THE CROWN – series one

Netflix, released 4th November 2016

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Queen Mary to Elizabeth II, The Crown: “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty… you are answerable to God, not the public.”

Peter Hitchens: ‘it should not have been made, and should not be made for another 20 or 30 years when the actual facts are known and the papers available […] Like all such productions, it exploits the real people it pretends to portray […] I am told King George VI, that improbably decent monarch, is shown using the c-word. I doubt he did. Naval man though he was, and so familiar with the whole range of filthy language, I think he would have regarded it as impossibly crude.’[1]

Peter Morgan: ‘I could not care less about the royal family; it’s absolutely scandalous that they should still exist in an egalitarian society.’[2]

Tom Nairn: ‘During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the prime mover had to at least look like the rest of nation-state normality. Contrived timelessness was the answer.’[3]

The Crown is visually lavish; an example of expansive, spectacular television, with imperious casting and locations, which yet contains the depth that ten hours affords. A £5m per episode – or mini-movie, as Trevor Johnston has it[4] – budget augments and does not overwhelm thoughtful screenwriting from Peter Morgan.[5] Its strength is its polysemy: that it can be taken plenty of ways. And, also, that it is a television series and frankly not a series of ‘mini-movies’, whatever Sight and Sound might want us to believe…

The LRB described its total budget as £100m., but this isn’t an expensive jaunt that leaves no trace: I strongly recall images and scenes, such as the elegant foreshadowing of Prince Philip in a private members’ club with a decidedly right-wing atmosphere, watching a newsreel film about Nasser, several years before Suez. I recall Lithgow’s hunched frame and craggy features, the actor embodying that problematic national avatar Churchill.

In 2011, left-wing writer on matters of state Tom Nairn referred to how ‘the overblown came to counter-posed to an understated essence’. This phrase aptly describes the mix of absurd yet public-captivating pomp is deliberately balanced by the media image created of a ‘real’ family with dutiful, modest values. Peter Morgan’s series manages to show convincing individuals embroiled in a bizarre spectacle, following constitutional imperatives that they seem to have no control over. Nairn also described ‘Crown mythology’ as ‘an instrument for holding such a ‘united kingdom’ together’.[6] In 1961, Henry Fairlie had described it as ‘threatening to become the sole prop of the weak, the sole provider of emotional security, the sole cohesive force in society’.[7] At its best, Morgan’s series is a questioning take on what it would actually be like on a human level to have to symbolise a ‘united’ nation and its traditions. One’s daily life as a crucial part of how national ‘unity’ and ‘traditions’ are manufactured.

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Majestic cinematography is lent to depiction of a social panorama in ‘Act of God’

The strongest episode for me is the Julian Jarrold-directed ‘Act of God’, a whole hour of television based around the now slightly less obscure Great Smog of London in December 1952. This episode dramatises the political scene of the last ‘Churchill era’, a neglected area other than by your Kynastons, Bogdanors and Hennessys and places Attlee and Churchill at the centre. It reveals both just how out-of-touch Churchill was, and yet how much residual media-savvy he could deploy with his back against the wall. This is the episode which most places the monarchy and the establishment among the wider populace. Hopefully, there will be more such edgier episodes in future series’. The series is at times limited by its Great Men & Women focus on history, and many episodes feature little sense of those who are ruled over. The smog episode is the one to truly create some sense of the view from ‘below’.

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Following this and A United Kingdom, just who will don the Attlee ‘tash’ next!?

I had been convinced by Peter Morgan’s interview in Sight and Sound that this series would be worth a go: and not at all like Hallmark’s ridiculed William & Catherine: A Royal Romance (2011), which has Prince Charles saying “Puff Daddy”. There is leisurely, but often tense, character-based drama in The Crown rather than arrant stupidity. Its daring is shown in its depiction of tensions within Elizabeth and Phillip’s marriage, and Morgan’s skill in characterisation is no surprise given his previous handling of British history like The Deal (2003) and Longford (2006). In an insightful article for the LRB (15/12/16, p.15), Andrew O’Hagan acclaims Morgan’s writing for how it subversively ‘exposes the royals by undressing their silence with words’. They are made more human by their various uses of language and are thus inserted into history as actors.

They are made more human by their various uses of language and are thus inserted into history as actors.

Peter Hitchens, writing in early October – presumably without having seen the series – lays into its seeing the past through the present’s perspective. Bizarrely, he seems to think a drama series could hope to truly capture another era; historical dramas have always been just as telling about their own times they were produced in as the eras they depict. He accuses Smith and Foy of being representatives of the younger British generations he regards as essentially foreign: ‘They are too knowing about trivial things, and too innocent of important ones.’[8]

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Idea for a show: Hitchens’ People?

Having watched all ten episodes, I don’t think this is borne out – I am convinced by their accents and the attitudes and bearings they convey. I agree with O’Hagan about royal historian Hugo Vickers’ nit-picking article in The Times; it is not important how accurate it is, it is whether it is good drama: ‘fibs are fine, so long as they tap at the human problems underneath.’ (p.16) While I partially accept Hitchens’ point that they don’t look like they’ve lived through WW2, such a deep background will be difficult for any actor to suggest without being unsubtle. And, thankfully, Smith and Foy haven’t lived through WW2, however much that might anger our Peter!

