Olivia Coleman as the Queen in 'The Crown'. Image by Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix
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An adult view of monarchy

The artistic achievement of ‘The Crown’ has been undervalued

A new season of The Crown the third of a prospective four — is about to hit our screens on Netflix, and it is a good time to have another look at this extraordinary series. It might be objected that quite enough has already been written and said about it, if it wasn’t for the feeling that, despite all the hype (it has already won a large number of prizes and honours), the specific quality of its artistic achievement remains strangely elusive.

We could start with the boldness of the concept. In democratic times such as our own, it can’t be prohibited to dramatise aspects of the public and private lives of the reigning royal family. The creator of the series, Peter Morgan, has made something of a speciality of this kind of writing, but others have done it as well. First there was his movie The Queen (which imaginatively probed the relation between the monarch and her prime minister Tony Blair in the wake of the Diana tragedy).

He returned to the fray a few years later with a successful West End play The Audience, which extended the original imaginative conceit into chronicling the monarch’s relationship with all her other historical prime ministers in the course of a famously long reign.

Both of these works were limited enough in the scope of their operations not to grossly offend anyone. The same might be said about an earlier example of the genre, Alan Bennett’s television play A Question of Attribution (1991) where (a bit more dangerously this time) the focus of the investigation was the Queen’s professional friendship with her art adviser Sir Anthony Blunt, a notorious traitor to the realm.

Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip. Image by Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

Bennett’s writing, even at its most left-wing and waspish, remained, as always with him, within the bounds of affectionate comedy. The Crown too has comic elements that need to be acknowledged. But it is not essentially a comedy: that would be simply inaccurate in view of the drama’s darkness and seriousness. The boldness of the initial enterprise lies in the initial decision made to take the entire trajectory of the lives of members of the royal family — many if not most of them still living — as its legitimate subject matter, in their most intimate and sexual relationships with each other, as well as in their more public and unexceptionable identities.

 

Of course, these lives have been spoken of before — biographies abound, magazines and newspapers are full of their doings — but the scope and the range of the inquiry, as well as the resources put at its disposal (the seasons are reputedly budgeted at £100 million each), alter in some exponential way, it seems to me, the terms of the contract. One might wonder what isn’t, in the future, to be out of bounds to our voyeurism? What would we say if we learned that our own private lives — including the things we say in bed to each other, our quarrels, our reconciliations, our backbitings — were to be put under public scrutiny in this way? Unlike the participants of the standard television reality show, these particular private subjects have no say in the matter. And none of us, I suppose, know how they are taking it.

The series, then, fairly plainly takes us into areas of privacy where Morgan and his collaborators cannot possibly have had first-hand knowledge. As far as the dialogues go in such scenes, these must be inventions. And for all we know, they may have made up whole episodes.

Did the Queen’s foxtrot with Kwame Nkrumah really save Ghana — save Africa! — from communism?

How far is a playwright allowed to go in embroidering “facts”? A few historians, predictably, have taken umbrage. Did the Queen really entertain Jackie Kennedy to a private tea in Buckingham Palace in the wake of the President’s assassination (and in the wake, more particularly, from the point of view of the piquancy of the episode, of some chance remarks by Jackie that had got back to her concerning her deplorably old-fashioned dress sense)?

Did that wonderful foxtrot with Kwame Nkrumah really take place which apparently saved Ghana — saved Africa! — from communism? In the case of Prince Philip’s trajectory, one might wonder whether it was really true, or just dramatically convenient, that during the Prufumo Affair he turns out to have been so friendly to the disgraced osteopath Stephen Ward, even to the extent of exchanging portrait-drawings with the man.

 

I cite these examples more or less at random — there could be others. Yet on the other hand I wouldn’t be surprised, either, if such episodes did turn out to be true, or true “in essence” at any event. I am sure that, taken as a whole, the series doesn’t egregiously part company from known facts about the reign. A liberty here, a liberty there, doesn’t amount to much, perhaps, in the overall scheme of things. Yet, of course, the whole thing is a liberty; and, in speaking about the series as a whole, we need to bear this in mind.

Coming to the crown for the first time, the viewer is struck by its physical realism, and the enormous lengths its makers have gone to in order to make the numerous different locations, interior and exterior, look right on the screen. Plainly, on most occasions, hired buildings combined with clever studio construction and deft special effects have been utilised to achieve this result, but that doesn’t prevent the viewer from experiencing a sort of perpetual double-take in sequence after sequence.

Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Daniels as Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. Image by Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

As the burnished gates of Buckingham Palace swing open to admit a convoy of Bentleys amidst a crowd of cheering onlookers, the feeling is palpable that this is the real royal palace, the real courtyard, real crowds, etc — almost as if the Queen had said to the filmmakers, “Yes, borrow my palace for the day. Indeed, have it for as long as you like!” The same impression of impeccable vraisemblance extends to the interior settings, of a grandeur rarely seen on our television screens (unless, precisely, in those documentaries that have turned up in the last few years in celebration of some regal anniversary or other, where, under controlled conditions, the monarch graciously “takes the public behind the scenes” and allows us to glimpse the polished workings of the royal household).

The magnificence touched on here and in other scenes — for example, the extended Coronation sequence at Westminster Abbey in Season One — is an important if not essential aspect of the impact, one could almost say the meaning, of the series. For what is a monarchy without magnificence? Republicans, and not just republicans, complain about how much it must cost in real life to keep the whole show on the road. But this is to fail to see (or else to see only too clearly) that without a certain amount of extravagance there wouldn’t be a monarchy worth talking about. Its mystique is tied up in some complicated way with the wealth that sustains it, and with the beauty, the settings and the ceremonial it draws upon.

