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The Crown season four doesn’t do subtle…

It’s been hard to blog about popular Netflix shows Stranger Things or The Crown. They’re period pieces, with sky-high production values. They’re well-acted and entertaining. What else is there to say about soothing nostalgia?

Starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith, the first two seasons of The Crown were glamorous hits. Instead of stopping there, it relentlessly continued with older actors (including a royally miscast Olivia Colman) in 2019.

Now it’s back, with season four. Colman still reigns, but there’s a new ingénue in town, wearing cute 80’s outfits and answering to the name Diana (Emma Corrin).

Maybe anticipating an influx of viewers who waited out the last thirty episodes for her debut, the dialogue has become unbearably on-the-nose. Characters spell out themes, and establish basic facts about their official roles and family relationships.

Courtier: You’re the Queen, ma’am.

TQ:  Am I?

Courtier: Yes Ma’am. And please note it’s Ma’am as in jam, not farm.

TQ: How lovely!

Three years ago, one of the UK’s top Tudor experts, John Guy, said that history applicants to Cambridge University would cite having read Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels as evidence of their knowledge.

People apparently think The Crown is a history lesson, prompting insiders like Lady Glenconner to back calls for Netflix to broadcast a disclaimer warning that its flagship show takes…significant creative licence.

Other than historical milestones like engagements and assassinations, anything set in royal drawing rooms – and royal bedrooms – is fiction. Timelines are conflated, and much is entirely invented, including a ‘get your shit together’ letter to Charles from his uncle Tywin Mountbatten, who gets blown up by the IRA.

Where we were seduced by the spellbinding power of Hilary Mantel’s writing, The Crown lulls you with its lavish production and accomplished acting. But that was when it kept a serene, stately distance from its subjects. Now, as it nears the present day, it seems too silly to be taken seriously.

The royals are like the in-laws from Ready or Not, and a scene where they all hunt Diana as part of a wedding night ritual for Satan wouldn’t feel out of place. Corrin – more poised and delicate than the teenage Diana – was clearly taking inspiration from Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

Her cartoonishly evil husband continues a flagrant betrayal with a bitchily evil Camilla, while the princess suffers (graphically depicted) bulimia. Luckily any clever writing goes to Corrin, saving the character from one-dimensional victim status. Instead, we get a damaged, shallow girl with a thirst for stardom.

Corrin has been the breakout, while the respected Gillian Anderson has been a little more divisive with her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, the so-called Iron Lady loved by those she made wealthier, and loathed by the left and the working class.

Of course, in The Crown, working class people all talk like this: “Oiright there Oim workin’ class milord.” It all says so more about the minds behind this show, than it does about the crown.

Lady in Waiting – a review

The stiff upper lip is as much a part of the British stereotype as our tendency to drink tea and talk about the weather. With the 87-year-old Lady Glenconner’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude, her hit memoir is not such a bad book pick during a pandemic.

Her father was an earl – higher than a baron but lower than a duke. The Coke (pronounced Cook in a quirk typical of the British aristocracy) family have bowed and scraped to royalty for centuries.

Growing up near Sandringham, she was playmates with Princess Margaret, whom she would later serve as lady-in-waiting for thirty years. She recalls a childhood of stately homes, parents away on long voyages, WWII, wicked governesses, boarding school.

Things take a gaudier turn with her formal entrée to the marriage market, where she nabbed the very rich socialite Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, and was crowned ‘Debutante of the Year’ by society bible Tatler. Her father was a bit sniffy about the match – believing the Tennants to be miles below the Cokes.

Described by Princess Margaret as ‘a fairly decadent fellow’, Tennant was the life and soul. His party tricks included wearing paper underwear, then reaching down his trousers and ripping them off and eating them. Meanwhile, his tantrums earned him a lifetime ban from British Airways.

But Tennant – who died aged 83 in 2010 – is best remembered for buying and transforming the barren island of Mustique into a celebrity paradise. Photos show the couple at spectacular parties, surrounded by the biggest stars of the day.

Despite his rages and affairs, they made a good team, Glenconner writes, probably through gritted teeth. Yup, never a dull moment. Besides, one doesn’t dwell, even when one’s husband leaves his millions to a manservant.

