In an excellent episode of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II balks at the prospect of her coronation ceremony being broadcast on television. It is a sacred, historic ritual that needs to be looked up to by the populace, she asserts, not one that is to be watched “with dinner in their laps.” The show does, however, go on, and witnessing the lavish craftsmanship and detailing in this faithful recreation of her 1953 coronation—the last time England had a coronation—it dawned on me that Netflix, who has taken a £100 million gamble on history, has done so in the hope of attracting those very viewers with warm plates balanced on their thighs.
Times have changed. And yet the Queen remains.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan first shone with 2003’s The Deal, where Michael Sheen was Tony Blair in a film about the arrangement with Gordon Brown that led to Blair becoming prime minister. Sheen played Blair again in The Queen, the Helen Mirren gem that set Morgan on his way to being labelled ‘the British history guy’. After winning tremendous acclaim for his meticulously researched and yet highly dramatised takes on characters from the past—with films as diverse as Frost/Nixon, The Last King Of Scotland, The Other Boleyn Girl and my favourite, Rush, about a near-fatal Formula One rivalry—Morgan has now set his sights on the biggest game in town for a screenwriter today: television. And the scale is appropriately mega.
Netflix’s first original British production, The Crown, is a gigantic task, a series that—over six seasons and 60 episodes therein—intends to follow Queen Elizabeth’s reign right up to, and perhaps beyond, the nineties. While as cinematically embellished as all of Morgan’s work—the British Royal Family has classified the series as “fictional drama”—the longform format does allow the canny writer to luxuriate in actual context a lot more than a film would, and history lessons have never quite looked this good. The canvas is extraordinary, and the ambition massive. The preposterous (and BBC-dwarfing) £100 million budget is for seasons one and two, and the sumptuous, finely tailored glory of season one makes it look like money well spent.
It has certainly been visibly spent. The sets are magnificent, as is the period detailing and the wealth of recreated locations, and the cinematography is impressive enough for each episode to be shown in a theatre, if so desired. Yet has Netflix perhaps risked too much at a time when it doesn’t have enough to risk?
The Crown might be garnering fine reviews but, as reports emerge of an increasingly cash-strapped Netflix and the plateauing of its subscriber base, the numbers might not justify indulgent and highly expensive period creations such as this one and Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, which I wrote about here many columns ago. Should a service that has found its greatest successes in telling edgier stories keep looking to time gone by? Is spending this much on a show—a show revelling not merely in the past, but in a specifically stuffy version of the past—the practical thing to do?
Yet, what price pomp? And this is prize pomp.
The Crown is an elaborately crafted, highly stirring drama showing us the innards of Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street, a human tale that shows us a young woman tightening her grip on the reigns of a country while the world around her shuffles around to make way.
Our perception of Elizabeth II has inevitably been coloured by pity and, increasingly, apathy, as a character from our history books continues to stick around and get more irrelevant by the day. Here we see her, barely in her late twenties, struggle, for example, with weighty discussions she has by men who aren’t used to hearing no, and decide to hire a personal tutor in order to make sense of the changing modern world. It makes us view the Queen in an entirely different light. And royalty itself. It’s fascinating how little the people nearest to the throne want to be there, and how maddening the workload that accompanies the position.
Claire Foy has the right bearing and the perfect Pound-note profile for the part, and as she settles into her absurd life, her character thrillingly becomes less tentative. Standing across from her is Prime Minister Winston Churchill, played surprisingly but entertainingly by John Lithgow, the cigar-chomping war hero trying desperately to cling to his position.
The rest of the cast is superb—extra applause ought go toward Jarred Harris as the stuttering King George V, Dame Eileen Atkins as Queen Mary, and Pip Torrens as Private Secretary Tommy Lascelles—but there are hiccups, like Lia Williams as a caricatured Wallis Simpson and, worst of all, Matt Smith as Prince Philip. Playing the Queen’s ineffective and “matronized” husband, Smith lays it on archly heavy, often sucking his cheeks in too cartoonishly, looking for all the world like an evil Barney Stinson. While on resemblances, Greg Wise, who plays Lord Mountbatten, is, ironically enough, a dead ringer for Jawaharlal Nehru.
As with all of Morgan’s work, the most memorable alchemy comes our way via deft and accurately phrased dialogue, and while parts of the show do feel jarringly exaggerated in their drama—the entire arc involving the abdicating King Edward and Mrs Simpson is far too emotionally overwrought—much is smoothed over simply by the words these characters use. There is a splendid exchange, for instance, where Queen Mary explains the importance of being impartial to young Elizabeth, telling her that as sovereign, her most important task is to react to nothing.
Despite my name, I am thankfully tied to no such promise and can unreservedly recommend The Crown. I wonder only whether this acclaimed royalty-fetishising show could perhaps make its way, through the exquisitely-manicured halls of Buckingham Palace, right up to the monarch herself. Even if Netflix can’t afford to keep taking this narrative forward, I daresay the show bows down obsequiously enough to ensure itself a home regardless—on Her Majesty’s streaming service.
Stream of stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.