You don’t need to be a royalist to love Netflix’s new series on the first decade of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, says Camilla King.
Netflix may be an American streaming service, but its much-trumpeted new series, The Crown, is as British as tea and crumpets and as elegant as a double string of pearls. The good news is that you don’t need to be an ardent royalist to enjoy this fascinating and moving dramatisation of the first 10 years of Elizabeth II’s reign.
In the opening episode it is 1947 in post-war England: King George is coughing up blood and Philip the caddish outsider is renouncing his foreign titles (already a Prince, you’d think he was a mere commoner from all the royal carry-on) so that he can marry shy Princess Elizabeth. Margaret is about to cause a serious amount of upset with Peter Townsend, and Winston Churchill is an irascible old man riding the wave of public adoration while desperately clinging onto power, much to the dismay of his Cabinet.
With the stage set for a decade of turmoil, the British establishment – a veritable army of ‘grey men’, as Princess Diana later described them – struggles to come to terms with a rapidly changing world and the decline of the British Empire. Through all of this the pop and sizzle of photographers’ bulbs creates a refrain that serves as a reminder of the long-held public obsession with all things royal.
There are lighter moments early on in the series, and yes, that includes the infamous (and very fleeting) glimpse of Philip’s bottom, an acerbic Edward VIII (Alex Jennings is just immaculate in the role) and one of the renowned salty limericks from the King, but these only serve to add to the growing bleakness at its conclusion.
“I couldn’t help a twinge of sadness that this wasn’t being broadcast on the good old BBC, which feels like its natural home, but there’s no denying that every penny of the astounding $100 million budget has been well spent.”
Whatever your view of the royal family, it’s hard not to be drawn into a drama that pits a naive and unworldly young woman who just wants to live a ‘normal’ family life (as normal as the upper classes get, that is) but instead prematurely takes on the mantle of God’s anointed leader. No pressure, Liz.
The Crown’s creator and head writer, Peter Morgan, has form when it comes to the royals, having spent years documenting the tension between parliament and crown in near forensic detail. In 2006 Morgan wrote the Academy Award-winning film The Queen; forming the second part of his ‘Blair Trilogy’ after his Channel 4 drama The Deal, it was later turned into The Audience, an equally decorated play also starring Helen Mirren.
Morgan’s latest imagining, mooted to continue for six more series and covering the entirety of the Queen’s reign to the present day, feels like the natural evolution of his obvious fascination with the halls of British power; The Crown is just as much about Winston Churchill, played with great pathos by John Lithgow, and his embattled premiership as it is about the Queen.
There are, admittedly, times when The Crown threatens to descend into cheesiness, but it’s always pulled back from the brink by the stellar cast. There isn’t a foot put wrong here; Claire Foy perfectly captures the young Elizabeth, initially completely out of her depth, but developing a steely core as the series progresses. It’s to her credit (and Morgan’s writing) that she manages to elicit sympathy at times when the Queen could easily seem cold and unforgiving.
I could namecheck every actor, and the show really is a roll call of great British acting talent, but we’d be here all night. Particular stand-outs include Matt Smith as an (initially) charming and boyish Prince Philip, a nice counterpart to Elizabeth’s serious nature; Eileen Atkins on imperious and fairly terrifying form as Queen Mary; Jared Harris as King George VI, blithely puffing away on cigarettes as lung cancer takes hold; and Vanessa Kirby as an increasingly frustrated and destructive Princess Margaret (and really, who can blame her).
In fact, everything about The Crown is classy. The cinematography is stunning, period details feel spot on, the music is perfect; each episode feels like a beautifully crafted mini-film. I couldn’t help a twinge of sadness that this wasn’t being broadcast on the good old BBC, which feels like its natural home, but there’s no denying that every penny of the astounding $100 million budget has been well spent.
In an age where many of us are more intimately acquainted with Kim Kardashian’s bum than we would ideally like to be, and sharing every detail of our lives on social media is increasingly the norm, there’s something touching about the Queen’s reticence.
With a second season in production, I’m already salivating at the thought of the next decade of political and royal intrigue.
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Freelancer in the arts. Unwilling expert on Batman, dinosaurs and poo (there are children) and running widow of @UpDownRunner. Lover of music, cake and lady stuff. @millking2301