Live and let Di: The Prince and Princess (Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki) go on fighting the Cold War.
It’s 1991 and the political situation is very, very different from how it is today, in November 2022.
Hard as it is to imagine now but back in 1991, Britain had been under the same Conservative government for twelve long years. I know, right? With the economy slipping into economic recession, the Tories had forced out their unpopular woman leader and replaced her with the man who until recently had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. The new Prime Minister was the youngest one so far of the entire century. So, as you can see: nothing like the current state of affairs at all.
But never mind all that, where’s the Queen?
Well, the series opens with a supposed bit of newsreel footage showing the Queen attending a ceremony marking the commissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia back in 1957. Older readers will remember that for the first decade of her reign, the young Queen was played by the actress Claire Foy and this is the case here. The flashback ends with Foy’s Queen staring, horrified into the middle distance as if she has foreseen the images which appear in the next scene where she has transformed into Imelda Staunton. We first see Staunton’s monarch enduring the banal necessities of a routine medical examination. We are now in the 1990s and like Staunton herself, the sovereign is now supposed to be in her mid-sixties.
Of course, we already know the real problem isn’t with the Queen herself (spoiler alert: she lives for another 31 years) but with her children, three of whom are about to divorce, almost simultaneously. A frisky Princess Anne (Olivia Williams) is already eyeing up the local talent while Charles (Dominic West) is doing his best to preserve the public face of his desperately unhappy marriage to the much-loved Princess Diana. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki does a great job of replacing the also excellent Emma Corrin in this challenging role, often displaying a remarkable physical resemblance to the late Princess of Wales. But by this point, the marriage is clearly already doomed, wrecked by Charles’s affair with Camilla and by the fact they obviously have absolutely nothing in common.
The onetime Trainspotting actor, Jonny Lee Miller plays Britain’s Prime Minister, John Major. Major mostly sits quietly while lots of people talk at him in this episode. It is not really made clear whether this is because he is supposed to be naturally inscrutable or because he is keeping quiet because he senses he is out of his depth. Prince Charles, in this, seems to be plotting to encourage the Queen to abdicate and waffles vaguely and attempting to draw vague parallels with the decision to replace the ageing sixty-something Thatcher with the male forty-something Major. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) typically attempts to embarrass Major socially. Diana and the Queen are more polite to him. Sadly, there is no repeat of the scene in the Chris Morris comedy, The Day Today, in which the Queen and Major have a full-blown fight during their weekly audience together.
And so, Series 4 of The Crown comes to an end, having guided us through the period from 1977 to 1990.
We are still talking about events a very long time ago: for example, the 30th anniversary of the fall of Margaret Thatcher (on November 22nd 1990) occurred exactly a week after this series fell onto Netflix. The world of 1990 was still a world, lest we forget, where mobile phones were still largely the preserve of a few yuppies shouting into them on trains and such concepts as the internet, Netflix and the actress Gillian Anderson either didn’t exist or were entirely unknown to most people.
Despite these facts, perhaps it’s just because of my age but 1990 much more like the world we know today than 1977 did. Or perhaps I should amend that? 1990 feels much more like the world we knew up until a year ago, than 1977 did.
At any rate, this episode marks the end of an era. After two series, twenty episodes and twenty-six years of time passing on screen, this episode sees the end of Olivia Colman’s reign as the second of The Crown’s second screen Queen Elizabeths. The first, Claire Foy, made a welcome cameo at the start of Episode 8 in a 1940s flashback. Elizabeth the Third, Imelda Staunton will assume her duties taking the Queen fully into old age in Seasons 5 and 6. We leave the Queen, now a grandmother in her early sixties, with a quartet of increasingly troubled grown-up children.
Olivia Colman has been a success in the role and she has been ably supported by a cast (also presumably all destined to now be replaced) of which Tobias Menzies’ reliably crotchety Prince Philip, Erin Doherty’s sharp-witted Princess Anne and Helena Bonham Carter’s increasingly embittered and famously rude Princess Margaret have all been standouts.
