I have a love-hate relationship with The Crown, the smash Netflix original drama that chronicles the life of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and her family. One of the things that made the series such a sensation when it first aired was the concept of dramatizing the lives of very famous people who are still very much with us. It seemed, to me, incredibly brash. What must the royal family think of it? Clearly the creators have to be making up some of these intimate conversations and situations, which only a fly on the wall could be privy to.
The debut season was brilliant, as they say in England, and the second season was pretty darn good too. The original cast, led by the excellent Clare Foy as a vulnerable young Princess and then Queen Elizabeth torn between her obligations as a wife and mother and her destiny as British sovereign, was almost perfect. With the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, sulking in luxurious exile in Paris, as snarky supporting characters, the show was like crack, at least for American royal watchers and Anglophiles like me.
Beginning in the third season, The Crown’s creators decided to switch the original cast out with older actors. Frankly, I wish they had used digital aging technology and just kept the first cast, including Vanessa Kirby as the queen’s rebellious and brokenhearted younger sister, Princess Margaret. Much as I love Helena Bonham Carter in every other role she’s done, I feel she’s miscast here—and wasted.
Yes, I have issues with the second cast. My favorite casting choice by far is Josh O’Connor, who convincingly plays a young Prince Charles; I don’t comprehend the resistance to him by some in the media. In season three, as a very young man, he was portrayed as a sympathetic figure. In season four (the “Diana” season), more of a cad. And couldn’t the producers have found a less mousy-seeming actress to fill the role of the leggy, stunningly-supermodel-like-in-real-life Princess Diana? (Sorry to say it but it’s true.)
I enjoy Gillian (“X-Files”) Anderson’s portrayal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which seems to put me in the minority.
With each season, The Crown seems to grow colder and lose a little more of its soul. To me, the prim Olivia Coleman as the queen strips away most of the humanity, warmth, and vulnerability that Clare Foy brought to the role. But it’s more than that. By season four, the royal family has become so lacking in redeeming qualities that one has to wonder if Peter Morgan, the show’s creator (and screenwriter of 2006’s “The Queen” starring Helen Mirren) even likes these people.
For the sake of full disclosure, I have only watched through episode six of the fourth season as of this writing, a little more than halfway through. I’m not the binge-watching type, and even if I were, I could not binge on something this depressing.
By the end of episode two, the Windsors came across as such a narcissistic, insufferable lot that I agreed wholeheartedly with Anderson’s Thatcher when she concluded, “These people aren’t elegant, they’re boorish.”
In the fourth episode, Coleman’s Queen Elizabeth suddenly discovered she had two younger sons, Andrew and Edward. They had not been seen nor spoken of since the episodes in which they were born, in season two. By episode six, they seem to have conveniently vanished as quickly as they appeared.
Episode three, which covered Charles and Diana’s engagement, was so bleak as to make me desperate for something, anything, to lighten things up even a little. I refuse to believe, despite Camilla, that Diana was miserable literally the entire time or had not one moment of tenderness with Charles. And why do we never see nor hear of her parents or siblings? Or her flamboyant “wicked” stepmother Raine?
Season four is so controversial in its depiction of Princess Diana and her troubled marriage to Charles, and other events surrounding the family and prime minister Thatcher, that it’s prompted some in Britain, including the British Culture Secretary and the late princess’s brother, to demand that episodes of The Crown be preceded by a disclaimer that the content is largely fiction.
But by far, the number-one thing that bothers me most about The Crown is its total lack of cultural context, which seems deliberate on the part of the show’s makers. The series takes place in a vacuum as to any social movement going on outside the royal bubble. In reality, Elizabeth’s reign saw London become the fashion and music capital of the world in the 1960s with Beatlemania and the British Invasion, then the epicenter of the Punk scene in the Seventies, but you won’t find any hint of this on The Crown.
The Beatles reportedly went to Buckingham Palace for an audience with the queen in 1965, but this was completely absent from season three, the season that covered the Sixties. Instead, we were treated to an entire episode dedicated to the (American) Apollo-11 moon landing and Prince Philip’s meeting with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren. It’s baffling.
The Fab Who?
In the Charles-Diana engagement episode described above, the soundtrack the show’s producers opted to use was not The Police, The Clash, or any British band from the early-1980s era but…wait for it…Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Nicks. It’s head-scratching stuff.
(I realize seemingly trivial points like this don’t matter to some viewers, but they matter to me. Maybe because I was a teenager in the early Charles-&-Diana years and had a burgeoning awareness of music, fashion, and culture.)
You would never know the Sex Pistols burst onto the scene in 1976 with a song called God Save the Queen and put a safety pin through Her Majesty’s nose.
Instead, the show hyper-focuses on British politics and political figures. Some of that is necessary (John Lithgow’s Churchill was terrific), but this comes at the extreme expense of British culture. You can’t completely divorce Elizabeth II’s 67-year reign from the larger culture happening outside her palace walls and pretend the royal family was immune to it and not somehow influenced by it.
Morgan’s “The Queen” was really more about Prime Minister Tony Blair than it was about the title character. In addition to being a political junkie to a fault, Morgan seems hung up on minor curiosities and oddities from Windsor history. It was interesting, in season three, to learn about Prince Philip’s mother the eccentric Greek nun, a story that few know of. But I’m not sure we needed an entire episode devoted to Michael Fagan, the unemployed British man who in 1982 scaled the Buckingham Palace fence and invaded the queen’s bedroom, which is what we get in season four. Clearly, Morgan was using the episode to make purely political points.
One period show about British nobility that gave its viewers glimpses of changes in the culture at large and did it in a masterful way was Downton Abbey. It felt as if the show’s creator Julian Fellowes, unlike Morgan, actually liked all his characters…despite their flaws. Granted, Fellowes was working with fictitious characters that can be redeemed in a way real-life ones can’t. Sometimes I wish he was writing The Crown.
The series that launched with an inaugural season that was very near perfect has reduced the queen and her family almost to pitiable caricatures. If it’s designed to make me grateful I’m not one of them, well, I already kind of was. But the show is just one continuous downer. I feel each episode ought to come with a side of Prozac and shot of tequila.
I’ll watch the remainder of the fourth season, and probably the next which is reportedly the final one, although with diminishing enthusiasm. If for no other reason than it’s pure eye and mind candy—escapism—which good TV is supposed to be. I’m not sure how far out the series is supposed to go, but I’m dreading Megxit already.