Last week, I finished watching Series 1 of The Netflix production, ‘The Crown’. Some days earlier, I was trawling through the Netflix website when I happened across ‘The Crown’ and casually pressed ‘Play’. As the name of the drama suggests, this is a show which throws a spotlight on the Windsors, the British and Commonwealth Royal Family, more specifically, in my view, the torment, loneliness, dilemmas and conflicts faced, and suffered, by Queen Elizabeth II (played so brilliantly by Claire Foy who sounds so much like the actual Queen). Although we see the ups and downs of the lives of the other players, family, friends and staff, I think that (besides perhaps a focus on Churchill’s ‘private’ difficulties) this is predominantly about The Queen – the show is, after all, titled ‘The Crown’.
‘Penning’ this review, I could reel out superlative after superlative but, suffice to say, yes, spectacular, an EPIC, a triumph (read the crits and listen to what your friends say about it), an outstanding, mesmerizing, a magic, giant, lavish, no-expense-spared production – let me be clear….I rather enjoyed it!!! The acting, across the board, is off-the-scale outstanding!
I was hooked from the get-go. I am a huge Monarchist and the theme tune (brilliance from Hans Zimmer) and the artistic opening credit graphics, they hit me with impact and filled me with excitement before each episode! The exquisite music throughout lifts the sense of drama and gravitas to a level which only the finest and most appropriate music is able to do.
Episode 1, no slow build-up, the show hits the ground running – it was as if I was a ‘fly on the wall’ watching, and listening into, the personal lives and exchanges of what I was accustomed to thinking of as mythical figures. ‘The Crown’ humanises these mythical figures, puts their decisions and actions into the context of the real world, into the context of the human ‘natural condition’.
‘The Crown’ certainly shatters any illusion of Royalty being insulated from the stimulae, the human emotions, the ‘natural’ stresses, strains, the typical human weaknesses, which affect the rest of us. In fact, ‘The Crown’ throws a spotlight on the oft impossible task of having to, as ‘ordinary’ human beings, live in this ‘unnatural’ world, a world in which, as human beings, members of ‘The Family’ experience natural human emotions, face dilemmas and situations experienced by people across the globe every day whilst having to react in an all-encompassing straitjacket, having to react, to live, to operate according to a set of rules which were, understandably, created to ‘guarantee’ the survival of the Institution of the Monarchy, to prevent a ‘dilution’, a ‘reform’, of the Monarchy to the point at which it no longer exists but which force members of the Royal Family to act as robots, to act contrary to their human inclinations. We see an example of this when The Queen (Elizabeth II) wants to appoint Martin Charteris as her Private Secretary when she is Queen and Tommy Lascelles (the dark, threatening menace deliciously portrayed by Pip Torrens) retires but she is told by Lascelles that Michael Adeane is the ‘natural heir’ to the position. Tommy tells The Queen why, although, in theory, it is her prerogative to choose her own Private Secretary, the reality is that she cannot, that she, The Queen, has to submit to ‘how things are done’. Tommy sees that as perfectly ‘natural’ but, at this point, he has served 4 Monarchs over the course of 33 years – he has become more ‘institutionalised’ than The Queen herself, who, at this point, is only 25/6 years old, she still doesn’t ‘get it’. Tommy tells her than any veering from the path of custom can lead to slippage, to change, to dilution, all of which threaten the very existence of the Monarchy (how strong can the Monarchy be if such strict rules have to be followed to keep it standing?) – Tommy draws upon the example of The Queen’s uncle, the then Duke of Windsor, who, as King, wanted to veer far from the path and, in so doing, caused a Constitutional crisis.
That is, to my mind, the essence of ‘The Crown’, throwing a light on the often almost impossible, agonising and heartbreaking consequences of having to live and operate in such circumstances (circumstances which, thankfully, broke King Edward VIII). The Queen is not the boss, she is the ultimate ‘servant’ – THAT is the irony of ironies highlighted in/by ‘The Crown’.
