Over Christmastide, the phenomenon that is Netflix’s The Crown will divert many a family – monarchist and republican alike – ten episodes of our Sovereign’s life from 1956 to 1963. In Series One (1947 – 1955), the quality of the script, the brilliance of the actors, the perfection of the period, the exquisiteness of the sets, the acuity of the cameramen, combined to produce a tour de force. The effect was to make us think we were really there as the Princesses were told that their beloved Papa had become George VI; as the dashing Duke of Edinburgh saved his Princess Bride from a rogue elephant in Kenya (untrue); as Queen Mary received her errant, eldest son with such froideur (surely true); as Philip was told his children would be Windsors (undeniable). It all seemed so authentic that we now feel we KNOW what happened behind those Palace walls.
The apparent authenticity of The Crown is so delicious. It is also so insidious. We shall never really know. We have to remember this is in fact a magnificent imperial soap. In his review of the series, The Crown: Truth & Fiction (Zuleika, 50pp), the historian Hugo Vickers, while welcoming its great job in reminding a younger generation that the Queen and Prince Philip were once young themselves, he warns that ‘Fiction should help us understand the truth, not pervert it.’ As Peter Morgan, creator of the series, told The Australian, ‘I’ve done my best to stick to the facts as I have them. I think there’s room to creatively imagine, based on information we have about Her (The Queen).’ Tellingly, he went on to say, when asked if The Queen had seen Series One, ‘I have no idea and I don’t want to know…. I live in hope that she hasn’t seen it, never watches it and doesn’t give it the slightest thought.’
I was interested to learn in The Times obit of Lady Charteris, (the widow of Martin Charteris, Private Secretary to Elizabeth as Princess and Queen), who died, aged 97, in March this year, ‘She was fascinated by Series One of The Crown on Netflix, in which she was portrayed by Jo Herbert, with the actor Harry Hadden-Paton playing her husband. She liked to watch it with the Duchess of Grafton — the mistress of the robes and an old friend.’ To have been there, a fly on the wall as they watched, to see them laugh and scoff; nod and sigh.
Episodes 1 & 2 Series Two
The first two episodes of the second series of The Crown reassuringly maintain the standards of the first. The same superb cast – although magnificent old Granny (‘Queen Mary’ to us) and the reluctantly retired and equally magnificent Churchill are much missed – the same sumptuous sets; riveting script; cut-glass accents; frosty courtiers; and cameras that peer and pan; close-in and linger. New Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden (played with élan by Jeremy Northam), confronted with the Suez Crisis, is racked with pain and under siege. (One wonders if his widow, Clarissa, Countess of Avon, now 97, is subjecting herself to the show?).
Episode Two has the Duke at sea – the royal marriage is also all-at-sea. It is as if the 35-year-old Prince is on his Gap Year – much of the four months on the Royal Yacht Britannia – all testosterone and tournaments; beard-growing and ball-games. Where Peter Morgan stirs up mischief (and distrust) is in letters apparently written by the Duke’s Private Secretary, Mike Parker, to their pals at the Thursday Club in London. First, much of Parker’s charm was that he was Australian but The Crown’s enormous budget does not seem to have been able to stretch to an Australian actor to play him or even lessons in an Australian accent.
And the reading of Parker’s letters brimming with innuendo, to a dining room full of lunching pals is surely invention. As the historian, Hugo Vickers, writes Baron (the photographer), to whom Parker’s letters were addressed and who read them out with such relish, DIED five weeks before Philip and Parker even set orf on tour. What are that room of eight researchers doing? To be fair, so much of the period detail is captured and conveyed with such acuity; that these slips seem even more glaring. Another mischievous invention was the Queen’s reunion with Prince Philip in Lisbon. It was not the glaring standoff as depicted. In fact, the Queen and her party were all sporting false red beards to greet him. Was this the mask of a furious wife?
Such is the sisters’ command and magnetism that The Crown could quite easily have been entitled Lilibet & Margot. The beloved daughters of George VI fill the screen every time they appear. As Hugo Vickers writes, the King had said, ‘Lilibet is my Pride; Margaret is my Joy.’ The cameras catch their mood so brilliantly. It lingers just long enough to allow us to feel we ‘know’ how Elizabeth (a luminous Claire Foy) has reacted to news or an encounter. With her younger sister, we have no doubt; free, as she is, of throne and sceptre. The Princess Margaret simply says what she thinks – without blinking. It has been said that Vanessa Kirby, who plays her, is more Princess Margaret than Princess Margaret (while the consummate Olivia Colman will ‘become’ Elizabeth, who can possibly replace Vanessa Kirby in Series Three?) She towers over the original but short or tall, she commands (invariably through a cloud of smoke) every shot. Imperious, impetuous, impossible.