Halfway through, we arrive at her three-decade stint as lady-in-waiting for Princess Margaret, whom Glenconner (understandably) wishes to defend from peasant biographers.

Being by Margaret’s side offered an escape from both her psycho husband, and tragedy; Glenconner has endured the deaths of two adult sons, while a third, Christopher, was left brain-damaged in a motorbike accident.

Princess Margaret was a supportive, compassionate friend, and most unfussy. She’d come to stay at the Tennant’s Scottish family estate with a kettle to brew her own tea in the morning. (She couldn’t actually operate a kettle, but it’s the thought that counts.)

She always forgave Margaret’s ‘royal moments’. Behind the monarch, after all, she was at the top of Britain’s rigid class system. As for her rep for rudeness – her icy put-downs to commoners were usually well-deserved. Woe betide anyone who didn’t know their place.

Glenconner has worn many different hats – debutante, travelling saleswoman, maid of honour at the coronation of Elizabeth II – and been brought to life on Netflix’s The Crown. After a life well-lived by the Queen’s mantra: ‘Never complain, never explain’, her memoir is an interesting contribution to social and royal history. Her first crime novel – entitled Murder on Mustique – is out later this year. 

Helen Mirren in Catherine the great Press cuttings

Catherine the Great’s open relationship

In Catherine the Great – HBO and Sky’s new four-parter – the cast talk like they’re in The Crown (Jason Clarke does his own thing – more on him later). Luckily the big fur hats let you know you’re in RUSSIA.

With Helen Mirren playing Catherine, the series aims to provide a balanced image, celebrating her as a socially enlightened female ruler in a man’s world, while not shying away from the fact she ruled with an iron fist.

Politics and empire-building are just a backdrop, though. The true heart of the piece is slowly revealed to be the passionate bond between Catherine and her military leader Potemkin (Clarke), whose existing letters to each other show a loving, open relationship, and an almost modern way of working together.

In the series, Catherine has usurped her husband and their son. Amid tension with her military co-conspirators – including her estranged lover Orlov – she glimpses the swaggering Potemkin. Catherine likes hunky (younger) men, but she’s running a country, so she gets her lady-in-waiting to test his er, political prowess.

By hour two, we’re two years into the Russo-Turkish war. Potemkin has been away covering himself in glory, rising through the ranks. Catherine impulsively orders his return, only to ghost him. They try to make one another jealous, before having an awkward chat about their exes.

It’s true Catherine had multiple lovers, and her sexual liberation gave rise to fake news. Even now, urban legends persist – including the notorious slur involving a horse. Despite the recent press hype, Catherine and Potemkin’s onscreen romance is only steamy in the sense that they (eventually) kiss in a bathhouse.

They settle into domestic bliss, but, rather like the ‘action man’ Prince Phillip portrayed by The Crown, a (literally) thrusting Potemkin becomes petulant and bored. He wants to Make Russia Great, annex the Crimea, and shag half the population while doing so.

As Potemkin, Clarke goes from a clean-cut Aussie Don Cossack, to sounding and looking like the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.

Poor Catherine can’t live with him, can’t live without him. She pines for him and distracts herself with toy boys – some procured by Potemkin, who then has the comical nerve to be jealous.

The script reminds us repeatedly that she’s a brilliant woman, a patron of the arts, but she mostly indulges in sex, paranoia, and bickering with her son and council. It presents a sad case of living long enough to see yourself become the villain, tossing the Voltaire on a bonfire.

Its difficulty is having three decades of history, but only four hours. There needs to be a focus, and the series loses sight of it. Only a pivotal final scene goes a long way to redeeming Catherine the Great as a bittersweet mini-epic about one of history’s greatest love affairs.

girl dressed as princess margaret

Ma’am Darling – Picasso wanted to marry Princess Margaret!

The Shoebill is a prehistoric-looking bird that exists in the marshes of East Africa. Scientists know that these intensely private creatures rarely raise more than one chick; a second is insurance in case the older one doesn’t make it.

A similar philosophy underlies the dynamic of the royal heir and the spare. While the lionized firstborn is groomed to rule, being second-born can be trickier; modern spares must accept indifference and resentment from the press and public, especially as cute toddlers pile up in the palace nursery.

