In the UK: Available on Netflix
Roger Ebert famously said that cinema is ‘a machine that generates empathy’. The odd corollary of that is Netflix’s The Crown is a machine that generates empathy for the British Royal Family. A project that will supposedly run from Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in the early 1950s up to the present day, this quasi-biopic’s first two seasons took in the 50s before moving on to the early 60s.
But it’s The Crown, not The Queen (which was also created by showrunner Peter Morgan), so it’s not as much a biopic as you might think. This isn’t a languorous year-by-year examination of everything that’s happened to the Queen. Rather, it’s a look at the nature of the monarchy and its evolving constitutional position. While there are character stories that run across the seasons and the series, the episodes are largely episodic, dipping into years almost at random to pull up historical incidents that defined both the country and the monarchy.
For the first two seasons, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were personified by Claire Foy and Matt Smith respectively. Arguably exceedingly flattering choices, the pair of them made you care for the then-young monarchs with ease, portraying them as well-meaning, would-be modernisers, thrust into jobs neither of them wanted, constrained by the nature of their office, but doing their best to bring the country together.
We’re now onto season three and as befits a show that starred a former Time Lord, the Queen and Prince Phillip have regenerated. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) is now Her Majesty, while Tobias Menzies (Outlander) is Prince Phillip as we head into the late 60s and make it as far as the late 70s.
Colman and Menzies gives first-rate performances that verge on the supernaturally accurate – perhaps more so than Foy and Smith’s – so strangely, in season three, we’re less on the side of our former protagonists than we were: they’re not as likeable as they once were, because they’re closer to the real thing, who are no longer young modernisers but have become the establishment.
Perhaps even stranger still, we instead feel sympathy and indeed empathy for two people we never thought we would – the two new protagonists of the piece, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Princess Anne (Erin Doherty). And Camilla Parker-Bowles (née Shand) (Emerald Fennell).
Didn’t see that one coming.
Passing on the torch
Perhaps even more than previous seasons, the third season of The Crown is episodic. It jumps from year to the year, sometimes without indication. One moment Ted Heath – a masterful impersonation by Michael Moriarty – is becoming prime minister, the next he’s having fights with Arthur Scargill, then he’s being replaced by Jason Watkins’ equally accurate Harold Wilson, who almost instantly stands down and suddenly we’re looking at Silver Jubilee memorabilia.
Along the way, Morgan picks some really interesting choices for moments in British history to illustrate the changing nature of the Royal Family and the monarchy. There’s Anthony Blunt, the Aberfan disaster, and the return of Princess Alice during the rise of Greek Junta and the BBC’s documentary about the royals. There’s a near attempted coup by Lord Mountbatten (now played by Charles Dance), Charles’ investiture as the Prince of Wales, the Moon Landing and how it leads to Phillip setting up St George’s House, the return of Edward Windsor (now Derek Jacobi), and the arrival of both Camilla Parker-Bowles and Roddy Llewellyn (Harry Treadaway) in various royal love lives.
Almost none of them are the things you’d have picked as important, yet Morgan somehow manages to use them all to illustrate something about either the Monarchy or the Royals themselves. Think Phillip talking to a mid-tier priest played by the actor Kevin Eldon is going to be little more than a chance for Phillip to be a dick? Think again.
Charles comes across as a sensitive, outspoken type who’d rather be an actor. The rather beautiful Tywysog Cymru sees Charles moving to Wales to learn Welsh for a term at university and this bilingual episode sees him get to understand the Welsh working class and draw parallels between their plight relative to the English and his own situation.
He’s funny and his later relationship with the rather flatteringly cast Camilla Shand comes across as an epic love affair destroyed by meddling parents and grandparents.
Similarly, Anne is shown as a modern women with a keen sense of humour and a deep understanding of how the monarchy works. You really do enjoy the presence of someone to whom you’ve probably never even given a moment’s real thought.
Combined with the likes of Moondust, in which Phillip struggles to deal with being middle-aged and irrelevant, and Coup, in which Dance and Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) discuss being old and irrelevant, the two of them give an idea of the torch being passed – yet obviously not being passed since the Queen is still the Queen.
The return of Edward Windsor enables Charles to go through all the same mistaken moments of sympathy and empathy as Elizabeth did in the previous season, with Elizabeth now becoming the establishment who knows what Windsor did with the Nazis, but withholding that information from Charles. Anne is as much a woman of her time as Elizabeth was, but she can’t act the way she wants to either – perhaps in part because of Margaret (Helena Bonham-Carter) serving as an example of what goes wrong if a female royal tries to be too modern.
The stars of The Crown are also its Prime Ministers, although the third season is less successful here than it was with Churchill in the first season and Eden and Macmillan in the second. We initially see Elizabeth adapting to Harold Wilson, who may or may not be a Russian spy but at the very least heads an anti-Royal party. As with Morgan’s The Audience, Elizabeth soon warms to Wilson, as they find they have surprising amounts in common and their relationship is one of the season’s highlights.
History, of course, to some extent dictates how long each Prime Minister gets to hang around, but The Crown rockets through them, some at different rates to others. Wilson gets the lion’s share, but once he’s crashed the economy, we’re moving on and the show seems to run out of things to say about about him – and Elizabeth.
Heath gets all of one episode, really. Again, it’s a flattering portrayal in some ways, as we get to learn about his poor background – something most people wouldn’t have realised about him. But he’s gone as soon as he’s finished fighting with Scargill. The joining of the EEC gets mentioned also in passing, but we’re back to Wilson almost instantly. As with The Audience, James Callaghan doesn’t even get mentioned in the final episode, despite having been Prime Minister for a year by the end of the season.
As well as leading to some underserved Prime Ministers, this approach also leads to underserved royals. Despite Bonham-Carter and Dance being probably the biggest names in the cast other than Colman (who wasn’t as big a name when she was cast), they both get more or less an episode or two each but are largely cameos in other episodes.
Still, at least when they do feature, the episodes do them proud and Cri de Coeur, directed by Jessica Hobbs, is a lovely example of the female gaze, demonstrating from Margaret’s point of view what leads her to have an affair with the highly sexualised Llewellyn.
However, as I said, The Crown isn’t truly a show about the Queen or even the Royal Family. It’s a show about us, and what has made us us. Whether you’re a monarchist or a republican, the third season of The Crown is worth watching simply for all those historical moments it’s chosen and its both flattering and unflattering events that rarely get aired in shows aimed at the UK, let alone the rest of the world.
Watching the recreation of the Aberfan disaster was traumatising but vital and the fact the editor of the Daily Mirror tried to stage a coup isn’t something that comes up often. No one talks about how Anthony Blunt was allowed to carry on working at Buckingham Palace once we knew he was a spy. How often do all the blackouts of the 70s show up in dramas, let alone ones where Ted Heath is in charge rather than a Labour government? How many major TV shows have half an episode in Welsh and feature working class Welsh families?
A royal paradox
So the third season of The Crown is something of a paradox. It’s not as enjoyable as previous seasons, primarily because Colman and Menzies just aren’t that likeable (in role). It’s also far more episodic and less coherent. There’s not really an overall story arc unifying everything, beyond the obvious point that everyone’s older but not especially wiser and that the Queen has to carry on as normal, even if the country is going down the tubes thanks to the government of the day.
Yet at the same time, it’s probably the best season so far. The cast are stunningly good and incredibly well chosen. It’s the most historically educational, most important and even bravest of the seasons so far. It reminds us of things we probably need reminding of. It works wonders in making royals we generally can’t be bothered with seem sympathetic. We even care about them.
Well worth the effort and best of all, since it so episodic, you don’t even have to watch it in one go.