Having devoured the first six episodes of Netflix epic The Crown, telling the story of The Queen’s accession to the throne, it is patently clear where £100 million was spent on the production. I wonder whether re-staging the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip for episode one cost much less than the 1947 original. I suspect there were more extras in the coronation scene than attended Westminster Abbey in 1953. God only knows where they found all the peers and peeresses robes.
I would imagine royal trainspotters will be watching The Crown pad and pencil in hand looking for inaccuracies but I doubt they’ll find many. Claire Foy is extraordinary as The Queen. She has the clipped, slightly abrasive tone of the young monarch’s voice to perfection and I rather like the hesitancy in Foy’s performance suggesting a ‘gel’ forced by birth to think before she speaks or acts.
Matt Smith does the Duke of Edinburgh proud: entirely believable as a glamorous hero in search of a campaign. Smith explores the Duke’s frustrations as a consort and doesn’t ham up Prince Philip’s provocative sense of humour. He looks dashing – particularly in the scenes shot in Kenya – and we get to see his bum on several occasions which is always a crowd pleaser.
The script eddied around The Queen rather than always placing her at the centre of the drama and the scriptwriters made some clever choices about the relationships they chose to explore and expand upon . Eileen Atkins is magnificent as Queen Mary who is established in episode one as a chain-smoking sage of the ages instructing her granddaughter about the history and mystery of monarchy.
The Queen’s uncle, the Duke of Windsor, is given much more than a walk-on part and Alex Jennings gives a bitter-sweet rendering of this contradictory man. I wasn’t aware that The Queen had seen the Duke of Windsor privately before the coronation or that she had sought his advice. Choosing to see the coronation through the eyes of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson holding a party in front of the television in Paris was genius.
Huge applause to the writers for making John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill such a well-drawn and rounded character. It is understood that the young Queen was reverential towards the grand old man. The Crown shows us a cantankerous, ailing but wily old showman reluctant to lose power. I was particularly fascinated by the episode concerning the Great Smog of 1952. I had no idea that his handling of the crisis called Churchill’s competence into question.
It would have been easy for The Crown to be lazy and focus on one crisis point per episode but the storytelling is more sophisticated than that. Though the Princess Margaret role was crying out for Nathalie Dormer, Vanessa Kirby plays the young princess in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend with sensitivity and charm. The doomed romance is introduced subtly making it entirely understandable why Princess Margaret becomes such a brittle party girl.
Jared Harris was outstanding in early episodes as King George VI. He looks absolutely nothing like The Queen’s father but gave a quiet, poignant performance rather than an impersonation. Poor Victoria Hamilton as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother doesn’t get much of a look-in and, as of episode six, hasn’t emerged as anything other than a vengeful royal widow.
Before it was aired, The Crown was criticised for dramatising The Queen’s life while she and the Duke of Edinburgh are still with us. I have been highly critical of films like The Iron Lady and The Queen for much the same reason. However, I don’t think there was a single cringe moment in those first six episodes of The Crown when the line between good drama and bad taste was crossed.
Neither did I detect much chippiness in the scriptwriting or covert attempts to criticise The Queen and the institution of monarchy. There was a bit of tub-thumping from Queen Mary telling her granddaughter that doing nothing was the essence of her job and a little implied criticism from the Duke of Windsor that, without the crown, orb and ceremony, The Queen was just an ordinary woman. I’d argue that ordinary people reject duty for love. Extraordinary people like The Queen accept the responsibilities that love and duty entail.
I recall some absolutely dreadful television dramatisations of The Queen’s life that painted various members of the royal family as fools or villains. The Crown, being ten one-hour episodes long, has the luxury of time to tell the story and find the light and shade in each character. True, Greg Wise’s Earl of Mountbatten is oleaginous and Machiavellian but the history books tend to agree with that reading of his character.
I will watch with interest to see how the Queen Mother develops because she hasn’t played an important role yet and one suspects her influence on the young queen was formidable. That said, giving Eileen Atkins’s Queen Mary so many opportunities to steal scenes has been a joy to watch.
Claire Foy has now notched-up two of England’s most formidable queens: Elizabeth II in The Crown and Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall. Watching her give insight into these over-familiar characters made me rather long for her to have a bash at Queen Victoria.