THE CROWN was by far and away my television highlight of 2016. Following the first decade of Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign, it boasts stately performances, sumptuous production design and an intimate examination of real people in a unique situation.
After the untimely death of her father George VI (Jared Harris), Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) ascends the throne of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Born to royalty but banking on a more private life with her husband Philip (Matt Smith), Queen Elizabeth endures family scandal, political upheaval and seismic shifts in society across the globe. This is only the beginning.
This is a series built on the central performances, chiefly the challenges and balance of power in the relationship between Foy’s hard-as-nails monarch and Smith’s sidelined and uncertain consort. John Lithgow manages to avoid parody as an increasingly frail Winston Churchill and both Vanessa Kirby and Victoria Hamilton come into their own as the season goes on as Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother respectively.
There are some great moments throughout the first season. After their all-too-brief period of real happiness is ended, Elizabeth and Philip get their GRADUATE moment towards the end of Episode 2 as they are driven away to their destiny. At this point there really is no turning back, no way to save their former lives. I would have probably liked this chapter to have closed on their terrified, determined faces, but the impact of this moment is still huge.
My favourite scene was the heartbreaking point when Elizabeth and her father George VI both realise and acknowledge without words that the royal mantle will be passing from him to her rather more imminently than planned. As a final gift to her he gives her the tradecraft to bypass political smoke and mirrors and they bond over the King’s red box of Cabinet papers. Witnessing a father’s way of saying what needs to be said without actually saying it is poignantly lasting.
Later we have a wonderfully playful and mannered sequence tracking Princess Margaret’s call to her sister through switchboard after switchboard to request dinner. A moment flipped on its head to end the same episode as Margaret desperately tries to reach her again as her happy life is destroyed.
These are real people first and foremost, royalty second. They may be privileged, may not have earned their positions but they dress, undress, talk, row, joke and show passion just like anyone else. Philip also makes a very un-royal, almost CARRY ON proposition to his wife and monarch at one point which you’d never see if this was a BBC production.
Peter Morgan keeps things moving in interesting ways throughout, and though you may know a lot of this story, things rarely play out quite how you expect. “Act of God” is an atmospheric slow-burning mini horror movie set during the Big Smoke, with figures lurching out of walls of fog and danger in the shadows of every alley concealed a few feet further than perception. “Scientia Potentia Est” has Elizabeth doing her best EDUCATING RITA as she aims to overcome ignorance of all non-constitutional matters of the world with the hep of an unconventional tutor.
It’s a great looking show, with the considerable budget in evidence in every scene, meticulous attention to detail and eye-catching moments aplenty (Churchill’s arrival at Number 10, filmed from above has his scuttling insecty shape escape into his imposing sanctuary; the sparing but glorious coronation scene).
Time marches on, and even a 60 year reign seems like a passing glance when there is so much to do and so much your are not allowed to do. Most scenes prominently feature incessantly loud time pieces dominating every pause in conversation – a witty device to employ.
The quote of the series, all about what monarchy has to represent to serve a purpose, has to come from abdicated Edward VIII’s (Alex Jennings): “Who wants transparency when you can have magic?”. For me The Crown brought that across, it made me understand that surviving royal families still serve a purpose and still allure. For any staunch republicans out there, it’s an extremely well-performed and detailed character study that can only go deeper as this story continues. SSP