The Netflix series The Crown won some much expected acknowledgement at the Golden Globe nominations, including a nod for best drama series. While The Crown is only one of a host of new shows to have been honoured by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the nomination is notable, given that Netflix released the first season only in November.
Filmed on a budget north of £100 million, The Crown chronicles the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The sumptuous production, which was reportedly too expensive for its natural home BBC, is the most expensive Netflix production yet. The money shows not just in the sets, the jewels and clothes, but also the writing and acting talent.
The show’s creator and writer, Peter Morgan, is uniquely qualified to bring the Queen to life on television. Over the past decade, he has constantly turned to Elizabeth Regina as muse. In The Queen (2006), starring Helen Mirren in the titular role directed by Stephen Frears, Morgan explored the crisis faced by the monarchy in the days following Princess Diana’s death. As a famously reserved people indulged in uncharacteristically mawkish displays of grief, the Queen’s unswerving desire to stick to tradition, as outdated as it seemed, marked her out as out of touch with her people and hard of heart. The episode opened up a broader rumination about the ways in which the monarchy has to constantly adapt and remain relevant.
In 2013, Morgan returned to the Queen as a protagonist with the West End play The Audience, with Mirren reprising the role of the reigning monarch and Stephen Daldry directing. The play was inspired by the Queen’s weekly audiences with her Prime Ministers, of whom she has now had 13. The meetings are strictly off the record, with no minutes taken, but the play through the dramatised encounters brings to life a woman whose job for the last 64 years has been primarily to be unknowable.
In many ways, The Crown is a continuation of The Audience (Daldry is an executive producer and directed the first two episodes of the series). Season one focuses on the Queen’s early years on the throne, beginning with her 1947 wedding and relative carefree years as a princess, before charting her ascent to the throne in 1952 at the age of 25. The ten-hour season gives Morgan and Daldry the space and time to further explore who exactly Elizabeth Windsor is. We get to know more about the Queen (essayed with pitch perfection by Claire Foy, right down to the clasping of her hands), and how she grows into her role through a variety of relationships. One of the most central of this season is her relationship with her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, played by the towering John Lithgow. The series ends with new Prime Minister Anthony Eden attending the weekly audiences.
But political machinations and changes – whether its Churchill’s desperate attempt to hold on to power, Eden’s spiralling health or the looming spectre of the Suez crisis – almost seem like a separate show, given that the Queen is often at a remove from many of these developments. She is hardly the protagonist but at best a supporting character, an observer. It’s the Prime Ministers’ strengths and weaknesses that come through in these arcs, almost as though even a fictionalised Elizabeth can’t really be political in any sense.
What drives the series are the Queen’s interactions with her family. Given the nature of the Windsor monarchy this makes sense, if also contributing to a slightly disjointed series in which the key conflicts for the Queen are intensely personal ones.
The roots of this depoliticisation of the monarchy lie in the very creation of the House of Windsor. By the time Elizabeth II ascended to the throne, the importance of the monarchy had significantly diminished from the time of George V, her grandfather. George V’s reign was characterised by a rapidly changing political milieu, with the rise of socialism, communism and anti-Imperial sentiment. In a bid to accommodate the radical social reforms championed by the Liberal government, George supported the passage of The Parliament Act 1911, which established the supremacy of the House of the Commons over the House of Lords.
If the Parliament Act eroded the power of the crown, the start of World War I only made things more difficult for the monarchy, which was at the time the very Germanic-sounding House of Saxe-Coburg- Gotha (from Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband). The British royal family’s German connection was well established and had been cultivated over several generations. Kaiser Wilhem II, the German Emperor who presided over the Great War, was famously Queen Victoria’s eldest grandson and cousin of George V.
Anti-Germanic sentiment during the war pushed the King to ditch his continental alliances. In 1917, he changed the family name to the more British sounding Windsor. In a bid to cement the family’s place in national psyche, George sought to make the royals synonymous with public service, duty and, most importantly, an embodiment of family values. It’s a brief the Queen has followed as closely as she possibly can.
The scene that best encapsulates this life in the series is when Elizabeth, newly Regina, receives a letter from her grandmother, Queen Mary. “While you mourn your father,” it reads, “you must also mourn someone else, Elizabeth Mountbatten, for she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another, but the Crown must win. Must always win.” This vision of monarchy is drilled in by others surrounding the new Queen, most prominently her private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, one of the more intriguing characters on the show. Counsel from people such as Queen Mary and Lascelles frequently puts the Queen on course for conflict with those closest to her.
A constant theme is the toll her role takes on her marriage with Prince Philip, who can’t give his children his name, and who struggles to adjust to life as a royal spouse. Perhaps the emotional centre of season one is Elizabeth’s relationship with her younger sister, Princess Margaret, who is in the throngs of an affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a former equerry to her father and a divorced man, whom she wants to marry. The story brings to the fore all the challenges the family values version of the royal family presented, especially given the Queen’s position as the head of the Church of England, which did not at the time allow divorced people to remarry.
More importantly, the story raises the spectre of scandal the abdication of Edward VIII had wreaked on the monarchy. Played wonderfully by Alex Jennings, the Edwardian saga brings to light the ways in which his flippant behaviour was seen as an ultimate betrayal of the Windsor family’s mission and duty – a fate to be avoided at all cost.(It’s also a useful reminder for more modern viewers as to why the Queen will likely never abdicate).
It is reported that future seasons of The Crown will attempt to cover Elizabeth’s six-decade reign over six seasons. Many Prime Ministers will come and go, but it is likely that what will be of most interest will be the ways in which the show imagines the Queen’s relationships with her children and their spouses. It is this generation of royals, with their salacious, tabloid-chronicled affairs and fall-outs, who destroy the idea of the monarchy as any sort of protector of British family values. It is telling that 1992, a year marked by divorce and infidelity in the family, was termed by the Queen as her “annus horribillis”.
Perhaps what The Crown might leave us to ponder by the end of its run is not the politics of the Queen and her Prime Ministers, but rather that of the monarchy itself; the ways in which it has changed and adapted, and how it is being, and will be, modified to remain relevant. Or, indeed, if it will be relevant after this Elizabethan age at all.