Netflix’s new series, The Crown, cost around 100 million dollars to make, which would cover nearly a third of the huge cost of the Buckingham Palace renovations.
It’s got great reviews, too – the series, not the impending renovations, which are proving quite controversial. (And all for a palace that according to this series, nobody much wants to live in.)
Now I’m not the sort of person who enjoys cooing over royals, or cooing over pretend-royals in sumptuous costumes. But yes, The Crown is well-made and absorbing. It’s an intensely, richly, cinematic imagining of Queen Elizabeth II’s life behind palace doors.
The ten episodes take us from the then Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 marriage to Prince Philip, right up until the brink of the Suez crisis of 1956. In between the historical milestones, the young royal is embroiled in family dramas, and in each chapter she will have to choose between the ones she loves, and duty.
“The fact is,” her grandmother admonishes her, “the crown must win – must always win.”
I wasn’t sure about Claire Foy as our unknowable queen, with her open face dominated by large cornflower blue eyes, her expression permanently astonished, anxious and vulnerable. (Sarah Gadon in the fanciful A Royal Night Out looked more the part.) Foy is believable as a simple countrywoman, more concerned with her dogs and horses than politics or people, even if she seems too timid to rule.
But creator/writer Peter Morgan’s series is actually all about the hat, not the person wearing it.
“An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination,” is how her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, describes Elizabeth during his bitchy coronation commentary. Once anointed, she is transformed, he says, into a “goddess”.
Matt Smith layers his rubbery-faced, zany energy over the mannerisms and ‘wit’ of the notoriously prickly Duke of Edinburgh. I kept expecting him to suggest a Doctor Who-themed nursery for Charles and Anne.
In fact, almost everyone seems far nicer than they probably were/are in real life – even Eileen Atkins as scary Queen Mary (George VI’s mother, the Queen’s grandmother). The exception would be the fabulously brittle pairing of Alex Jennings as the Duke of Windsor and Lia Williams (I had to check it wasn’t Game of Thrones’ Red Woman – Carice van Houten) as Wallis Simpson.
The Crown is secure enough in its power that we also spend plenty of time with the politicians. Still needing a movie to themselves are John Lithgow in his portrayal of Churchill at 80, and Stephen Dillane as the painter Graham Sutherland, hired to make a portrait of the PM. (It ends up on a bonfire – true story, apparently).
The Crown can be artificial, as things have to be explained to the audience. Underlings tell Her Majesty: “And your father’s real name was Albert, and of course your uncle’s real name was David and your name is Elizabeth…”
It’s a bit like a popular history book come to life, and I suppose we couldn’t have expected anything more controversial in our nostalgia-obsessed times. With six more series to go, I wonder, if just once, a character will stop fretting over whether the Crown will endure, and instead wonder if it should.