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“Erm, I say! We really rather enjoy The Crown, Peter…”

More convincing than Hitchens’ perennial obsession with an imagined 1950s are Harry Leslie Smith’s reservations, Smith having lived through the times depicted: ‘The Crown is like an expensive painting in which the only subjects in focus are the rich and privileged. Everyone else, people like me or your grandparents if they came from the working class and even the middle class, are considered no more than background scenery. We are the undefined face in the crowd waving religiously at our so-called betters.’[9] Smith accurately notes how little we get in The Crown of the struggles to establish the Welfare State. This perhaps show some commercially rooted compromise from the ‘egalitarian’ Morgan. Though I feel this lack is counterbalanced by the uniquely in-depth human picture we get of this strange family…

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A weak link is the eighth episode, ‘Pride & Joy’, which depicts Margaret stepping in and fulfilling the Queen’s duties. It also contains the utter tedium of the Queen Marm’s trip to Scotland where she ends up buying a castle. While episode #6 ‘Gelignite’ managed to capture something of the tragic in Margaret’s predicament, both episodes veered close to the blander, glossier kind of soap opera. The final episode, however, proved an enticing set-up for series 2, which will deal with the epoch-defining Suez Crisis. Morgan has discussed the similarities of Brexit vote to Suez, with ‘a country mortgaging its international respect as a stable democracy’.[10]

Margaret’s newsreel appearance at the pit is a foretaste of Diana. But Margaret doesn’t seem quite as adept at the media business, wanting to get closer to the people – in this case, the miners – and show some individuality and conscience. Phillip is something of an ally to her, as frustrated moderniser of an institution that stubbornly, imperiously demands it stay above the human fray. We get some sense that the public sympathise with Townsend and Margaret, but not nearly enough depth on the public attitudes.

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Brilliant performances include Alex Jennings, imperiously arch and acidic as the Duke of Windsor, ever ready with tart, cutting asides. Jared Harris is affecting as his brother, George VI; as Cooke argues, Harris ‘turns in one of the most subtle and weirdly moving performances I’ve seen this year, perhaps this decade’, plus he gets to use the word ‘cunt’.[11] Pip Torrens has the requisite ruthless, barbed edge as royal fixer Tommy Lascelles, who is at the heart of the heartless operation. Matt Smith does a fine job with suggesting the buffoon, the malcontent and the moderniser within Prince Phillip. At times, he comes across as like a proto-Blairite, at others he channels Bertie Wooster, or even Mr Toad. It’s an intriguing, subtle portrait of a foreigner, affected by his own experience of Greek class conflict, playing at essentially eccentric Englishness… This is one of many examples supporting Johnston’s argument that this ‘quality and prestige’ production manages to avoid being pitched to ‘a broader common denominator’.[12]

Matt Smith does a fine job with suggesting the buffoon, the malcontent and the moderniser within Prince Phillip. At times, he comes across as like a proto-Blairite, at others he channels Bertie Wooster, or even Mr Toad.

John Lithgow is magnificent as Churchill, enabling viewers to love or loathe him, often simultaneously. His personal arrogance, entitlement and humbleness towards the crown all come across, as does the sense that this is a man clinging onto office due to delusions of grandeur and personal preeminence. We see how he struggles with changing times, yet oddly there’s no mention of his preoccupation with writing history himself. The final volumes of his A History of the English Speaking Peoples were published in 1956-58 – which led to BBC’s absurdly expansive, reviled 26-episode Churchill’s People dramatization of 1975, so this infirm, drink-addled eighty year-old must have been working on these books alongside his painting hobby, not to mention the small matter of his prime ministerial duties…

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The excellent episode #9 ‘Assassins’ balances a necessary, representative picture of the Queen’s horse-racing milieu with compelling scenes of Churchill being literally depicted by his fellow but more modernist artist Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane). This shows how out-of-time Churchill has become, and how culturally divided and torn the country was between a metropolitan elite that questioned and liked avant-garde art, and the older, more traditional establishment represented by the likes of Churchill and the Queen Mother. Churchill engages in dialogue with the modernising times, in surprising ways, even if this all leads to a focus on Churchill and Sutherland’s lives and not explicitly to wider socio-historical issues. This writer hopes Lithgow has the occasional contribution to the story as it is told of the mid-50s to mid-60s…

As Peter Wilby has argued, it is ultimately an unflattering portrait of the monarchy: ‘The Crown shows something cold and inhumane – almost a moral vacuum – at the heart of monarchy. Is this really an ideal that “ordinary people” should strive towards?’[13] That hasn’t stopped a lot of the coverage and ‘criticism’ being entirely preoccupied by the show’s trinkets, trappings and costumes. It often avoids the problem with historical dramas identified by New Left Marxist Colin McArthur in 1978: that they so often entirely personalise historical events and are prey to the British culture’s cult of the individual, with Jenny (1974), Edward the Seventh (1975) and Lillie (1978) among the exemplars. McArthur stated that ‘the category of the individual is regarded as a natural structuring category in the milieu of television (historical) drama.’[14] However, this show’s title is The Crown, and this entitling does reflect its focus being on a specific institution rather than sole ‘key players’. While, as Cooke remarks, it tends to select events from 1947-55 which best ‘illuminate the personalities involved’, I would argue we get a strong sense of how it works as a systemic structure.[15] The individual stories illumine the deeper power structures.