This was the fate of HRH Princess Margaret Rose, younger sister to Elizabeth II. The Crown renewed interest in the glam yet troubled royal, whose star had faded long before Diana arrived to swipe her tiara. Luckily for Princess Margaret’s new admirers, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling was published last year to gushing reviews.

Subtitled “99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret“, he takes a magpie approach. He includes letters, palace statements, interviews, snippets from memoirs penned by creepy footmen, plus anecdotes from VIPs who, er, encountered the queen’s sister.

Having only Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal of Margaret as a spoiled, party-loving Millennial to go on, I didn’t know just how frosty and demeaning she could be.

The princess loved to party, but nobody could break protocol by leaving before her. She was drawn to celebrities, and the feeling was mutual – she was a princess, after all. Girls copied her clothes, while Picasso was among the many men who wanted to marry her.

But celebs and diarists also swapped horror stories. Of all the jaw-dropping anecdotes, it’s hard to top the time she turned to a disabled guest at a party and asked: “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?”

Or when she was opening an old folks’ home and was presented with a specially cooked chicken dish. “That looks like sick.”

While her sister was meeting ambassadors and presidents, birth order discrimination pushed Margaret to the background. She was destined for a lifetime – as Brown puts it – of opening “scout huts and pumping stations.”

Ma’am Darling becomes repetitive with examples of bad behaviour, but Brown throws in some counter-factual flourishes too, such as Queen Margaret delivering a DGAF Christmas speech.

There’s been speculation that Princess Margaret’s life was ruined by the Townsend saga – when she supposedly couldn’t marry her beloved Group Captain without losing her royal status and income. Brown doesn’t seem to buy the fairy tale, and is skeptical of the 16 years older Group Captain.

Princess Margaret eventually married Antony Armstrong-Jones, photographer to the rich and famous. The Snowdons, as they became known, lived a bohemian life, but the marriage was unhappy, with Brown accusing Snowdon of ‘gaslighting’ – that terrifying common tactic of abusers and bullies everywhere.

A whimsical book, I didn’t find Ma’am Darling as hysterically funny as some critics. I got exhausted by all the ‘famous’ names from the mid-century arts world and high society. But Brown looks at Princess Margaret from many angles, you pity her and dislike her at the same time.  

👑👑👑 1/2

 

The Crown – Netflix review

Netflix’s new show, 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 building plans, which are proving quite controversial. (And all for a palace that according to this series, nobody wants to live in.)

The Crown takes us behind those illustrious doors with a fictionalized imagining of the young Queen (Claire Foy) Elizabeth II’s life. Ten episodes take us from the then Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 marriage to Prince Philip (Matt Smith), to the brink of the Suez crisis of 1956.

Between those historical milestones, the youthful royal is embroiled in various family dramas. 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!”

Writer/creator Peter Morgan’s series isn’t all about the hat, but also the person wearing it. Foy is beautifully regal as the Queen (even rivaling Sarah Gadon in the fanciful A Royal Night Out), and is also credible as a supposedly simple countrywoman, more interested in dogs and horses than politics or people.

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 demand a Doctor Who-themed nursery for Charles and Anne.

Everyone seems far nicer than they probably were/are in real life – even Eileen Atkins as scary Queen Mary. Well, almost everyone. There’s the fabulously brittle duo of the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings) and Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams – I had to check it wasn’t Game of Thrones’ Red Woman Carice van Houten).

“An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination,” is how the Duke describes his niece Elizabeth during a bitchy coronation commentary. Only once anointed is she transformed, he says, into a “goddess”.

The Crown is secure enough in its power that we also spend plenty of time with the politicians of the day. Still needing a movie to themselves are John Lithgow as Churchill, and Stephen Dillane as the painter Graham Sutherland, hired to produce a portrait of the PM. (It ends up on a bonfire – true story, apparently).

It can all get artificial, as things are explained to viewers. 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…”

If Morgan is a Republican, there’s little evidence, with all the urgent ‘The Crown Must Endure’ conflict throughout his show. I suppose we couldn’t have expected anything more insightful in our nostalgia-obsessed times.