The Crown could well end up being one of the most ambitious, grandiose television projects of the modern age.
Created by Peter Morgan off the back of his successful stage play The Audience, itself inspired by Morgan’s earlier script for Stephen Frears’ The Queen, it intends to depict the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II from her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947, all the way through to the modern age, across six seasons. Budgeted at £100 million for the first season, already it’s one of the most expensive seasons of television ever produced, with Netflix investing significant capital into a project they’re very confident is going to go all the way. With a second season about to premiere and a third season in the planning stages, The Crown certainly looks as though it’s here to stay, and given how well put together its first ten episodes are, that can only be a good thing.
Morgan has become one of the pre-eminent screenwriters, if not the pre-eminent screenwriter, working in Britain today. He has also been consistently fascinated by the concept of monarchy, particularly Elizabeth II’s still ongoing reign. A decade ago, The Queen entered the public consciousness not just thanks to a stellar performance from Helen Mirren as the ageing monarch, but for depicting the Royal Family’s response to the death of Princess Diana, arguably as signature to the end of the 20th century for British subjects in terms of the Royals as Edward VIII’s abdication was in the early part of the century. Morgan zeroed in on an aspect which played a key role in The Queen, and indeed does in The Crown, for The Audience: Her Majesty’s audiences with successive Prime Minister’s across the decades.
This makes sense. Morgan is equally fascinated by the workings of government, particularly those of British Prime Ministers and the relationship with the United States across the last half century. His scripts have extensively featured Tony Blair in TV dramas such as The Deal and The Special Relationship, not to mention The Queen (played on all occasions by Michael Sheen). This fascination, this welding of government to monarchy and how the two are constructed in tandem, is a central function of The Crown and, indeed, to why the Netflix drama works so well. Morgan delights in making Winston Churchill a fully-fledged, fleshed out regular character (sublimely played by John Lithgow), with his own relationship with the young Elizabeth an important dynamic across the entire season, from a character and thematic perspective.
The seventh episode, Scientia Potenta Est, makes the point quite clearly in a young Elizabeth’s formative education. She is taught about the ‘Efficient’ and the ‘Dignified’. The ‘Efficient’ is constitutional government, answerable to the electorate who voted them in. The ‘Dignified’ is the monarch, who validated and sanctifies the government and its laws, and is answerable not to the people, but only to God. Elizabeth is taught how the two only work if they work together and trust one another, but from an early age the young Queen-to-be questions why, while equally questioning her own lack of formal education in the precepts other children are taught. She is told those fundamental basics are “undignified”.
This scene is crucial because its precisely what Morgan wants The Crown to concern, and why it ends being much more compelling than a traditional, standard, courtly Royal drama. Morgan’s show questions and analyses the very tradition of the Divine right of Kings and how it can be applied in a modern, ever-changing British and indeed global society. A concept going back thousands of years, traced originally in the Bible to 1 Samuel which introduced the idea of a King being ‘anointed’ with holy water, it posits the ‘Dignified’ concept of a monarch being answerable only to a higher power and not to their subjects, hence why Elizabeth’s own anointing by the Archbishop of Canterbury at her coronation is not shown in the live television broadcast Philip champions – it is a covenant between monarch and God not for mortal eyes.
The Crown depicts an Elizabeth very much at odds with the duties and traditions that go back a thousand years in British history, and even further in Christian or pagan ancient history, and how to rule in a modern, forward thinking manner. Morgan very clearly likes Elizabeth as a woman, outside of her role as monarch, and through Claire Foy’s excellent portrayal she has a great deal more humanity and warmth that many British citizens have ever considered from their Queen. Perhaps this is simply some good historical research in Morgan’s writing; the Queen my generation grew up watching was a middle-to-old aged woman who rarely speaks except for pre-written speeches and has always maintained an acute, respectable distance behind the waves and smiles to crowds.
This is not the Elizabeth we meet in the first season of The Crown.
For a start, she is learning how precisely to be a monarch after facing the unexpected death to cancer of her father, George VI (Jared Harris), when she was just 25. Following Edward’s abdication, she knows there is a certain manifest destiny to her life as the eldest daughter and heir to the throne, but she never expects to be thrust into the role at such a young age.