Cooke is perceptive on how this epic historical drama captures the addictive expansiveness of monarchical tradition:

‘Morgan explains us to ourselves. We’re all Russian dolls, products of our parents’ times as well as our own. Think of what your grandmother might have felt in 1952 on seeing three generations of queens – Mary, and two Elizabeths – in their mourning veils. The eldest of these three was born in 1867, and the youngest is on the throne still. Morgan understands that this is mind-bending and potentially revelatory, and if you don’t, that is your loss.’[16]

This stimulating reading chimes with my hope that the series will become as much a portrait of the wider public as the royals. Hopefully, Morgan will investigate how the country failed to become the egalitarian society that would have put an ornate, bloated monarchy behind it.

Liverpool Edge Hill academic Hannah Andrews has commented that ‘conflict between duty to country and to husband remains the only dramatic narrative afforded a married queen.’[17] She is right that the Queen is often sidelined. While there is a strong scene where she ticks off the public-school politicians for their Machiavellian meddling, like ‘nanny’, virtually all of her narrative seems to be based on the familial vs. national duty trope. Her hiring of a private tutor (Alan Williams), in a bid to become more informed following her unchallenging education, doesn’t really lead anywhere. Or hasn’t yet… Episode 9’s focus on her friend Porchey only really serves to highlight her alternately tense and distant relations with Philip.

As Wilby argues, the monarchy is depicted as a cold, inhuman, manipulative institution, with the Queen Mother, assorted Archbishops and Lascelles in particular as individuals perpetuating the systemic chill. Claire Foy does a good job of showing how Elizabeth Windsor is compromised and has to be crushed in favour of the unchanging, symbolic ‘Elizabeth Regina’.

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Caught in a trap…

We are given a picture of what Robert Lacey referred to in 1977 as the Queen’s ‘insistent grasp of normality’.[18] Crucially, she ultimately decides against developing her intellect beyond the limiting ‘constitutionalism’ dictated her by printed and spoken mentors Bagehot and Churchill. She opts for duty, restraint and blandness: to best preserve the institution of the monarchy; questioning is out of the question. This portrayal of the Queen gets more subtle and perceptive as the series develops. Nothing in the portrayal of the Queen Mother makes me warm to a woman I have always regarded as dodgy, an expert waver from balconies, yes, but with objectionable qualities behind the smiles.

What future instalments of The Crown need is to show more of its ‘subjects’: a wider tapestry of the ‘united kingdom’ that the institution of the crown aims to unify. However, this ‘long-form’ series does succeed in portraying the royals’ essentially trapped nature; as Morgan reflected, ‘We the people don’t know what we want from them, whether they’re our gods or our slaves, and so they’re trapped in a hellish predicament.’[19]

[1] Hitchens, P. (2016) ‘This isn’t a Revolution, it’s New Labour in a Blue Frock’, Mail on Sunday, 9th October [online] http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2016/10/peter-hitchens-this-isnt-a-revolution-its-new-labour-in-a-blue-frock.html [accessed: 22/12/16]

[2] Johnston, T. (2016) ‘Drama Queen’, Sight and Sound, December, p.47

[3] Nairn, T. (2011) The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy, updated 2nd edn. London: Verso, p.viii

[4] Johnston, T. (2016) ibid., p.46

[5] Cooke, R. (2016) ‘Arise, Sir Peter’, New Statesman, 11-17 November, p.52

[6] Nairn, T. (2011) ibid., p.ix

[7] Nairn, T. (2011) ibid., p.104

[8] Hitchens, P. (2016) ibid.

[9] Smith, H.L. (2016) ‘The Crown’s portrayal of history is an insult to my generation’s struggles’, The Guardian, 8th November [online] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/08/the-crown-portrayal-of-history-insult-to-my-generations-struggles [accessed: 23/12/16]

[10] Johnston, T. (2016) ibid., p.48

[11] Cooke, R. (2016) ibid., p.52

[12] Johnston, T. (2016) ibid., p.47

[13] Wilby, P. (2016) ‘Grammar school delusions, Labour floating voters, and why republicans will love The Crown’, New Statesman, 9-15 December, p.9

[14] McArthur, C. (1980) BFI Television Monograph 8: Television and History, 2nd edn. London: British Film Institute, p.17

[15] Cooke, R. (2016) ibid., p.52

[16] Cooke, R. (2016) ibid., p.52

[17] Andrews, H. (2016) Twitter, 7th December [online] https://twitter.com/Handrews_ [accessed: 19/12/16]

[18] Nairn, T. (2011) ibid., p.103

[19] Johnston, T. (2016) ibid., p.47

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