I don’t know how much of ‘The Crown’ is true/non-fiction and how much is fiction, how much ‘licence’ has been taken for the purposes of ‘entertainment’ but having read some of the crits and reviews, my take/understanding is that the ‘big picture’ is correct, the substantive historical background, but that some of the minutiae, the ‘side stories’, eg Churchill’s ‘relationship’ with his young secretary, Venetia Scott, are fictional. However, the fact that there is some fiction (sorry, I couldn’t resist that oxymoron), it’s irrelevant, it doesn’t matter if, for example, The Queen’s and Princess Margaret’s relationship wasn’t as fraught as is portrayed in ‘The Crown’ or if the Duke of Windsor wasn’t as bitter/unhinged as he is portrayed, we know that the characters did exist, we know the history and we see enough of that history in the show to cause us to re-evaluate our understanding of The Queen, the Royal Family and the Monarchy. In episode 6, for instance, we see The Queen and Princess Margaret (beautifully portrayed by Vanessa Kirby) at odds over her, Princess Margaret’s, wish to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. We don’t know if there really was an ‘agreement’ between King George VI (wonderfully portrayed by Jared Harris) and his daughters that they would always put each other first (unlike King Edward VIII who put himself before his brother, forcing him to become King, the mere thought of which frightened him, in a sense, to death), we don’t know if Princess Margaret threatened her sister, The Queen, when she, The Queen, refused to give her official authority for her sister’s Royal wedding to Peter Townsend, but we do know that Princess Margaret wanted to marry him and that The Queen’s wish to see her sister happily married whilst still doing her duty as Queen will have been a monumental dilemma for her.
If someone says ‘The Queen’ to me, I immediately think ‘duty’. The Queen, in my mind, personifies ‘duty’. I think it is her grandmother, Queen Mary (brilliantly portrayed by Eileen Atkins), who tells her to remain private. “The Crown”’s X-ray look into The Queen’s life, behind the scenes, is fascinating, an opportunity rarely afforded us. ‘The Crown’ ‘forces’ us to consider the realities of The Queen’s life, the dilemmas, the insurmountable hurdles, the ‘claustrophobia’, the extreme loneliness, despite the constant attendance of counsellors and ‘ladies-in-waiting’, audiences with the ‘great and the good’, the constant comings and goings, family, despite all that, an intense loneliness. We see the chasm between her public life, role and duty and her inherent desires and wishes as a person, as a woman, as a human being, the juxtaposition of The Queen who we think we know/knew, a person inhabiting, a), a place of extreme, sheer luxury and privilege and, b), a person in a gilded prison, in an almost constant state of turmoil, her every decision and move planned by others and motivated by her immovable sense of duty, duty to her country and to her dominions, The Monarchy, her father, her ancestors, her ‘subjects’ and, ultimately, as she is reminded by the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Church big guns, her duty to God (thus Coronations take place in Westminster Cathedral). That chasm between the images we have of The Queen and the reality could not be greater. So many times, as I was watching the drama, I pictured myself in The Queen’s shoes (which I’m sure would, in my case, look more like a King’s shoes!) and thinking how natural it would be to ‘explode’ and just say “I can’t do this!!!”
I could end this review on that note but why would I, the verbose Koby Gould, do that? I think a short run through the episodes is called for – BEWARE SPOILERS!!
Episode 1 takes us into The Family in 1947 when Princess Elizabeth is 20/21 years old, her father, King George VI (‘Bertie’) is on the throne, and she is about to marry Prince Philip, the only man she has ever truly loved and wanted to marry, despite her close friendship with ‘Porchy’ (she tells that to Prince Philip in the show – he is unable to say that of her in return). The King talks to Philip about his future responsibilities as Consort to the future Queen so he should be under no illusions as to what life will be like – or he should, at least, know that it’s going to be a life of duty, order and service – so his exasperation as time goes on, his constant references to the ‘pomp’, the ceremonies, to the banquets etc as a ‘circus’, it is unreasonable. The Queen is seen sympathetically pretty well throughout ‘The Crown’ and he, Prince Philip, is seen as ‘a bit of an ar*e’ (or, to use an American colloquialism, a bit of a jerk).
