“We are half people, ripped from the pages of some bizarre mythology. The two sides within us human and crown engaged in a fearful civil war which never ends and which blights our every human transaction as brother, husband, sister, wife, mother.”
Peter Morgan’s film The Queen, starring Helen Mirren in the eponymous role, poignantly skewered the flurry of corporate image control deployed by the Royal Family and its apparatus of advisers in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. The Crown continues in this noble tradition, contrasting the god-like status of the monarch with the reality of the incumbent’s powerless in the face of custom, protocol, cabinet and constitution, not to mention the perpetual stage management to stave off overthrow through a popular rebellion. Paradoxically, this strive for survival comes at the cost of the family itself; despite the imperative for the clan to stick together and preserve the institution of royalty, relationships crack under the strain of expectation and the cloistered stuffiness of privilege (not to mention the spectre of in-breeding).
The visuals of the Crown– the depiction of birthright, glory, pomp and circumstance, the finery of period costume and the allure of celebrity- entails a lavish viewing experience. While I am a sucker for the aesthetics of period evocation, in the Crown this also came with the irony of hindsight. I was seduced by the immaculate and sumptuous stylings which surrounded the mysterious façade of the Crown, then unsettled by the portrayal of the vulnerability and inherent hypocrisy of those associated with it. With a $100 million budget, the cinematography and staging was also convincingly regal (unlike the cardboard reconstruction of Westminster Abbey used in The King’s Speech).
There are many parallels to draw between the Crown and Jackie, which I have also reviewed on this blog. Both have a preoccupation with myth-making, and deconstruct and re-make the legacy of Queen Elizabeth and JFK respectively. Both texts are self-consciously questioning of institutional authority and the mystique and obfuscation that tradition works to produce. As the character David Windsor, the former King Edward VIII who abdicated because of his love for the divorced Wallis Simpson, states while watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth: “Why have transparency when you can have mystery?” David is played superbly by Alex Jennings, who becomes a scene stealer with his memorable lines including, “This family, when you’re in you’re never really sure, but when you’re out there’s no doubt. You’re out.”
Having said that, the series boasts a top-notch cast. Claire Foy is magnificent as the Queen, as is Matt Smith as Prince Philip. Eileen Atkins plays the Queen’s grandmother, the former Princess Alice, Vanessa Kirby plays Princess Margaret, and Jared Harris plays King George. Perhaps most impressive, however, is John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. By some trickery of the camera, his height is reduced and his girth is magnified, while his lips are pursed and voice gruff in the manner of the bulldog. It was also a pleasure to see Jeremy Northam back on screen, playing the foreign Minister and latterly Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. I only hope that The Queen stars Helen Mirren and James Cromwell reprise their roles in the latter series.
There are many fascinating intersecting strands to the Crown’s portrayal and critique of monarchy, including the religious symbolism with which it is imbued; the pull of tradition against modernisation and, indeed, common sense; public image versus private feeling, which is explored in the context of implosive family dynamics; the emasculation of Prince Philip through his role as consort; and the maintenance of the separate constitutional roles of monarch and parliament.
Central to the series is the basic question, what is the crown? Is it an institution, a person, a family, a god, or a certain kind of power? The answer that is most obviously correct is that it is an institution, but it is also all of these things, all of which conflict with one another. From the outset, as Elizabeth takes over after the premature death of her father and with the rancour stemming from her uncle’s abdication still poisoning relations, it is apparent that the series is not a homage to a timeless god(dess) currently manifested in the earthly form of Queen Elizabeth II, but as a damning portrayal of a contradictory and self-destructive clan. The crown is both precious and thorned.
If one thing is made clear, it is that the crown is a burden. While it is a cliché that with great power comes great responsibility, the members of the royal family suffer most acutely in their private lives while outwardly appearing to enjoy the trappings of the happy accident that is their birthright. Brother turns against brother; a mother becomes a stranger to one of her sons and blames him for the premature death of her other son who became king; Elizabeth is cut down the middle, torn between love and duty; Princess Margaret cannot marry the man she loves because of the precedency of canon law and tradition over personal feeling and public sentiment; Prince Philip’s pride is irreparably wounded, having to give up his name, naval career, and having to kneel in front of Elizabeth at her coronation. When the Queen ships him off to Australia ostensibly to give him a job (open the Melbourne Commonwealth Games), there is a clear sub-text: come back a changed man and accept your subordinate position. Prince Philip counters with one of the most biting lines in the series: “Don’t dress betrayal up as a favour.”
