The Crown: monarchy on screen
It’s the show all history students are talking about: award-winning The Crown is a ten-episode biopic and historical drama produced for Netflix covering the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Written by Peter Morgan – who previously produced royal dramas The Queen and The Audience – the first season depicts the death of George VI and Elizabeth’s accession and early reign up until 1955, with future series planned to cover events through to the present day. Filming on location in London and South Africa and a budget of £100 million makes the show visually quite spectacular, and since its premier on 4 November here in the UK it has received rave reviews and has received numerous awards, including 2 Golden Globes. There’s no doubt that The Crown is a watchable drama, but how well does it stand as a piece of history?
Unsurprisingly for a television show based entirely on events which are not only heavily documented but also still in living memory for much of the population, the aesthetic accuracy of the episodes is impressive. Although there is a sense from interviews with the producers that the history on screen is the ‘backdrop’ for a much more personal drama, outfits and settings have been carefully reproduced. One scene near the beginning of the series depicting Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, and the Queen Mother at the unveiling of a memorial statue to George VI is strongly reminiscent of the actual event – black umbrellas and all – as a British Pathé video of the event reveals. Considerable detail has been paid to employing a cast with a visual similarity to the people they are portraying – a concept frequently raised as being essential to maintaining some sense of historical accuracy. Matt Smith as Prince Philip and David Jennings as The Duke of Windsor are especially clever castings. Of course, the show has its inaccuracies – including the apparent burial of George VI and Mary of Teck in Westminster Abbey, rather than St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, as well as the numerous errors of dress and apparel mentioned by Hugo Vickers in an article for The Daily Mail – but overall it does a good job of creating an aesthetic sense of the period, in providing us with an essence of this time.
Many may have read Joel Golby’s recent article in The Guardian proclaiming historical television as being “for the chop”, and though one might agree with his contention that Tudor documentaries have become mildly staid the same cannot be said for historical dramas. The Crown, for instance, has shed light on post-war Britain and reminds us of how important Elizabeth II’s accession was at the time, when the country was ruled by ageing and ailing men and a breath of fresh air was needed. For those of us who have only known the current Queen, this is an interesting opportunity to think about the moment of accession (a moment which will no doubt be upon us again in the not-so-distant future). Furthermore, if a historical drama is to be judged on its educational merits, the full episode on The Great Smog of London in 1952 has encouraged a plethora of articles and discussions about an event which, until now, had been relatively obscure. Accuracy is not the be all and end all of historical television, but The Crown achieves that and more – notably, the audience ‘impact’ which is increasingly seen as the sign of a successful public history.
We should, however, be less concerned with the material culture of historical television and pay more attention to the ideologies put forward on screen. There is an attempt to make it clear that monarchical sentiment in the Commonwealth especially was running low at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. More controversially, though truthfully, perhaps, Matt Smith’s Philip is depicted as lacking a filter when it comes to the native people he encounters on the Commonwealth tour. It is also worth considering what The Crown‘s success tells us about present-day ideologies. Here we might ask how a drama about monarchy can be so successful in an age in which we continually ask whether the monarchy will even outlive its current occupant, or whether it should. The Crown is not the de-mystifying drama of Shakespeare’s history plays, the original monarchical public histories. Here the mystique of monarchy is frequently and sincerely advanced; from the great speeches on the value and purpose of monarchy given by Churchill, Mary of Teck and the Duke of Windsor set to rousing music and the story arc of Elizabeth’s distancing herself from personal duties to her husband and sister in favour of her role as monarch to the closing shot of ‘Gloriana’. An article by Vanessa Thorpe in The Guardian noted that with the almost simultaneous airing of The Crown and ITV’s Victoria we seem currently to be revelling in the stories of young queens, but taking a look at the bigger picture we might note also that despite the success of shows focusing more on social and family histories – including genealogy-centred Who Do You Think You Are? and The Secret History of My Family, as well as Poldark — monarchical dramas (and not just those about the Tudors) continue to thrive on our screens. We might think of Versailles, charting the early part of King Louis XIV of France’s reign and building of the eponymous palace, which aired on the BBC in 2016 and similarly portrayed an ethereal sovereign. We might also consider The Tudors, which despite its notorious portrayal of Henry VIII as a ‘rockstar’ did make the case for the king as being genuinely troubled by his conscience and by the duty of sovereignty. That The Crown at times forces this angle is evident in the storyline of Princess Margaret’s relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend. Many reviewers of the show have pointed out that in reality the Queen and Prime Minister Anthony Eden did everything in their power to facilitate the marriage, but in the show the narrative arc sees Elizabeth eventually decide that she cannot personally allow the relationship to continue, culminating in a final scene highlighting Elizabeth’s detachment from her personal life and transformation into ‘Gloriana’, as urged by Churchill. Given that The Crown was produced deliberately without input from Buckingham Palace, it is worth asking where this impulse towards monarchism comes from.
As The Crown starts to gather up awards and accolades, it looks certain that its reign will continue and further series will be commissioned. Currently it stands as a largely uncontroversial and generally accurate drama seeking to humanise the royal family. Yet we can ask what The Crown reveals about the tensions within contemporary perceptions of monarchy, and whether public histories of this nature, with living individuals and authorities to keep in mind, can ever truly represent these tensions with complete immunity. Is its presentation of monarchy as divine and dutiful merely recreating the ideologies of the 1950s? Or it is a viewpoint to be taken forward to the inevitable upcoming change of hands?
Written by Laura Flannigan
Golby, Joel. “Six Wives With Lucy Worsley: why TV history shows are for the chop.” The Guardian. 7 December 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/dec/07/six-wives-with-lucy-worsley-henry-viii-history. Accessed 15 January 2017.
Thorpe, Vanessa. “Why Britain’s psyche is gripped by a different type of royal fever.” The Guardian. 21 August 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/aug/21/different-kind-of-royal-fever-victoria-the-crown-jenna-coleman?CMP=share_btn_tw . Accessed 15 January 2017.
Vickers, Hugo. “With a £100million budget Netflix’s eagerly-anticipated new show The Crown is the most lavish biopic ever, says royal expert HUGO VICKERS, but it’s marred by sensationalist errors and some remarkable lapses into vulgarity.” The Daily Mail. 16 October 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3840165/With-100million-budget-Netflix-s-eagerly-anticipated-new-Crown-lavish-biopic-says-royal-expert-HUGO-VICKERS-s-marred-sensationalist-errors-remarkable-lapses-vulgarity.html. Accessed 1 February 2017.