Episode 2 is magnificent! We get to know the menacing Tommy Lascelles, the new Queen’s Private Secretary (and Private Secretary to The Monarchs since 1933). Tommy is portrayed (exquisitely by Pip Torrens) almost as a caricature of an early 20th century Old Etonian/Oxbridge type, arrogant, self-assured, a bully, with a sense of entitlement (as it happens, he went to Marlborough and Oxford and was a cousin of the sixth Earl of Harewood who married Mary, The Princess Royal, sister of King Edward VIII and King George VI, his previous employers). We see Tommy as The Queen’s Private Secretary on the plane back to London after having heard that King George VI has passed away. The (now) Queen wants to keep Martin Charteris as her Private Secretary but Lascelles gets rid of that notion rather sharply – The Queen, in effect, powerless! How quickly and suddenly things have changed: the night before The King passed away, he was at home, his beloved daughter, Princess Margaret, by his side, singing ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’, a heartwarming, natural scene but, now, the new Queen is The Monarch.
So, here we have The Queen, beautiful and fragile, yet strong, the juxtaposition of privilege, wealth, status, power, authority with the practicalities and facts, imprisoned, trapped, herself a servant of the Nation and The Commonwealth as emphasised by/in a letter to her from her Grandmother, Queen Mary, all of this whilst Prince Philip is being a jerk (eg ‘putting his foot in it’ in Kenya, flippantly and sarcastically complementing a tribal King on his ‘hat’ when it is, in fact, a crown).
At the end of episode 2, we see the new Queen, dressed in (mourning) black, and Queen Mary, the Family matriarch, the new Queen’s grandmother, mother of the late King George VI and the Duke of Windsor (who was King Edward VIII before he abdicated), curtseying before her granddaughter – the PRESSURE is on!
Episode 3, The Queen, desperately lonely, wants an apology from her uncle, The Duke of Windsor, for forcing her father to be King, a role the thought of which filled him with dread, a role which caused his and her domestic bliss to be shattered, a role which led to her becoming this lonely Queen. I don’t know if that is how The Queen truly felt but, if she did, it’s perfectly understandable.
One of the surprises in this episode is our seeing The Queen’s relationship with her uncle – she tells him that she believes that he does care about the Monarchy. Why on Earth, considering his behaviour and actions, would she believe that? Later in ‘The Crown’, we see The Queen seeking her uncle’s advice in the matter of Princess Margaret’s wish to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. He tells The Queen that she must look after The Monarchy but, again, why would she seek his advice, why would she trust him? The Duke is portrayed in ‘The Crown’ as scheming, vindictive, slimy and, well, unhinged.
So we have The Queen, beautiful and lonely yet strong and resolute (and she does appear to need the support of Prince Philip, which is unfortunate because he is anything but supportive!).
Episode 4 delivers a musical punch, power and gravitas carried along on Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ – such an intense episode!
London’s smog creates panic and with ‘Requiem’ as the soundtrack to what’s happening, the atmosphere is very dark and somber.
Here we see Churchill’s young, doting secretary, Venetia Scott, a relationship simmering, the two of them, nothing inappropriate per se but moving uncomfortably closer, a warmth, a sense of ‘danger’ palpable…
John Lithgow’s Churchill is probably THE outstanding acting performance in the show – the AMERICAN, not to take anything away from the other actors/actresses, in incredible. At first, I thought “why not Robert Hardy?” but Lithgow’s Churchill is surely already legendary). Churchill is clearly under pressure. Venetia is killed when, unseen in the smog, she is knocked down by a car when she’s crossing the road. Atlee, chomping at the bit (talking to a colleague, he refers to Churchill as a ‘fool’), he’s raring to bring Churchill down (no sentiment in politics!!).
Episode 5 is another episode with gravitas carried along on powerful music – The Coronation which, of course, means we have ‘Zadok the Priest’ – we also have another of my favourites, Allegri’s ‘Miserere’ – ‘heavenly’ music which serves to tie up the Coronation with the Divine. We see the conflict between the human side of the awesome ceremony, the pressure on The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, he having to kneel before his wife, The Queen, which seems to be, for him, as an ‘alpha’ male, awkward, to say the least, all of this in conflict with the heavenly Godliness of the Coronation. The pressure on the 27 year old Queen must have been almost unbearable, tantamount to torture.
