but Bacon’s dry commentary on events is often the closest thing to it.


His main presence is his recognition of Buckingham’s supposedly ‘divine’ talents and his assisting the favourite, in going as far as he can; to rise. We never see him engaged in any other business, other than the wheeling and dealing required of ensuring Buckingham is on top and that he is an ally.


Tony Curran as King James

Bacon has an obnoxiousness about him and loves pronouncing who he is, how well he’s known and how smart he is. So ultimately, another strange treatment and positioning of Bacon. The production places him there, in a confusing but involved position,  however the project chooses to use him to serve the focus of flaw and dislikeability. However, there is a consistency in that he is at least portrayed as unpleasant as all the others. Interestingly amongst the collection of comprehensively foul characters, James I’s occasional forays into ‘sensitivity’ makes him one of the most sympathetic characters in the series – a fairly extraordinary feat in itself!



A Dark Turn

Whilst the first four episodes are moderately irritating from a Baconian perspective, the last three take a decidedly dark turn with a complete character assassination to serve an increasingly lurid and bizarre plotline.


Regarding his fall, Francis is threatened into ‘sacrificing’ himself in the wake of the political turmoil of the time and there is a sense that he is in fact guilty of the very corruption of which he is accused. One of the aforementioned talents Bacon makes claim to in the series, is his skill in buggery. When Bacon is finally outed, the series decides that his reaction should be a sexual blow-out…we see flashes of a naked Bacon in a debauched escapade that ultimately leaves him with ‘the pox’.


Again, apologies for spoilers, but in the very last scene, Bacon’s condition is so bad that he wears a nose-piece (in the fashion of a mask) to cover his infection; as if his corruption is literally consuming him. Shocking and unforgiveable to see him presented in this way and such a flagrant abuse of historical facts that goes way beyond acceptable artistic license.


Outrageous Smear

The last time we see Bacon, which stands in great contrast to the ‘truth’ of his character and an outrageous smear on his reputation and legacy, he is in disgrace and very much the leper, he implores Buckingham for vengeance…that Mary’s right-hand woman and lover Sadie, be murdered. This created character had earlier pronounced Bacon a dangerous and cruel man, who would do harm to women. Again, it was shocking (and sad and disappointing) to see Bacon in tears, in an iron nose, begging for revenge and the taking of a life. 


In M&G, Bacon, as a major player of the time, is simply used as a way to reinforce the plot lines of the other characters in focus, in whatever way the writers see fit. It is clear they either really do not know (or care about) Bacon at all and have lazily decided to paint him with the same false brush that a majority of our historians have, but in an even more caricatured and grotesque way.


The man of principle, integrity, love and empathy that we know, is nowhere to be found - apparently there are no such good men at this time in history. For the purposes of sensationalised ‘entertainment’ Bacon has been used to serve a soulless and twisted ‘celebration’ of ambition, corruption and misuse of power.


Our man still awaits vindication.



When we read and learn about the figures in our history who fascinate us, we also like to put a visage to the personality and story, we look at paintings, photos, or footage depending on what age they inhabited. When we go back to the Elizabethan era, you had to be pretty important to warrant a portrait and we are lucky to have quite a few of Francis Bacon, which show he was indeed a significant character of the time. After this, we tend to turn to representation; how are they treated in our stories - on screen in particular? Which actor plays our figure? What do they bring to the role? With Bacon, casting the right actor feels like an incredibly daunting task - as he was so many things and there are just so many views and perspectives of him. Who on earth was he exactly? Who could possibly manage the task of playing him?

 

The true story of Francis Bacon and his untold history really does have it all; concealed royal births, quest for acknowledgment, secret relationships, love and desire, intrigue, concealment, fear, death, joy, humour, revolution, betrayal and loss all giving birth to the most beautiful, unforgettable and enduring works of literature. Some great universal filmic themes, but let’s see what Bacon on film has looked like so far.





Researching Bacon’s filmic portrayals, a couple of the documentaries made the choice to recreate the figure of Bacon, in voiceless snippets of action accompanying the narration. . .docudrama style. The New Atlantis 2006 had a Francis who resembled a Spanish pirate, providing viewers with moments of inspired writing and experimentation, both alone and within a collective of others.

In Cracking the Shakespeare Code (also found in the original Norwegian series Sweet Swan of Avon), there was another actor/model employed to supply us with a face to direct our imagination. Here he was a little older, and very stern almost bordering on angry, as he shuffled his papers and bustled his way along the corridors to the voice over.




The recurring thought is, “surely there must be a film about Bacon”? Amongst all the content that has been produced on the Tudors and the Elizabethan era, is there nothing on this most exceptional character of the age? On sirbacon.org Lawrence Gerald had some information about Bacon and “Hollywood”. . .again, it is surprising to discover how we have next to nothing! It was interesting to find here that Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon's book No Bed For Bacon - a comic classic first published in 1941 was an inspiration for the Oscar-showered film Shakespeare in Love. In one scene, at the back of the theatre, the playwrights have Bacon speaking eloquently, as Shaxpere sits beside him, tracing his signatures on a pad. . .though clearly Bacon didn’t make the cut in the final adaptation.




