Chronicling the life of Queen Elizabeth II — from the events leading to her coronation and after — is no mean task. It is difficult because her life as a monarch and as a Queen for an astounding period from 1952 to the present cannot be placed outside the events surrounding her, her country and the world. It cannot be placed outside the intrigue that surrounds the British royalty, the extravagance of their lifestyle, the mannerisms, the protocol and the public glare. It cannot also be placed outside the personal and the political life of Queen Elizabeth, from the members of her family to the Prime Ministers and leaders of the other nations that she’s dealt with.
Finally, it has to be placed in the Buckingham Palace.
Given all of this, the creator and writer of The Crown series, Peter Morgan, and the rest of the crew involved in the making of this epic historical drama have done a fantastic job. Also, given that this was the very first series I saw on Netflix, coupled with the fact that I generally enjoy historical dramas, The Crown has a very special place in my heart!
I have seen historical dramas where the central characters are overshadowed by the events surrounding them — in the sense that in detailing the other aspects, what the characters feel or think in a given situation is left to be unraveled (Here, it is possible that filmmakers lack the imagination in placing themselves in the same situation as the protagonists and thinking/feeling like they would have done). In the second type of historical dramas, the story focuses so much on the personal life of its illustrious characters that the important external details are lost to the audience.
Historical dramas are tricky, but The Crown is cautious in balancing both. There is no hurry to get it done. It moves in its own time, its own pace, slowly unfolding the layers of history — the eventful and the mundane, the important and the ignored, every small detail, every angle — till we find ourselves taken back to the time where this actually happened, and grow with it.
The passage of time is indeed a theme in the series and the Windsors do not grow with it as much as the audience does. I think the idea was to show the same, a royal family resisting changing times, and the modern world resisting to let them change. Individuals are wrapped —trapped in the caricature that the world created for them, zealously upholding and jealously guarding conventions with a sense of duty and a fear of losing significance — till they start suffocating. An inheritance that they cannot give away and a lifestyle that they have accustomed themselves to, they are now destined to impose the same on their unhappy, miserable children.
Between the abdication by King Edward and Prince Harry, a lot of water has gone under the bridge, a lot of tragedies — big and small — afflict the members of the royal family. The Crown painstakingly invites you to witness all this — the petty conflicts, the hurt egos, the heartbreaks, the struggle to catch up with current affairs, the fear of scandals and the sheer boredom that accompanies living in the Buckingham Palace and attending endless inaugurations.
Consider the episodes Pride and Joy and Gloriana (Season 1), Company of Men and Paterfamilias (Season 2) and Tywysog Cymru (Season 3), all of which examine the tension within and between the members of the royal family — Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles, The Queen Mother and Queen herself.
Similarly, in episodes like the Scientia Potentia Est (Season 1) and Marionettes (Season 2), we see the inadequacy of the royal family in catching up with the changing times. We also see the reluctance of the political class in letting them catch up — letting Her Majesty be anything more than a titular head that adorns the nation. This arrangement allows them to fall back into the former glory of the aristocracy and the British Raj, when common people demand greater social justice or when America gets too intimidating, without letting the Crown influence or even comment on something that would really matter.
But because it is not a one dimensional account of the Windsor family and their affairs, the events in the world larger than the Crown and which directly and indirectly affect the position and the personality of the Crown, are also mapped out. Let us take everybody’s favourite episode of Dear Mrs Kennedy (Season 2). It focuses on the visit of the American President JF Kennedy and his wife Jackie Kennedy to the Buckingham Palace.
The young couple were at the height of popularity at that time, and the presence of Jackie even threatened to overshadow the majesty of the Queen. Her forceful personality actually propels Queen Elizabeth to have a bizarre and brave adventure of her own, in a bid to outshine her. The many hypocrisies of the political families, and the Kennedys in particular, are also brought to light. Similarly, Act of God (Season 1) or Aberfan (Season 3) also focuses on historical events that took place in England during the Queen’s reign — events that are far placed from her and yet, which lead to her in some way or the other.
My favourite episode in this context is the Assassins (Season 1). It features Winston Churchill getting his painting done on his 80th birthday by famous painter-artist Graham Sutherland. It is my favourite because it captures the essence of the idea of the Crown — the Prime Minister unwilling to let go of his power, position and tradition even as his health starts failing and ideas turn redundant — until his self portrait is unveiled and breaks his illusion of greatness.
It is my favourite episode also because it humanises a man such as Churchill so much. For someone we admire as a great leader, a statesman and a true patriot, and for someone we cannot forgive as a racist and an imperialist, this episode instead makes us think of the vulnerabilities of an aging man. We also connect with the deep void left by the death of his daughter long ago, and the empathy he feels for his painter who has undergone a similar grief.
Yes, there are some episodes in The Crown that completely distract you like this.
The Crown is also one of the most expensive series ever made by Netflix, with a staggering budget of $130 million. The Buckingham Palace features heavily in The Crown, but was unavailable as an actual location for the production team. Instead, the Queen’s residence was recreated with several stately homes across the country, including this elaborate Tudor estate in Wiltshire. The location for the shooting had to be carefully chosen and recreated to suit the surroundings of the aristocratic families that featured in the series.
Indeed, a lot is invested in imagining and re-creating the lived experiences of the aristocrats and the politicians, and the commoners and the foreigners alike. The investment, not of the money alone, but also in the form of research and the drive to perfection that went into painting a near accurate picture that covers the minutest of details is what makes The Crown delightful for lovers of history and art history both.
Season four of the series, which introduces Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana, is inching closer to the present times. The political environment under the Iron Lady’s rule will be juxtaposed with the tumultuous time for the royal family — the fairy tale wedding of Prince Charles and its un-fairytale ending.
As much as I am looking forward to catching up on season four, I am also dreading her death. And this makes me wonder, how real The Crown is for me, how much I feel the trials and the pain of its characters! Or is it my obsession — as a commoner — with the Monarchy of a country that ruled over us? Never mind the reason, I am downloading the episodes nevertheless.