In the UK: Available on Netflix
Season 1 of The Crown could have been better. Written by perennial Queen fictionaliser Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Audience), The Crown is Netflix’s big attempt to outdo the BBC at what it does best, being a multi-decade, multi-season, semi-factual prestige project about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, starting in the 1950s with her ascent to the throne after the death of her father and following her through to the present day.
Beautifully made, wonderfully acted, frequently funny, frequently tear-jerking, often romantic, and sometimes eye-opening, season 1 was nevertheless an occasionally turgid affair. Too often focused on husband Philip (Matt Smith) or Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) and not her maj, when Elizabeth (Claire Foy) herself did get a look-in, she was something of a wet blanket of a monarch, constantly unhappy, personality-less and tossed from situation to situation like a corgi being taken for a walk. Whether it was the 1950s themselves being a bit dull, the writers trying to avoid saying anything too ‘interesting’ about the Royal Family or simply the choice of stories told – Churchill having his portrait painted or the Pea-Soupers don’t seem like the most obvious choices of plot for a show called The Crown – you got the feeling that everything was wrapped in plastic and a more lively show was lurking underneath it all.
Season 1 finally concluded with the departure of Churchill, replaced by Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam), and the arrival of the Suez Crisis – the event that marked the true death knell for the British Empire and its status as a top-tier world power.
But with Claire Foy and Matt Smith signed up for only one more season, the question was whether the show would carry on in the 50s, leap to the 60s or do something completely different in season two.
Oddly, it chooses to carry on exactly where it left off. Fortunately, this season the gloves are off and we get a more warts-and-all portrayal of our constitutional monarchy – and of other similar relationships, including JFK and Jackie’s.
If there’s an overall theme for this season, it’s that the marriages of those in power have very different strains placed on them than regular marriages – perhaps even more so in the 50s and 60s where the constraints placed on people’s behaviour, as well as people’s expectations, were at even greater variance with people’s natural behaviours.
The framing of the first few episodes is the potential break between Philip and Elizabeth caused by the former’s Navy-boy ways. Is he having affairs with the locals as he goes on World Tours? Is he having an affair with a ballerina in London? And is he doing all this because he must be subservient to his wife in an age that’s completely unused to that idea? Whatever the case, they can’t divorce – because the Queen is the head of the church.
While there’s seemingly a temporary truce mid-season, the Profumo Scandal, Prince Charles’s choice of school and other events lead to further confrontation during the rest of the season. There is a showdown at the end of sorts, but spoiler alert: they don’t get divorced, of course.
As with season one, Philip is a surprisingly interesting character, far different from the, erm, “politically incorrect” old duffer we think of now – a man of vigour, modernity, action and athleticism, as well as an inspiring leader, he was also the commander of a Navy destroyer during World War Two.
This season, we also get a glimpse at more of his ‘you couldn’t make it up’ back story: brought up in Germany just as Hitler comes to power, he’s sent to a harsh Scottish boarding school; while he’s there, his beloved aviophobic and pregnant sister is killed in a plane crash. The scenes are shocking – but not as shocking as some of those that come later…
Meanwhile, Princess Margaret has several marriages lined-up, including to future Lord Snowdon Matthew Goode, whose sex life is somewhat exciting, it must be said. Margaret’s even greater claustrophobia in her life – forever a princess, never the queen, always obliged to do what her sister says – causes her no end of problems that result in her acting out in all manner of ways.
Eden’s eventual replacement as PM, Harold Macmillan (Anton Lessing), has a sham marriage, his wife having a public affair. And when JFK (Dexter‘s Michael C Hall) and Jackie (Quarry‘s Jodi Balfour) turn up, seemingly with a perfect marriage, Jackie the woman every man wants to be with, the comparison with the ‘middle-aged hausfrau’ is cutting; ultimately, though, it’s revealed to be just a public façade, too.
