The return of ‘The Crown’
Heads or tails?” the guy asks. “Tails,” answers his friend. “Heads,” says the guy as the coin lands face up, and since his friend happens to be married to she who is etched on the coin, he adds: “Your wife, you lose.” Prince Philip flashes a wry smile, the smile of he who has no recourse but surrender. Peter Morgan’s sumptuous The Crown returns to our screens in December, and this second season—set in the early 1960s, somewhere around “the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles’ first L.P.”, as Philip Larkin once rhymed—is all about scandal.
This is not, at first, a good thing. The show’s first three episodes are a bit of a slog, focusing on the unkempt but dull marriage between Queen Elizabeth II and Philip, and while the production remains breathtakingly polished, giant historical events like the Suez debacle are shoved to the sidelines while we watch the monarch of England fret about the impossibility of divorce. It is a time when infidelity appears in vogue, as royals and ministers find themselves either cheating or cuckolded. The Swinging Sixties, which begin after this season is done and dusted, could clearly not come soon enough for a restless England. Lord Mountbatten, played by Greg Wise, sounds defeated as he speaks about his colourful wife Edwina to Elizabeth herself, whining that she carried on “with Nehru of all people. My opposite number. The humiliation could not be more complete”.
Monarchs don’t get a day off, and if there is one thing British television strives to show us, it is that the head weighed down by the crown suffers harder and heavier than we viewers could imagine. That, or it drives them nuts. This season, Claire Foy does an even finer job as Elizabeth, channelling the spirit (and voice) of the Queen even at those moments when she isn’t looking enough like her—a situation remedied unashamedly by too-frequent shots of her profile to remind us how similar her silhouette is to the one on the stamps and, as pointed out to Philip in the first episode, the coins. Her portrayal of the Queen shines when she starts coming to grips with how ceremonial and powerless her crown truly is, and how little ceremony counts for. At one point, when trying to corner an outspoken critic, she is told that the age of deference is over. “What is left without deference?” she asks, defiantly drawing herself to her full height, as writers of the time would say,“Anarchy?”
“Equality,” says the critic. That is something that has never appealed to the colonial powers. When Prince Philip goes gallivanting on a tour of the colonies, he laments how some natives can box better or wrestle harder than the white men in white. “Thankfully,” he says, “There’s always cricket.” Thus we see British bowlers throw down yorkers to people who have only just learnt what they are, if that. This is a season when Matt Smith, who plays Philip, has several delightful lines and possibly this season’s best-written role, but he is unfortunately an actor who wears his expressions too obviously on his face. Surrounded by subtler performers, Smith’s Philip—despite the notable absence of the racist jibes he was so famous for—is a major disappointment.
The first season hit a storytelling high with an episode about the painting of a portrait. This one finds its stride with an exceptional episode about a photograph being taken, one that is illuminating and fantastically written. Where the portrait episode was meditative and sublime, this one is aggressively sexy. It is the fourth episode of this season, and it is where the show finds its groove, and the right balance between scandal and state. Headlined by Vanessa Kirby who plays a striking version of Princess Margaret—effortlessly devastating and with terrific taste in music—this is an episode that merits a column in itself, one I shall write after the show is out and you have seen it.
There are times The Crown appears too uptight. Times when it feels like a stuffy costume drama: overwritten, constrained by formalism, and acted out in all-caps and italics. Like the monarchy itself, Morgan’s lavish show gives us the expected alongside the unexpected, and it is the surprises—when history appears too farcical to be real (but is) and fiction appears too steadfast to be fictional (but is)—that make The Crown sparkle. Sometimes, all it takes is a hitherto unseen shot of the Queen with her hair in curlers, closing her eyes to shield from the vast amounts of hairspray required to shape her now iconic do. Sometimes, then, all it takes to get a better look at the crown is to look under it.
Stream Of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
Raja Sen tweets @rajasen