In Series One, we relived her doomed relationship with her father’s equerry, ‘Peter, Peter Townsend’ a 40-year-old divorcé with two sons. (We shall never know what sort of a stepmother the Princess would have made). The Crown tells us that the match was made impossible by the Court, the Church, the State, even the Commonwealth – in short the whole bang Establishment. A repeat of her uncle, the Duke of Windsor’s crisis not two decades earlier. Hugo Vickers believes the truth was that, after their forced 2-year separation, true love had run its course and both Princess and Group Captain agreed they had no future together. At the end of her life she wanted any misgivings forgotten, but her resentment lingered and decades after her renunciation of Townsend, when Sir Alan (Tommy) Lascelles was returning to his grace-and-favour apartment in Kensington Palace and the Princess was being driven home, she apparently told her driver, ‘Run him down’.
A few years after the Townsend renunciation, the lovelorn sister of The Queen has forged her own circle, the Margaret Set, a loose, louche clique of debs and heirs. In 1956, at the wedding of her best friend, Lady Anne Coke, she sets eyes on Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the bohemian photographer and posh precursor of free love, a diminutive Old Etonian with mother issues and lots of Attitude. To have Matt Smith (as Prince Philip) describe Tony’s father, Ronald Armstrong-Jones, as ‘a jumped-up contract lawyer’ seems a bit rich. He was, in fact, a Queen’s Counsel with a country house in Wales. Ronald’s third wife was a former flight attendant, which makes the fuss over Carole Middleton’s early career more than little passé.
Tony’s mother, Anne Messel, divorced Ronald when Tony was four. She had once been labelled ‘Tugboat Annie’ because she went from Peer-to-Peer before marrying the 6th Earl of Rosse. Anna Chancellor, who plays her, does the brittle, frosty aristocrat so well but looks nothing like Anne Rosse. Matthew Goode is more than good as bad-boy Tony – he matches Margaret line-for-line and smoke-for-smoke. But Peter Morgan does overegg the laid-back rebel thing a bit – Tony, in smouldering form, revving his motorbike outside Clarence House to attract his Princess; and later, by then wed, lying flat-out on one of the Aubussons at Buckingham Palace, nonchalantly smoking, as Prince Philip returns from a World Wild Life Fund weekend (??) in St Moritz.
What is fascinating (revealed by the Princess’s biographer, Tim Heald, but not covered in the series), is that after their Thursday Club pal, Baron, died in 1956, Mike Parker was sent to meet Baron’s apprentice, one Anthony Armstrong-Jones, with the possibility of him joining Prince Philip on their Gap-Year tour of the Commonwealth. Parker returned with the verdict that the young snapper was Not Suitable. The Prince later took delight in telling Parker that the man who was judged unsuitable to travel with him, had become the Queen’s brother-in-law.
Harold Macmillan used relate the story of coming to Balmoral in the summer of 1959 to see The Queen and being met by her uncle, the crusty Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who confessed, “Thank God you’ve come . . . There’s a fellow called Jones in the library who wants to marry my niece.” It is an irresistible documentary device that everything currently known of a person or situation is shared. But the prescience of the Queen’s courtiers, Lascelles and Adeane, is impressive. They suggest to The Queen, in 1960, that not only was Tony sleeping with his proposed best man, Jeremy Fry, but that Jeremy’s wife, Camilla, was carrying Armstrong-Jones’s child. In fact, it took a DNA test in 2004, 45 years later, by the child, Polly Fry, to confirm this. Of course, the very qualities that drew the couple together – free spirited, outspoken, volatile – led to their estrangement and eventual divorce in 1978. And yet, and yet, the Queen and the Queen Mother remained fond of him through it all. In the seventies, as things soured, someone asked the Princess about The Queen, she apparently quipped, ‘Whom do you mean? My sister, my mother – or my husband?’ I suppose this morsel must wait until Series 4.
‘Dear Mrs Kennedy’, the eighth episode in Series Two, is a fascinating one. Two of the most iconic women of the twentieth century came face-to-face – and what faces; both strong and striking beauties; objects of devotion and slaves to duty. In the title of her biography of the First Lady, America’s Queen, Sarah Bradford captures the empress in Jackie. Peter Morgan cannot but help portray the Kennedys’ visit to London in June 1961 as an opportunity to tell us that The Queen is capable of jealousy (In fact, Morgan showed us a flash of the monarch and the green-eyed monster in ‘Gelignite’, Episode 6 in Series One when she ordered that the dashing Peter Townsend, who proved to be far-too-popular on her visit to Northern Ireland, be sent to cool orf in Brussels). Both inventions? Her Majesty, it seems, is Human after all.
The New Yorker’s critic dismissed this episode as a ‘far-fetched glamour puss showdown’. Bette and Joan without the theatrics; Alexis and Krystle without the slapping? Jacqueline Kennedy arrives fresh from her triumphant State Visit to France – where she conquered le tout Paris, even the lofty awesome Charles de Gaulle was beguiled. Netflix has a besotted Philip insisting on sitting beside the First Lady at the Palace’s ‘private dinner’. As it was private, the Kennedys were able to bring her with them her glamorous sister, Lee, and her husband Stas Radziwill – their status as divorcees overlooked, but so too their titles as Prince and Princess (as Stas’s ancient lineage had no Royal license in Britain).