Across the season, Elizabeth maintains a stolid respect for duty and deportment but she frequently regrets the opportunity to have something of a normal family life, even with the privilege and titles of a Princess. It leads to inevitable problems with Philip (played with just the right amount of arrogant ego by Matt Smith), who resents the emasculation he faces as the Queen’s consort and takes every opportunity to gallivant off with his friends. “I thought we had longer” she says to him wistfully, at one point. There’s also a suggestion he has been, or could be, tempted to be unfaithful.
Scandal, therefore, hovers around and clouds Elizabeth’s journey across the season from uncertain wife and mother to resolute young monarch, determined to do the right thing for her country, even at the risk of great personal loss. Morgan characterises this well in the parallels he draws out between Edward (a gloriously oily Alex Jennings), the former King who gave everything up for love, and Princess Margaret (a vibrant, impressive Vanessa Kirby), a passionate firebrand of a younger sister who falls in love with Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a heroic WW2 pilot but a ‘commoner’ and divorcee, forcing Elizabeth to make her choose between her Royal status and the man she loves.
The power and pull of old tradition informs every decision Elizabeth has to make, and Margaret repeatedly informs her ‘the people’ are rooting for she & Peter’s relationship, suggesting Elizabeth’s loyalty to the established ways puts her increasingly out of step with post-war Britain.
You sense the real questions relating to a changing, counter-cultural British public are for a later season, but the seeds are certainly sown across this first season. The death of the Establishment, of a post-colonial Empire, can be felt in almost every frame. The Crown has a great deal of frail, dying old men who represent this as a keen metaphor; George VI’s death at a young age, the consistent problems PM-in-waiting Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) has with his own health, and the increasingly worn, ancient Churchill who battles on in his position even when his own Conservative Party are pushing him to make way for a “younger man”. The hilarity of this is that this stuffy crowd of middle-aged men consider Eden, himself white haired and ailing, to be symbolic of ‘youth’. They have no idea what is coming over the next cultural hill.
Churchill doesn’t just cling on to his position out of a sense of personal vanity – he also considers himself riven with duty, in this case to ensure the ideals of the monarchy are conveyed to the young Queen.
He projects himself as a surrogate father to Elizabeth, offering guidance in his role as the ‘saviour’ of the nation from fascism in the Second World War, when in reality all he, and all these other men, are really doing is holding her back. Churchill is fondly remembered by historians as a towering figure in British politics, the man who defeated Hitler, but The Crown reminds us he was scornful of the socialist politics which defeated him immediately after WW2 and saw the introduction of the National Health Service under Clement Attlee, amongst other things. Churchill is endemic of the Empirical, colonialist Establishment that Elizabeth both finds herself at odds with and learning to trust across the season.
There equally remains that same xenophobic element within said Establishment which consistently reminds the Queen that her husband is not of British extraction, even to the point we find Philip has to promise he will love and protect Elizabeth to be considered a “patriot”, essentially forcing a foreign man himself of Royal breeding in his own native Greece to sacrifice his sovereignty and career aspirations to be accepted into the white, Christian orthodoxy which retains such a level of power and influence over Elizabeth’s monarchy. Philip of course does himself no favours by displaying the kind of rampant insensibility we’ve come to laugh at him for over the years while on a visit with the Queen to Kenya. It underscores The Crown’s own slightly difficult approach to how it portrays both Philip and the dying embers of colonialist thought.
Across the season, we see numerous instances of the British monarchy and establishment displaying an appalling level of endemic, sustained colonialist racism towards the African peninsula.
Philip laughing at Kenyans nods certainly to his media portrayal as something of a jolly, bumbling, oblivious mirth maker in his old age, but his remarks cut deep. Elizabeth and Margaret, in speeches while in Africa, describe without any trace of sorrow or irony the Africans as “primitives” or “savages” before British colonists came along to “civilise” the people. Is Morgan conscious of the deplorable colonialist thought in moments like this, in what on the whole is a fairly pro-monarchist series? One would hope so. The blank stares of African natives, listening to these wealth, privileged white people suggesting colonialism and the subsequent, frequent genocide and slavery that emerges from it was a good thing, perhaps suggests an undercurrent of insurgent thought in the populous.
