The in-depth, long-play serials of episodic television bring us back to those now practically obsolete, brick-like Victorian novels—the kind you could get lost in for weeks. True, there are minor quibbles about the series’ rendering of history, but overall it is an enthralling delight
There’s no more private family than the royal family. People who can really only be themselves with each other. The rest of us just spend all our time fascinated by them.
When I was a kid I used to think the Queen was my Granny. Every time a letter arrived from Scotland it would come with Her Majesty’s expressionless face attached to the top right corner of the envelope; being too young to properly understand either the monarchy or postage stamps, it was the only logical conclusion.
—Calum Henderson, New Zealand Herald
“Who wants transparency when you can have magic?” replies the Duke of Windsor (formerly King Edward VIII) cynically, while watching the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, on television, in exile in Paris, when asked by a friend why she was shielded from the cameras, by a golden canopy, during the anointing. In Netflix’s extraordinary television series The Crown, directed by Stephen Daldry, or rather, the proposed Wagnerian marathon of six consecutive series, we fortunately get both—transparency and a magical transportation.
Lavish detail in an impeccable costume drama, The Crown fills the gap left by the long-running and much-missed Downton Abbey. It is a personal and humanising portrayal of the Royal Family, mixing humour with history. If only Social Studies in school had been this much fun, we’d have all gone into politics.
Peter Morgan, principal scriptwriter of The Crown, wrote The Audience, a West End and Broadway hit stage play, which had originally intended to focus on nine successive British prime ministers and their weekly private meetings with Queen Elizabeth II, but Dame Helen Mirren, in the lead role, practically transformed it into a one-woman show. The subtle tension-relieving humour required to make live theatre work in front of real audiences, night after night, is apparent throughout The Crown.
Joe Dolce’s review appears in June’s Quadrant.
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Morgan also wrote the equally stunning screenplay for the film The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears, also featuring Mirren, which focused on the death of Lady Diana Spencer and the direct impact on the Royal Family. The film earned Mirren the 2007 Academy Award for Best Actress. Morgan was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
So there was probably no playwright better suited than Peter Morgan to take on the vast and contemporary-Shakespearean melodrama that is the House of Windsor. Ironically, Morgan said:
I didn’t really [want to tell this story]. I’m sick of writing the world of Elizabeth. But when we did the play The Audience, the scene between Churchill and the young queen struck me as having lots of potential—this young 25-year-old girl and this 73-year-old, this daughter and this grandfather. And yet he was so in awe of her. I thought, I’d like to try writing this as a movie, Churchill and Elizabeth. Like Educating Rita.
Morgan’s vision for The Crown consists of sixty episodes, over six seasons, with new actors in all principal roles every two seasons.
The success of Downton Abbey in the United States inspired the US-based Netflix to invest in their most expensive production ever, at £100 million for the first two seasons alone, and the next four predicted to cost £5 million per episode. Grand total: possibly £300 million. Netflix is counting on its 117 million subscribers, in over 190 countries, to keep it in the black. Well in the black.
So far, so good. Seasons One and Two have won all the major television baubles, including Golden Globes, Satellite Awards and BAFTAs, as well as appearing among the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Television Programs of the Year.
But The Crown is so very British, down to the cufflinks, designed by the Duke of Edinburgh himself (one of his hobbies), that it is hard to imagine something of this detail and authenticity originating from the States. Winston Churchill is played by the American actor John Lithgow (talk about risk!) who won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor. He says:
I never would have chosen myself … I’m so different than him. I’m so tall and so American … It’s something that Peter Morgan described as Churchill-fatigue that they were suffering from in England. Everybody in England has a perfect Churchill imitation … they needed something that slightly broke the mould. I guess.