In a democratic age such as ours, it is strange, perhaps, that we continue to be impressed by such things, but there it is: we are children in such matters. I think it is good that the writing of The Crown takes all this for granted. The lavishness of the monarchical mise en scène is neither politicised nor satirised. By all rights, the conspicuous consumption of the royals (on a truly grand scale) should be out of bounds in an epoch of equality. Yet, deliberately it seems to me, the series hasn’t over-emphasised this side of the matter.

 

A similarly magisterial neutrality, or evenness of tone, is observable in Morgan’s approach to the show’s dramatis personae. He wants to demonstrate, in each case, the human complexity of the make-up of the inhabitants of the institution. They are absolutely not to be portrayed as marionettes. While one or two characters seem not to be liked under any circumstance (I am thinking of the show’s portrayal of Harold Macmillan and, oddly enough, of the Queen Mother), the series as a whole specialises in enabling us to see even the most monstrous instances of arrogance and privilege in contexts that fail to rule out generous doses of broad human sympathy.

How else are we to explain the curiously wistful pathos surrounding characters as reprehensible as the Duke of Windsor, Princess Margaret (together with her bisexual husband Tony Armstrong-Jones) and Prince Philip? Their actions are one thing; their frailties — their demons — another. In each case, the writing of the series encourages them to emerge as fully-rounded human beings.

At the centre of the series is the Queen herself, incarnated in the first two seasons by the luminously beautiful actress Claire Foy (the role is about to be taken over by Olivia Colman). What praise could be eloquent enough to encompass the elegance, irony, wisdom and discretion of this performance of Foy’s? Such acting, of course, can’t be conceived of without appropriate writing to sustain it, and here I would argue Morgan excels himself.

There are two things that needed to be got right and he gets them right. On the one hand there is the Queen’s private life — her ordinary affections: her hopes, troubles and disappointments in the midst of a complicated family nexus. On the other hand – subliminally present, so to speak, at all times — is her conception of the meaning of the institution she heads, and how that is to be put into practice in each of her actions and decisions.

Her behaviour overall is never less than principled: the steeliness of her will, combined with the gentleness of her general demeanour, has been immensely moving at all times. She gives orders crisply, but at the same time, as incarnated by Foy, she is the most wonderful listener and questioner. Meanwhile, the series as a whole derives a kind of immense ongoing pathos from the strand of the narrative which shows the monarch — daringly, one might think (how can the writers know the truth of the matter?) — attempting to attract, to rekindle, and to keep up the affections of an ever-ready-to-roam husband. Will Colman, I wonder, be able to maintain the exquisite delicacy of this posture?

Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. Image by Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

Faithfulness, then, is a mainstay — the mainstay — of the Queen’s character as presented in The Crown. And faith too, in the more religious sense. An episode in Season Two shows her saying her prayers at night, kneeling by her bedside. It is an extraordinary conception: how many of us, after all, keep up this ritual after childhood?

That the Queen should be pictured engaged in intimate private devotion is one of the most original strokes of the series so far. For it silently makes the connection that, in order for the institution to have meaning and heft, there needs to be some kind of belief in the sacred. To put it another way, monarchy doesn’t make sense without religion. It is an extraordinarily sophisticated aspect of the series, in the midst of the varied populist pleasures it offers, to understand this notion of anointed obedience so perfectly, and at the same time to put it across to the audience with such clarity.

In the context of our national life, the meaning of kingship is something we learned about in Shakespeare — predominantly in the History plays of course. To some critics, it will seem absurd to refer to The Crown by the epithet “Shakespearean”. Yet at times the writing really does rise to these levels. I am thinking of such scenes as the sequence in which the Duke of Windsor is summoned to Lambeth Palace to be told by the assembled worthies that he will not be permitted to attend the Coronation (later, he watches it on television and makes waspish remarks to his cronies).

Similarly, there is the royal rebuff later in the series (the episode “Vergangenheit” in Season Two) where the extent of the Duke’s pro-Nazi past, hitherto hidden or played down, makes it impossible for the Queen to grant the simple request —“simple” as he sees it — that he be allowed to pay private visits when he wishes to his homeland.

Brushed, too, with a kind of Shakespearean melancholy, far beyond the limitations of soap opera, is the strand of the plot that follows the spiritual decline of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, in the face of the state veto on her love affairs. The “scandals” surrounding the different stages of this long and ongoing episode might easily have been handled satirically — as they are by Craig Brown, for example, in his entertaining recent book about her. Here, however, the whole thing is given a tragic inflection, without strain on the viewer’s credulity. Totally Shakespearean, at any event, is the idea that, even in this day and age, duty and private interest can be in conflict with each other; and that, somehow, both sides of the argument keep their dignity.

The decline of Princess Margaret after the state veto on her love affairs is brushed with Shakespearean melancholy

One could go on and on adumbrating different scenes from the series in order to make the point stick that what we are seeing here is indeed something special. It would seem to me to require a whole essay in film criticism, for example, to do justice to the depths of meaning lying buried in the marvellous early episode showing Churchill being painted by Graham Sutherland. Here as elsewhere, it is the combination of high skill in the dialogue department, together with the appositeness of the underlying symbolism, that impresses so much. The resonances persist long after one has switched the television off.

Of course the critic mustn’t exaggerate: Morgan is not Shakespeare, or not yet at least. I just hope the remaining two seasons are as powerful and specific as the first two. From what one has witnessed so far, it is fair to say The Crown has given us something we scarcely deserve any more in our complacently secular culture: an adult account of the monarchy.

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