The Crown refuses to shine a light on this, perhaps to prevent Philip (or Elizabeth) being portrayed in too difficult a light. Truthfully, The Crown is less interested in the questionable history of British Empirical foreign policy as it is about identity, and quite how the symbolic and metaphorical ‘crown’ transforms those who wear it. Morgan does a good job of mythologising this symbol of monarchy and divinity as a sacred artefact, talked about in hallowed terms as part of a greater, broader ideal – that of what the title and role of a King or Queen represents.
The message, by the final episode, seems clear – the ‘crown’ creates two people, a King or Queen split down the middle with husband or wife, father or mother. The two cannot co-exist as the same person, lest they fail to execute each position well. A choice has to be made. Edward made it, and gave the crown up, much as we see how painful he still finds that choice. Elizabeth takes her own first step to making it here, but the problem of identity will remain for some time to come.
Rebirth is a central, maternal idea The Crown returns to. Elizabeth is reborn as a Queen through the ashes of personal tribulation; the death of her father, a marriage of political union in crisis, the scandal of her sister’s affair with a married man, and a government being led by men who represent a dying Britain in its paralysed, final throes of life. Elizabeth is reminded how each long-term rule of Queen’s past has ushered England into a new age; the cultural aspects of Elizabeth I, the industrial revolution of Victoria which turned the British Empire into the first global superpower.
What will Elizabeth’s reign be? What is England being reborn into, out of the fires of war? Everyone feels society changing, the people having new perspectives thanks to technological and social innovations, such as television. Churchill’s speech following George’s death is filled with as much hope as portent, suggesting Elizabeth could usher in a new, maternal age of peace.
What of her own role in this changing society? That’s a question The Crown consistently asks, with the understandable benefit of foresight.
When we, from 2017, look back at Elizabeth’s reign, would it have been the same under that of a King? Would not having that maternal figurehead steering the ship led to the equality we now have (and are fighting to keep in the face of growing authoritarianism) being far less pervasive? Elizabeth here has only these questions and none of the answers, and The Crown has her wrestling with how to be a modern, egalitarian Queen for the people in the face of an orthodoxy which still considers her the ‘Dignified’, the figure closer to Godliness than humanity. Indeed the fourth episode, ‘Act of God’, in which London is covered in a dense smog thanks to reckless Tory coal-burning policy, could be seen as a challenge to her closeness with Divinity in how she deals with the crisis, a test for the new Queen’s influence.
The Crown works as a piece of television because it deals with this myriad, melting pot of themes while never being entirely slavish to the rules of biography. Almost certainly elements have been tweaked or changed for dramatic effect; indeed historians have questioned how The Crown propagates the myth that Eden encouraged Elizabeth to break up Margaret & Peter when there is no direct evidence of this. What Morgan does is allow the innate human drama within these characters to shine through, despite them being at the very height of political and global society. It’s not just a classy series with classy writing and classier performances, it successfully creates a forward momentum of compelling drama out of situations you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a great deal of drama in.
There are, of course, questions as to how pro-monarchist The Crown is. It quite possibly pitches Elizabeth in more of a favourable, human light than history or reality bears out. You do get the sense Peter Morgan skirts over some of the less palatable aspects of this era of Royal history, such as the aforementioned halcyon memories of how colonialism equates to civilisation, but it characterises well the death throes of Empire and the befuddled, clouded reality of an old, out of touch Establishment with no conception of what the 1960’s is going to do to them.
You may also learn a great deal more about the Queen we know, the Queen we’ve always just known as ‘The Queen’. Here, you find out who Elizabeth is. You’ll see she’s both Efficient and Dignified. Maybe she always was.
★ ★ ★ ★
DIRECTORS: Philip Martin, Stephen Daldry, Julian Jarrold, Benjamin Caron
WRITER: Peter Morgan
CAST: Claire Foy, Matt Smith, Vanessa Kirby, John Lithgow, Jared Harris, Victoria Hamilton, Ben Miles