Albert Finney and Michael Gambon have done credible portrayals of Winston Churchill in recent times. And Churchill did have an American mother. But, during Lithgow’s audition for the role, in a roomful of seasoned British thespians vying for the part, mouths dropped open with an “Oh, my God! It’s Churchill!”, when they saw Lithgow’s interpretation. Lithgow had done extensive preparation for the audition, absorbing practically everything written about Churchill. For the role itself, he had to wear “the greatest fat suit ever”. James Delingpole wrote in the Spectator:
if you want to know why the drama departments at the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV are quaking in their boots, just watch a couple of episodes of Netflix’s sumptuous, leisurely and immaculate recreation of the Queen’s early years on the throne. It’s like the moment when America entered the war: “Such materiel! Such manpower! Never again will we be in a position to call the shots …” It’s a bloody masterpiece. Director Stephen Daldry … has done a wonderful job recreating the stilted grimness of the early 1950s British royal court, where everyone from Queen Mary down chain-smokes …
In Seasons One and Two, the English actress Claire Foy’s sympathetic portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II is the bright light around which the drama orbits. Matt Smith plays a virile Prince Philip and Vanessa Kirby portrays an almost narcissistic Princess Margaret.The time frame of the first season is from 1947—the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip of Greece—up to 1956, when Anthony Eden replaces Churchill as Prime Minister. Revealing too much detail about the story may spoil the twists and turns so I will give an overview and touch on a couple of highlights and inaccuracies.
In the course of the first ten episodes, Elizabeth gives birth to Charles, Churchill and the Conservatives return to Downing Street after six years of Labour, Elizabeth and Philip tour Australia. Her father, George VI, dies. Neil Genzlinger wrote in the New York Times:
The Crown takes its time arriving at that sea-change moment [the death of George VI], and the result is a delicate study in the power of breaking news then versus now. Today, thanks to the internet and social media, everyone knows almost immediately when something major or even not so major happens. Five minutes after the death of a person of the king’s stature, the event would have been absorbed, the “praying for George” tweets would have been posted, and the snarky post-mortem would already be underway. The Crown lets you feel (or remember) what it was like when information moved more slowly. Elizabeth and Philip were on a world tour at the time. Just reaching her with word that she was now the queen was an ordeal, and in following that thread the series also conveys how the news rolled across the British Empire—a growing shock wave rather than a quick burst.
Elizabeth returns to the UK as Queen, and is crowned at Westminster Abbey. Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend seek Elizabeth’s sanction to marry, Churchill falls victim to a stroke, Graham Sutherland paints his controversial painting of him, Prince Philip opens the Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Eden becomes Prime Minister and we are plunged into the 1956 crisis over the Suez Canal.
The second season begins in 1957—when Eden is replaced as Prime Minister by Harold Macmillan—and extends over an additional ten episodes, to 1963. We watch Elizabeth and Philip contemplate divorce and witness the shaky state of their marriage, the Israelis invade Sinai, and British forces move into Egypt, Philip becomes Duke of Edinburgh; Elizabeth meets American evangelist Billy Graham. She gives birth to Prince Andrew; President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, visit Buckingham Palace for dinner—and some weird drama. The infamous scandal between the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, and model Christine Keeler is explored in depth. Elizabeth gives birth to Prince Edward.
But there is a very problematic episode, in the middle of Season Two, on the 1961 visit to London by the Kennedys. I found the portrayal of JFK, by American actor Michael C. Hall, very shallow—actually, the worst of all the interpretations of Kennedy that I have seen over the years. Hall plays him practically as a loutish thug, when JFK was, in fact, one of the most gracious statesmen the US has ever had, a public speaker without peer. After Kennedy died, political Ciceronian oration, other than in the memorable speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, became a forgotten craft.
I will admit I am a little biased. Having campaigned for JFK when I was a teenager, even shaking his hand when he visited my hometown of Painesville, Ohio, as a senator, and then quite devastated by his assassination (I still have a scrapbook of yellowing newspaper clippings from those days), I certainly did not recognise the Kennedy I grew up with in Michael C. Hall’s portrayal. And I’m not alone. Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
There is nothing—literally nothing—to support the assertion in The Crown that after the trip JFK, in a rage at being upstaged by his wife, drank, threw things and lunged at her. There is no historical evidence that he ever got rapey with his wife. Also he didn’t smoke cigarettes. All of this, and more, is so vulgar, dumb and careless. It is disrespectful not only of real human beings but of history itself.
The portrayal of Jackie Kennedy is downright cringe-worthy. Absent is the elegant and visionary fashion innovator who brought refreshing European style to the White House, or the brave, tough-minded and tender-hearted creative woman and dedicated mother.
Later in life, as a respected editor at Doubleday, she said, “There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.” According to National Geographic, Jackie Kennedy appeared “27 times on the annual Gallup Poll list of the top 10 most admired people of the second half of the 20th century; a number superseded by only Billy Graham and Queen Elizabeth II—and higher than that of any US President”.