In the episode focusing on the coronation, we also see the beginnings of the corporate takeover of the Royal Family’s image. Though unelected, there is a preoccupation with public sentiment. The dramatization of the coronation cleverly unpicks the mythic proportions that the ceremony has taken on, and reveals that at best it is all smoke and mirrors, and at worst, a way for an unelected institution to periodically remake its relevancy.
The central thread of the series is Princess Margaret’s doomed relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend. This narrative also encapsulates the dualities and contradictions entailed in carrying out the duties of the crown. While as a sister Elizabeth wants the marriage to go ahead, as head of the Church of England she cannot allow it. Cabinet proves intractable, even as public sentiment supports the match. Rather than bring the Church of England’s values up to date or keep her promise to her father not to let the crown get in the way of their sisterly bond, the Queen gives Margaret an impossible ultimatum: stay in the family, or marry Peter and renounce everything.
Writing in The Guardian, Lauren Carroll Harris argued that the Crown is “trash” which tries to “humanise” the monarchy. The drama and pathos evoked by certain characters elicits a variety of emotional responses from the viewer, including disbelief, ridicule and sympathy, but it is a stretch to say the show is a puff piece. Peter Morgan is on record making various ascerbic statements about the Royal Family, including that the Queen has limited intelligence and that she would rather have spent her life breeding horses and dogs. These sentiments come out on screen. The Family comes out as a cold, outdated institution that is effectively powerless, that holds on to the idea of class as a birthright, that lives off the largesse of the tax payer, and who seem blind to the ravages colonialism- and who on earth would want to marry into it?
It has been reported that events portrayed in the Crown are frenziedly googled by viewers to check the extent of their truthfulness, and the Royal Historian Hugo Vickers has written a 15 000 word pamphlet on all the factual inaccuracies of the series so far. To me, this misses the point.
Firstly, it is a dramatisation and I don’t think it purports to be anything other than that. We cannot know word for word every private conversation that every member of the royal family has ever had, so obviously it has to be made up. Peter Morgan makes clear that he is concerned with what occurs behind closed doors- his play The Audience explores the weekly meetings between the Queen and the Prime Minister throughout history. He is concerned with lifting the veil, and, in portrayals of events such as the coronation, draws attention to the way the real-life event was an exercise in creating a mythology which is then received by the public as “truth.”
Secondly, truth in fiction does not always amount to telling the facts. It is about the truth of representation, which is something quite different. Fiction allows us to reimagine the past and the future in new ways- an intellectual exercise that is not about lying, but about questioning previously held assumptions. The portrayal of vulnerability and powerlessness of the Royal Family in The Crown is a compelling counterpoint to the image of celebrity that has come to dominate today’s royals, and is perhaps partly what makes the series such compelling viewing.
There is also a certain irony about viewers being disappointed to discover that some conversations and plot points are the product of artistic licence. When it comes to the Royal Family, how do we actually know what is real anyway? The performances they put on in public are heavily scripted, their images controlled to a tee. Hell, the way they portray themselves is basically fiction. Not to mention the apparatus of obfuscation that surrounds them. Julia Baird points out in her biography of Queen Victoria that people close to that monarch, including royal historians, coloured her historical legacy by destroying or editing her correspondence, amongst other things. When Baird set out to investigate the truth, the Royal Family continually rebuffed her requests to access the Royal Archives, ultimately allowing her only partial access. That doesn’t exactly smack of transparency. As a journalist points out in the second season, doesn’t the public have a right to question those who hold such power, especially when they are not democratically elected?
All that is left is to wonder what Queenie herself makes of it all. Now that would be an episode of Gogglebox worth watching…