The dazzling Lee Radziwill does not appear on screen with her sister. Pity we missed that Great Double Act. Rather than have the flirtatious Philip take her orf, we see the Queen insist on showing Mrs Kennedy some of the State Rooms (pointing to a Van Dyk, HM apparently noted, ‘That’s a good horse’). According to the not-always-reliable Gore Vidal (his mother and Jackie’s were, respectively, the second and third wives of Hughdie Auchincloss), Jacqueline found the Queen ‘pretty heavy-going’. As Hugo Vickers’ notes, when Vidal repeated this to Princess Margaret years later, she said, ‘But that’s what she’s there for.’
Fathers and Sons is the theme of the penultimate episode of Series Two and an important one as the son is of course the heir to The Crown. But this must be the grimmest episode yet. Prince Philip was still smarting from being reduced to ‘a bloody amoeba’ when it was decided his children would not carry his name. Who wouldn’t want to be a Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksberg? But in truth Prince Philip had suggested the family take the name of Edinburgh. He was determined, then that he have The Say in the raising of his children. An accommodation was reached that She wore the Crown and He wore the trousers. Despite misgivings from the Queen and the Queen Mother, Gordonstoun in Morayshire was the Prince’s choice for Charles (and later both his brothers). It had made a self-reliant man of Philip and so it jolly well would for Charles. As Hugo Vickers observes, Peter Morgan has the founder, Philip’s mentor, Kurt Hahn, still in charge of the school in 1961 when he had, in fact, retired in 1953. Sparta is overshadowed by the brutishness of the other boys – and the school is apparently unchanged in the quarter-century between Philip and Charles. But the apparent result is Philip emerging from Scotland victorious and Charles crushed. It seems to have taken a good Australian school, Geelong Grammar, to help Charles come into his own. Series Three perhaps?
But the imagined incident – by way of flashback – that genuinely shocks, is the suggestion that 16-year-old Philip was somehow responsible for his sister, Cecile of Hesse’s death in a plane crash in November 1937 because she flew from Darmstadt to Britain heavily pregnant to see him because he had been grounded for punching a boy at school. This calumny is compounded by a scene in which Philip and Cecile’s father – before a whole court in mourning – accuses his son of the death of his favourite child. Entirely baseless – simply a device for telling us that this is a complex man wrought by tragedy and unable to comprehend his sensitive son.
The last episode of Series Two reminds us of the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s poem, “Sexual intercourse began – In nineteen sixty-three - (which was rather late for me) – Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban – And the Beatles’ first LP”. There was no direct links with the priapic Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, but there was an incidental connection between the Royal Family and the enabling osteopath, Stephen Ward. As well as a deft manipulator, he was also a proficient portraitist and he had drawn, for the Illustrated London News and Daily Telegraph, the Queen’s uncle (Henry, Duke of Gloucester), his sister, Mary (the Princess Royal), Princess Margaret and Nancy Astor. As Hugo Vickers notes, no one is suggesting the Queen’s uncle and aunt ‘were frolicking in Lord Astor’s swimming pool at Cliveden.’ Ward had also sketched Prince Philip but despite, some innuendo, underlined by the episode’s title, ‘Mystery Man’, there is no evidence he was the figure with his back to the camera at one of Ward’s parties. Having cast a cloud over the Prince’s fidelity in Episode 1, when The Queen found a photograph of the prima ballerina assoluta, Galina Ulanova, in his briefcase, Morgan allowed it to hover until the last episode, when Elizabeth questions Philip about the photo.
As Vickers points out, Ulanova was 46 and fierce; most unlikely to have been at one of Ward’s party of nymphets, the trip was the first time she had visited London; she was accompanied by her husband; and Philip was only in London for six days during her stay before he left on his Commonwealth cruise. He sidesteps the association with Ulanova, but tells The Queen he is ‘ultimately the one person who is forever completely loyal to her’. Their resulting embrace suggests calmer seas after the choppy waters of the Britannia cruise, Suez, the unsettling wave of enthusiasm for the Kennedys, the surging Snowdon and the swimming pool at Cliveden.
It may seem more than a trifle pedantic to pull apart such a ravishing recreation, where the actors, sets, costumes, diction, direction, music, the plotting and pace are so superb. But a project as popular as The Crown has a pervasive influence and can colour the legacy of an institution, two of whose central figures are still alive and a number of others well-remembered. To jiggle Walter Bagehot, letting flashlights in upon the magic is risky; it can humanise but it can also demonise. But nothing can stop Netflix. Peter Morgan has form. His award-winning The Queen in 2006 was another close-quarters, behind-the-castle-walls dramatisation; while his hit play, The Audience in 2013 visualised the Queen’s weekly meetings with her Prime Ministers (put to very good use in the series’ depiction, so far, of audiences with Churchill, Eden and Macmillan).
As Louis Wise, The Sunday Times’s critic put it, “Morgan does so love those 30 minutes that are never recorded, never reported, but are obviously fertile ground for the imagination.” With The Crown he has six decades to feed that imagination. Sixty episodes are planned to cover the Queen’s sixty years on the throne. The pace is as stately as the QEII and one hopes that, as he continues to navigate this remarkable life, Peter Morgan charts a more steady course between fact and fiction.