A few commentators are referring to this jarring Crown episode as “the Real Housewives of Buckingham Palace”. It is entertaining to watch, of course, but very wrong.
Ben Lawrence, critic for the Telegraph, wrote of Peter Morgan:
It is typical of Morgan’s approach, using small details to build up a bigger picture … this is the House of Windsor under the microscope, analyzed with forensic detail so that you acquire an acute psychological portrait of every character.
Naturally you wonder whether members of the Royal Family have watched the series and, if so, what they thought. Prince Philip is alleged to have said, when asked if he was a fan, “Don’t be ridiculous.” The Queen, on the other hand, is said to have viewed it, with the Earl and Countess of Wessex, saying she liked it but found some events “too heavily dramatised”. Daniel D’Addario, in Time, wrote that the series “makes the most of a Unknowable Queen”.
The big risk in Seasons Three and Four will be getting audiences accustomed to a new actress playing Elizabeth II. Olivia Colman, the star of the three excellent Broadchurch series, is replacing Claire Foy. Peter Morgan, in an interview with Variety about this point, commented:
What’s so beautiful about Claire is her youth. You can’t ask someone to act middle-aged. Someone has to bring their own fatigue to it. The feelings we all have as 50-year-olds are different than the feelings we all have as 30-year-olds.
Olivia Colman has played the Queen Mother previously, in the movie Hyde Park on Hudson, so maybe: like mother, like daughter. Having seen that film, I fear Colman will bring a more sombre side to the role, forfeiting the endearing and ebullient nature of the young Elizabeth, but perhaps, as Morgan reminds us, that is also realistic. Colman is certainly skilled enough to be convincing, which ever direction she takes it, having won three BAFTA Awards, three BIFA Awards, one Golden Globe, and been nominated twice for an Emmy.
Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies will assume the parts of Princess Margaret and Prince Philip. Menzies was stunning as Brutus in the two unparalleled seasons of Rome, so he should bring a more introspective dimension to Philip. Helena Bonham Carter is always quirky and should prove a worthy Princess Margaret, the quirkiest member of the Royal Family.
Season Three will be set during the time of Harold Wilson’s prime ministership and will introduce the beginnings of the relationship of Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, six years before he meets the young Lady Diana, who will appear near the end, and probably be one of the primary stars of the following season. Morgan says: “The Diana stuff … I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do with her if I ever get that far.”
In Season Four, the 1978 breakdown of Margaret and Lord Snowdon’s marriage is on the cards as is the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. The famous “feud” between the Queen and Thatcher will certainly be looked at. Princess Margaret said it was the only time she had every seen her sister cry. (Apparently, Mrs Thatcher would drink whisky in Buckingham Palace to calm down after their weekly audiences.)
Will The Crown make it to Seasons Five and Six? The ratings will determine this, but why not? Downton Abbey had six series. Soapies still rule. The Guiding Light, which ran from 1952 to 2009, had over 18,000 episodes. Days of Our Lives, with over fifty-three seasons, and The Young and the Restless, with 11,000-plus episodes, are still in production. Audiences remain hungry for quality escapist and detailed drama that stretches over an extended period.
Morgan said he often likes to binge-watch a good series: “I’d love people to watch it all [in one session]. I once had the flu, had a raging temperature, and watched an entire season of 24, twenty-four episodes, in twenty-eight hours.”
James Delingpole says: “The Crown is so good I’m considering giving up on terrestrial TV altogether.” I agree. The average two-hour movie is now similar to the three-minute pop single: it’s over before it starts. The in-depth, long-play serials of episodic television bring us back to those now practically obsolete, brick-like Victorian novels—the kind you could get lost in for weeks.
Maybe in Season Five, we might see Dame Helen Mirren reprise her role as an elderly Elizabeth II! (One can dream. In three years, the Queen will be ninety-five and Mirren seventy-five.)
By Season Six, we will no doubt see many events that are yet to happen. The actual Royal Family is still in a real-time adventure, in motion, with new scenes being written almost daily.
By Season Six, Charles could be King. Harry (Prince Henry of Wales), my own choice for monarch, is way down there, unfortunately, sixth in line, after Prince William, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. Prince Louis is the first British prince to be ranked behind an elder sister in the line of succession. Consider the potential drama in that.
Joe Dolce, who lives in Melbourne, is a frequent contributor of poetry and prose.