Missing your Downton Abbey Sunday evening fix? Fancy a posh period drama? They don’t come any posher than this. Dramatist Peter Morgan (who wrote the film The Queen from 2006) offers us a new biographical series about Queen Elizabeth II and her family, disappointingly not called Keeping Up With The Windsors. It’s one of the most lavish and expensive period dramas ever made, and everyone who watches this sort of telly was startled to find out it wasn’t going to be broadcast on the BBC, the go-to broadcaster for Grandma-friendly programming. New commissioning behemoth Netflix apparently paid £100 million for the first 20 episodes, so you can see why the Beeb might have said no, in a year where they couldn’t find enough change down the sofa to keep Mel, Sue and Mary in their big tent.
Episode 1 of The Crown starts on a pretty disgusting note. We meet the extremely tetchy King, placated by his servants about coughing up blood of a morning. George VI (Jared Harris) is treated like a child by his equerry Peter Townsend (more on him later). Silly limericks and ‘there there’ calms him down from throwing a massive hissy fit. nothing about this opening scene is very regal. We learn that King George VI is a daft old duffer, but he really loves his daughters.
Quick as a flash handsome Phillip (played by Matt Smith) switches from being Greek to being British and he’s ready to marry little Lizzie (Claire Foy). We hear gossip that the match wasn’t approved, and I can understand why. He’s not my favourite Doctor either. But Liz won’t back down. Her heart is set on Phil. We don’t learn how they met, why they love each other or even why this self-confessed homeless Greek is switching his allegiance to England or how he’s allowed to. Maybe it’s a perk of a job in the Royal Navy, maybe thanks to his efforts in WWII? It’s annoying that we don’t get to find out. Would it have been so hard to take 30 seconds to explain?
We see the wedding ceremony and the classic Buck House balcony shot. How strange for the director Stephen Daldry to have to copy the original tv footage of the ceremony, an event that happen before most of us were born, but the image of which is ingrained on the public consciousness thanks to television. A highlight of all this pomp was Winston Churchill (John Lithgow, neither short nor fat but somehow getting away with it) engineering his entrance to the royal wedding and showboating down the aisle like he was the bride. All eyes on Big Winny C.
And then from one very public view to something that was kept extremely private. The King has to undergo home surgery and have a lung removed. Turns out coughing up loads of blood is pretty serious. My flesh crawled watching what was I imagine pretty damn cutting edge stuff for the early 1950’s, but taking place in a frickin’ ballroom under chandeliers! Sure, it’d be clean compared to most people’s houses but think of the possibility of infection! It’s hideous! And sadly fairly useless too.
Cancer in the 1950’s is a death sentence, however rich and important you are. If that wasn’t bad enough the diagnosis was kept a secret from the patient so he could get on with his job. He had loads of false hope and no idea that he wouldn’t get better. Finally, after the bloody coughing starts up again the gloomy doctor admits to some “structural alternations” in the lung, which has to be the least euphemistic euphemism ever. It makes it sound worse! And while the doctors do all they can, George keeps on chain-smoking. He had no idea he was continuing to kill himself. To a modern perspective this is all just plain miserable, but we shouldn’t feel too sorry for him. Like the other top royals George lived his whole life in the actual lap of luxury. In the years before the creation of the NHS it’s his subjects who would have really been hopeless.
In the time he’s got left Daddy is showing Liz the ropes – how to approach all the boxes of briefing paperwork – while she has plans for doing up the new family home Clarence House and jetting off to Malta. Phil wants to continue his Royal Navy work and Liz fancies that too, but she’s making that face that all women do when asked to choose between what her husband wants and what she wants. It’s a very strained grin. She wants Phil to be happy, and she wants to be a good traditional wifey. She wanted ‘obey’ in the marriage vows, but she knows deep down the crown, the country and her duties to her family will always come first.
It’s interesting to see Phil was happily rude to the “savages” he met in Africa on his first Commonwealth trip. His famous tactless gaffes didn’t come with age. He’s just a stupid sailor – not a diplomat, and certainly he’s had no sensitivity training. This explains a lot. He’s useful with the rampaging elephant in Kenya, but that’s a zero peril moment. We know Liz and Phil live to a ripe old age. I think George VI think’s Phil is pretty stupid too, but it’s nice to see him make an effort, picking on his son-in-law with some affection at the duck hunt. The shadowy brown colours, muted, muddy outdoors and fairly gloomy looking palaces makes the show look quite realistic, despite the fabulous settings.
There’s not much fun to be had in episode 2, with death and duty circling around Liz while she’s off making new friends in the sunny Commonwealth. Lithgow lightens the mood. He’s having a ball as Churchill, shouting at his secretary while drinking and smoking in the bathtub. It looks like this scene is made for tv but hilariously this was how the real Churchill lived his life. Princess Margaret is the glamourpuss crooning at the piano with Papa, and gearing up for a fully romantic and totally damaging affair with dashing Peter Townsend. Liz is the useful Princess fixing jeeps in Africa.
The King dies, the action turns to Kenya and the race to inform the new Queen direct. No one wants her to learn the bad news via the radio. Phil and Liz learn that their holiday is over and there’s no fantasy life in Malta. Shit just got real which really shouldn’t come as a shock. It does though “I thought we had more time” says Liz. Aged just 25 she is Queen whether she likes it or not. But any wobbles are soon behind her and she is bold in choosing her regnal name. I doubt it was an off-the-cuff decision. She’s taking the name of one of the greatest monarchs this country has ever seen and she knows it.
One last queen to worry about; Queen Mary, Lizzie’s grandmother. Back in Buck House Queen Mary dressed all in black appears like the ghost of royal family past, kneeling to her granddaughter the new Queen. Mary is a specter of future duty telling Liz in no uncertain terms that her old life is dead and gone and the “crown must prevail”. What will Lizzie do next?
Well, we know. Everyone knows. She’s one of the most famous women on the planet and her deeds are history. And yet she’s an extremely private person so we can only guess at her internal conflicts. This is what Peter Morgan and his team of researchers will be doing on our behalf through the series, making a bunch of educated guesses. It’s for us to decide if it feels right. If the first episodes are anything to go by, getting to know this unknowable woman will be a really interesting but not necessarily substantial journey through recent history. The Crown is something you could happily binge on for a day snuggled under a blanket illuminated by your own chandeliers or not.
The first series of The Crown is available right now on Netflix. That’s your weekend sorted then.