Episode 6: It’s all closing in on The Queen – on the face of it, this is Princess Margaret’s episode but I see the whole drama, all ten episodes of this first series (I hope that there will be a few more series), as being about The Queen. More loneliness, another dilemma, another conflict, this time between, a), the wish to act with kindness and sympathy, to allow her sister to marry her big love, Group Captain Peter Townsend (unfortunately for Princess Margaret, a divorcé) and, b), doing her Royal duty and acting according to the ‘rule book’ and also acting properly ‘in front of God’. The Queen hasn’t even got the support and constant companionship of her husband as he is always gallivanting about with his chums.
The ‘constant’ is Tommy Lascelles, keeping house, making sure that the ‘machinery’ is operating smoothly and it requires him to push Peter Townsend out of the picture which he does with consummate ease – a very dark and menacing scene!
I do wonder if Peter Townsend would really have addressed The Queen “Lillibet’, her name within The Family?? Perhaps, just perhaps, he would have done when she was a little girl, when he was Equerry to her father, King George VI, but now, when she’s Queen? I doubt it.
I also wonder whether Princess Margaret really did ‘threaten’ The Queen, whether she really did say that The Queen would not, in future, have her support.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, of course, they are loving the debacle, the sororal clash.
Episode 7 is one of my favourites (although it might well be an episode of fictions??).
Was Anthony Eden a ‘monster’? Are we seeing an inherent character flaw? Was his poisonous attitude towards Churchill the result of a hunger for power, a desperation to get into No. 10, to be Prime Minister, or was it a reflection of his awareness that his own time was running out?
Was Churchill weak at the end of his Premiership? Was he really browbeaten by Eden? Was Eden as ill as he is portrayed to be in ‘The Crown’?
Was Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, really so ‘dinosaurial’? Did she really believe that there was no reason why the young Princess Elizabeth should have had a more rounded, a more substantial, education? Was The Queen Mother really so negative regarding her daughter’s intelligence and academic/cerebral abilities and did The Queen really try to ‘up’ the level of her own education by bringing in tutors? We see, however, later on, her childhood education, as delivered by the then Vice-Provost of Eton College, paying big dividends.
As I referred to earlier, The Queen wants her old Private Secretary, Martin Charteris, back when Tommy Lascelles retires. Charteris served The Queen in his capacity as Private Secretary when The Queen was Princess Elizabeth. Lascelles, diplomatically, respectfully, but, in effect, as ‘boss’, lets Her Majesty know that Michael Adeane is his ‘heir’ and that he, Adeane, is going to be her new Private Secretary – a fait accompli. (An aside, Adeane was an Eton and Cambridge man, Charteris, an Old Etonian, went to Sandhurst). I guess one could say that The Monarchy is bigger than any one Monarch, that the Monarch is merely holding The Monarchy ‘on trust’ for the next generation.
….and the episode’s big scene, The Queen giving Lord Salisbury and Churchill a ‘dressing down’ for having kept the truth of Churchill’s poor state of health from her – I wonder if that ‘confrontation’ really happened. The acting is outstanding, Salisbury standing in front of The Queen, as if in front of the Headmaster, a naughty boy who has been found out. Churchill almost collapses in front of The Queen, ashamed, broken…
Episode 8 is heartbreaking…love….
Princess Margaret ‘takes charge’ whilst her sister, The Queen, and the Duke of Edinburgh go on a Commonwealth Tour and The Queen Mother goes to Scotland for a desperately needed ‘get away’, suffering, as she is, with loneliness in her post ‘Queen, wife of the reigning Monarch’ role – she tells her friends in Scotland that she is missing her husband, that, in essence, she is lonely and that she is finding it hard to adapt to such a colossally changed life. As she puts it, when King George VI passed away and her daughter ascended to The Throne, everything, her responsibilities, her ‘job’, her role, her home, everything was snatched away from her in an instant. I wonder if the amorous ‘frisson’ between The Queen Mother and Imbert-Terry is fictional.
