Sunday 7 February 2021
I have been watching the series The Crown on Netflix. I find it impressive. To start with, the settings are often spectacular – for example, the many interior shots of the vast and over-decorated Buckingham Palace (did they really have permission to film there?); or the many computer-generated sequences such as the London smog of 1953, or the terrifying vision of the slag heap avalanching onto Aberfan. In addition, there is much historical detail which is both convincing and powerfully symbolic. Take the very precise use of accent – the slightly strangled RP voices of the upper classes, and of the royals in particular, contrasted with Harold Wilson’s flat Northern accent, underlines the force of class distinctions in British society, then and still now.
However, there are aspects of the series which are questionable, above all because the whole narrative is a depiction of real and recent events. To start with, how accurate is the series? To illustrate – in one episode, Lord Mountbatten is shown as being involved in plans for a possible military coup to replace Prime Minister Wilson in 1968. Did this really happen? I had never heard of it, so I did some research on the internet… and yes, it did… but possibly not quite as the series presents it. Two people present at the meeting where the coup was proposed have left documentary records – but their memories are different: one claims that Mountbatten rejected the proposal outright, the other says that he took it seriously. And who dissuaded Mountbatten in the end? One view is that advisers talked him out of it; another that it was the Queen herself, as depicted in the series, in a display of regal authority. Certainly, the latter version makes for better TV… but who actually knows?
Whether the series is historically accurate or not is significant because for many (or most?) people this series will be their only source of information about the House of Windsor. The series is very popular, and the quality of the production, including the powerful and moving performances of the cast, will convince many people that what they are seeing is ‘what really happened’. However, what works as television drama is not necessarily an accurate reflection of what really happened, which was probably less dramatic and more tangled. The series is not true history, based on stated sources which can be cross-checked. The script seems to have been based on deep and detailed research – but why were these particular details selected, and what about the rejected ones? What about the rest of the story, which didn’t fit neatly into 50 minute episodes?
Finally, the whole concept of writing what is in effect a brilliant soap-opera about people who are still alive leaves me morally queasy. How do the royals feel about seeing themselves depicted so intimately on-screen for millions to watch? Isn’t it insensitive to probe into the frustrations and failures of what has been called a “classic dis-functional family”? We are shown moments of petty vindictiveness, emotional brutality and intellectual limitation – is this not cruel?
In one sense, yes, because the central purpose of the series seems to be to show us that the Royals really are human beings – and if that is so, then it should be recognized that it is very human to feel humiliated if your failures are coldly exposed. In another sense, it is not so much cruel as simple justice, since the power of the Crown, or modern constitutional monarchy, rests on image – and it is fair enough that such image-power should be deconstructed and critically analysed.
In the end, though, the possible cruelty of the series is more than balanced by the compassion and sensitivity it shows. A central and recurring theme is the weight of the Crown itself: how the burden of constitutional duties and public rituals deforms the lives of those who have to perform them. One indicative moment is when Elizabeth the Queen, after finally finding time to indulge her passion for horses by spending a month touring stud farms, movingly says that it has been “the best month of my life” – indicating that what she would really have liked to be is an English country lady, breeding horses. Overall, I suggest that the series shows the Crown as the villain, and the Family as both heroes (to some extent) and victims.
(And by the way, have a look at this report in The Guardian of Prince Harry commenting on The Crown - he draws an interesting contrast between honest fiction like this series and the dishonest fictions that appear in the popular press !)