Coming of age
The other theme is of a young woman coming into her own as the centre of the constitution. No longer the new arrival, by the time of the final episode, she’s about to greet her fourth Prime Minister. As with The Audience, Morgan is setting her up to be the constant in British history, PMs coming and going but the Queen remaining at the centre of political life.
This is a far more interesting Elizabeth than we had before: one who’s playful and confident. But it’s also an Elizabeth who feels old before her time, constantly compared with Margaret and towards the end Jackie and found lacking as a woman. For the most part she avoids the issue, but there’s a genuinely hilarious conversation between Philip and her about her new hairstyle, and also moving moments as she feels undercut by Jackie’s (alleged) comments about her – to the extent that she finally does something political in response.
Most importantly, she’s also the centre of the action. Whereas Churchill was the end of the old order in the season 1 and so the show focused on his departure from public life as Elizabeth ascended to it, in season 2, Eden and Macmillan are little more than new incumbents in the post. Macmillan may be trying to restore Britain’s fortunes after Suez, but “You’ve never had it so good” never gets so much as a back-reference. Instead, Macmillan is there mainly to provide feeds for Elizabeth – whether it be for an episode in which she gets to demonstrate her Christianity or one in which she shows her self-sacrifice and lack of sympathy for those who can’t do likewise.
Plotting and pacing are also better. There are few slack episodes, if any, and to be honest, by the end, you’ll be left wanting more, the whole season taking in just seven years in all.
While flashbacks to Philip’s childhood, a quick trip to Ghana for diplomacy and Philip’s adventures down South are all fabulously glossy and exciting, the standout episode is Vergangenheit, which sees the return of the Duke of Windsor – the Edward in Edward and Mrs Simpson – as well as Lithgow and Jared Harris as Elizabeth’s Dad, George VI. This includes genuinely shocking revelations, complete with – footage over the end-titles, that moved me to tears of both sadness and anger at least.
Indeed, just as season 1 left you feeling that Windsor may just have been a nasty snob at worse, Vergangenheit showing you how much worse he was, season 2 is often quite vicious towards all its characters. Marionettes shows the Queen delivering a borderline insulting speech to some factory workers, while Margaret is drunk and violent most of the time. Philip is obviously spending too much time in ‘the company of men’ (as episode three would have it) as well as women, while Paterfamilias has some deeply unflattering portrayals of both Philip and Charles. Old-fashioned attitudes of the time are also on display, with Snowdon’s love life described as involving “unnatural” relationships.
Both Foy and Smith are as excellent as ever, but their performances are far closer pieces of mimicry than during the first season. Vocal patterns are closer to those we now know well.
The same can’t be said for others, mind. Lessing is a marvellous actor, of course, but his is not the Super Mac most people know.
Neither is it the Robin Day, the JFK or the Jackie O we’re well acquainted with.
This was a minor but niggling issue and YMMV as to whether it’s off-putting.
Season two of The Crown is a far better affair than the first season: better in terms of drama, characterisation and acting. Foy and Smith are brilliant and you’ll want more of them, the monarchy and The Crown by the end of the season.
Except it’s all change in season 3, with Olivia Colman already cast as the older Elizabeth, suggesting that we’re going to leapfrog a few years and administrations into the 1970s. This could be an interesting move, since until now, we’ve had the Queen playing off against Conservative prime ministers and although we’re going to leapfrog Harold Wilson’s first administration, it’ll be hard to avoid Labour PMs in the 70s. Indeed, the Wilson-Elizabeth relationship is one of the highlights of The Audience and Elizabeth’s final speech of The Crown‘s second season suggests that’s the territory into which The Crown is heading. In which case Home and Heath are definitely not getting a look-in.
We went to Buckingham Palace last year and I’ll leave you with some words that the guide gave us, as I feel they’re a good review in themselves:
Have you seen The Crown? It’s frightfully good, isn’t it? But you have to take it with a pinch of salt – how could they know all of what went on behind the scenes?