Princess Margaret LOVES the limelight. She is told what to do, all she has to do is follow the script, be where she has to be on time and say what she is told to say…’they’ should have known that Princess Margaret was not going to follow orders – no lack of self confidence on her part, “I was born for it”, she tells Peter Townsend. Moreover, The Queen is portrayed as being insecure next to her sister who, in a spin over the wedding difficulties, is horribly cruel to her sister, The Queen.
The fact is that (according to ‘The Crown’) The Queen thinks that Princess Margaret has a better life than she has but Princess Margaret firmly believes that she has been dealt the bad card. I feel for both of them – The Queen has not got the authority to officially sanction the wedding, she is in a desperate situation, she wants to see her sister happy but her hands are tied…even the British public is on Princess Margaret’s side.
Poor Princess Margaret: “I’m just asking for a future I can bear”.
The argument between the siblings illustrates just how different the reality is from the lives which the public, the outside world, believe are lived on the inside.
As if The Queen’s arguments with her sister are not enough, she is also having a wretched time with her husband who is being extremely unreasonable.
Episode 9: I keep ‘saying’ in this review that I see ‘The Crown’ as being all about The Queen, the dilemmas which arise as a consequence of her attempts to find a compromise between wanting to act as herself, from the heart, and having to act according to the rule book. Actually, there is, as I alluded to earlier on, another story going on here, one which, though attached in some respects to The Queen, is also separate – Churchill.
We see Churchill at the end of his time in power and it is painful to watch. Churchill, as portrayed in ‘The Crown’, quite simply held on too long – he shouldn’t have taken on the Premiership again in 1951, at the age of almost 77, but having done so, he should have handed over the reigns before 1955. We see his health failing, the difficulty he faced just walking across a room. His reaction on seeing Graham Sutherland’s portrait of him tells us in explosive fashion how desperately angry and frustrated he is about his old age. His dotage is not a time of life which he is looking forward to with any sense of relief, just dread – he does not want to let go!! There’s a real tug of war between Churchill and Eden, both of whom are too old and/or too ill to be PM. John Lithgow is astounding in the role, absolutely astounding! Winston’s final ‘Audience’ with The Queen is heartbreaking, as is his farewell dinner at No. 10 at which we see this giant of a man crying, overcome with emotion.
Episode 10 draws this first series to a close.
…back to The Queen and her sister, Princess Margaret. More heartbreak, the engagement announcement that wasn’t to be, The Queen in such personal turmoil at having to deliver the blow to her sister’s and Peter Townsend’s plans, hopes and dreams:
“I realised, as Queen, that I have no choice, I cannot allow you to marry Peter and remain part of this family. That is my decision”.
The Queen might have felt a little easier if she had not regarded it as her ‘decision’ – it wasn’t her decision. ‘Decision’ implies that The Queen had a choice but she didn’t, her hands were, as usual, tied, she was simply following the rules. Of course, Princess Margaret could have married Peter Townsend but it would have meant her having to give up her position in The Family, her status, the material trappings, but it would seem that that was something she was not prepared to do (or perhaps, and this is possible, just possible, she was motivated to remain by a sense of loyalty to The Family and to her late father).
Credit and respect must go to Peter Townsend who, on making a public statement confirming that there will be no engagement and wedding, is deferential towards the Royal Family and says that they have been supportive of him during his courtship of Princess Margaret: Group Captain Peter Townsend, ‘old school’….or just staying on the right side of The Family, keeping his nest well feathered?? Was this a man who had been motivated exclusively by his love for Princess Margaret or had the Princess just been his vehicle to carry him to an aspired Royal status? Remember, in an earlier episode, he stood at the top of the steps, about to walk into an airplane in which was sitting The Queen? The Queen caught sight of the Group Captain waiving at the assembled crowd – was he enjoying the adulation a little bit too much?
‘The Crown’ is an incredible creative achievement, the acting is superb, I thoroughly enjoyed it, it has ‘left this punter wanting more’ and I cannot wait for the second series.
BRING IT ON!!!