In filmic representations, the few in which Bacon is found, are without any suggestion of his greatness at all. They are not written, it seems, with a knowledge or understanding of his true capabilities or rightful place in history. Also, there is no consistency in the treatments, with what feels like some confusion and ambiguity regarding who he really was, what he wanted and what role he played in the action. Perhaps it is a reflection on how we find him in history - often obscured and unplaceable, though prolific and contributing so much. This also goes hand in hand with the misreading of the relationship between Francis, Essex and the Queen - as this really is the key to truly understanding all the events that unfold. None of the treatments are particularly concerned with Bacon’s appearance or presence. There is no concern over his very unique look and dress, or his stature, presence, famed oratory and wit with his friend Ben Jonson telling us that Bacon could never pass by a jest.




Donald Crisp as Bacon in the film The Private lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) at least highlights the very intimate connection between the three key players; revealing how Francis was Elizabeth’s close personal counsel and the degree to which he had her ear. Essex, as always, is the dashing rockstar and Francis is always on the periphery of the main action. The figure of Essex is all drama and swagger, with Errol Flynn in the role and you really do feel his tragedy. . .though the romantic handling of his relationship with the Queen and his martyrdom in the film are a bit ridiculous. Here Bacon is the mediator, the voice of reason, the go-between, the “Schoolmaster” to Essex and the Queen. He is the man of sense at court, weighing and considering, which Crisp does manage to bring some noble warmth to. His role here is confidant, proposing the best way, though he is not always listened to, but is always ‘right’.




In the series Elizabeth 1 (2005) Will Keen is Bacon, showing up in part 2 of two. Challenging the Queen about money in court is how he makes his first appearance. Again, there is a strong connection to Essex, but here with more of a sense of collusion. This Bacon is shifty and slimy. He is constantly seeking favour with the Queen, but getting nowhere - despite writing her a poem about her breasts in Latin! She snubs him access over the poem, commenting “we understand he’s fond of the company of pretty youths. No wonder he’s the member for Middlesex”. He has intelligencers working for him and wishes to help Essex. Likewise, Essex puts Francis forward for the Attorney Generalship - though it is ill received by the Queen. We see him drinking and laughing and enjoying the hanging of Dr Lopez, who he accused of betraying the Queen, along with Essex. And suddenly, the Queen refers to Bacon as a “persuasive enough fellow”. It is Essex who has the theatrical sensibility, along with Southampton, putting on displays for the Queen. Bacon warns Essex to be careful, when he grows cocky and then flatly betrays Essex, as a way of climbing the greasy pole of political advancement. Bacon is taken hostage as part of Essex’s insurgency and then he coldly prosecutes Essex in court. All in all, a rather unlikable role and characterisation for this Bacon and as is consistent it plays very fast and loose with historical accuracy.




In the same year, The Virgin Queen series had Neil Stuke playing Bacon, in episode 4 of four. This production is somehow a little younger, fresher, but just as beautiful, if not more poetic than the other. This production does momentarily actually hint that Essex may be Dudley’s child. Bacon is first seen in court, advising Essex. He has an axe to grind about Cecil and how he is maligning the Earl by turning Elizabeth against him. Ironically Francis has a line about how one of Essex’s ploys to win back the Queen “was as masterful as anything Shakespeare could have coined”. Though Essex then toys with Francis in an intense fashion, suggesting he is a little too much for this very earthy, grounded and measured Francis. In the next scene however Essex is advocating for Francis’ position to the Attorney Generalship and again, the Queen is not responsive at all. Once more, Francis is like a stranger to Elizabeth. There is a nice image of Bacon in this production, as he writes a letter to Essex about moderation, in an effort to help him. He also pens an apologetic letter to the Queen from Essex. The Queen summons Bacon to hear his views, as someone close to Essex and Bacon speaks of his attempts at being a moderating influence but his prognosis is that it is a "malady of his mind from birth” and it seems that there is no restraining him. Bacon becomes the traitor to Essex’s camp, both he and Sir Walter are sent by the Queen to take Essex to the tower. But Essex locks them in a room, as he goes off to storm the town. This Bacon is a forgettable one, he affects no great change in the action and leaves no great impression, he’s on the edges of our focus and once again historical truth and just plain lack of knowledge ‘uninforms’ the portrayal.




In 2017 came the steam-punk Shakespeare series Will. It adopts a heightened style and was therefore free to take more license, so it is fast-paced, full of fun and creative. Bacon does actually make the cut here, but only as a homosexual of renown. He hosts a hedonistic party and as a ‘notorious sodomite’ and our Bacon is a little leery and sleazy here. Bacon hangs out with Raleigh, with a twink on his lap, as they discuss the New World, while Shakespeare takes notes. There is a VIP ceremony with Dr. Dee, seeking to access the divine and it is Marlowe introducing Shakespeare to all this. Bacon dares not look into Dee’s flame, though Marlowe and Shakespeare do. Another moist Bacon here unfortunately, who’s ultimately only here to provide a gay party.




It seems fairly clear that there needs to be a project, devoted to Bacon, which sets the history, the record and popular opinion/culture straight. . .once and for all; about his incredible life, his divine gifts, his beautiful, generous and fun personality. Also, his reach and his unmatched output in contributing to humanity and his role within the events of the time. In this current age, of a mass saturation of stories across media, there is no reason this cannot happen.

 

Now is the time for Truth to out and Spearshaker to be made!



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