This series has, of course, been dominated by both another Margaret and another Princess entirely. This episode sees Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher get her marching orders after a killer speech from supposed ‘dead sheep’ and onetime loyal if frequently bullied ally, Sir Geoffrey Howe (Paul Jesson) precipitates a fatal leadership contest from a never-seen Michael Heseltine. After a rocky road together, particularly during Episode 8’s Apartheid-themed episode, the monarch and the Iron Lady end things on fairly good terms, albeit only after a bizarre, presumably completely imagined episode in which Thatcher makes a last ditch effort to retain power by proposing a dissolution of parliament. The Queen declines and a diminished Thatcher, stunned by her loss, walks off into the political sunset. A workaholic with no interests outside politics, Margaret Thatcher never reconciled herself to her removal from power (an event which she perhaps should have recognised was always bound to occur at some point) and reportedly never lived a happy day again. Although many viewers have been reportedly troubled by the fusion of the actress’s sexual allure with the famously unsexy Thatcher, Gillian Anderson can at least walk away happily from this role. Following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Sylvia Sims, Hadyn Gwynne, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan, Steve Nallon and Meryl Streep, her’s is undoubtedly the definitive screen Thatcher.
But the Lady’s not returning.
Of course, the other stand-out character of this series is ultimately headed for a grim fate too. Emma Corrin’s Princess Diana has also been a triumphant success, Corrin’s performance humanising a character who has become idolised to an almost magical status in many of the public’s eyes. The series leaves Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana’s marriage at very much a low point. With Series 5 destined to take events up to the fateful year of 1997, don’t expect things to get a lot better for them.
Preview, gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016).
It is sometimes described as one great soap opera: the longest running drama in British history. So why not make a big TV drama based around the Royal family? Indeed, why not make one based in the life of Queen Elizabeth II herself, a person whose image adorns either a stamp, coin or banknote on the person of nearly everyone reading this? Well, Left Bank Pictures have produced just such a series, a ten-part epic available on Netflix since November 4th 2016. Indeed, they have big plans. The first series covers the period from the young Princess’s marriage in 1947 to the first few years of her reign following her ascension to the throne in 1952. But five more series are planned. If all goes well, in a few years’ time we should have sixty hours of drama covering the Queen’s sixty or seventy years on the throne.
REIGN OF THRONES
Dramas about the royals are, of course, nothing new – Victoria, Henry V, The Madness of King George are just three examples of historical monarchs who have seen their lives dramatised. But until Stephen Frears’ 2006 film The Queen, scripted by Peter Morgan, which focused on the potential public relations disaster which almost engulfed the monarchy following Princess Diana’s death in 1997, dramas about the current monarch were almost unheard of. The King’s Speech, which features the future Queen as a young girl, was another successful Oscar-winning stab at comparatively recent royal history. But it is Morgan – the author of The Queen as well as the play The Audience which also starred Helen Mirren as the Queen who has brought his formidable writing powers to The Crown. Stephen Daldry, famed for Billy Elliott and The Hours directs.
The Crown’s credentials are impeccable. The casting was always going to be controversial, however. Few are likely to gripe about Claire Foy in the role of HRH but as with Victoria which saw former Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman cast in the main role, the producers have turned to the Tardis for the role of Prince Philip. Recent Doctor Who Matt Smith is not an obvious choice for the role, but then who is? James Cromwell and David Threlfall have both played the Duke of Edinburgh before but as a much older man. Smith is a fine actor and delivers a first-class performance. However, time will inevitably become an issue. Both he and Foy are in their thirties and are likely to be replaced at least once if the show is to cover the Queen’s entire reign.
The choice of American ‘Third Rock From The Sun’ actor, John Lithgow to play Churchill, the Queen’s first Prime Minister might also raise a few eyebrows in some quarters. Yet Lithgow is an accomplished actor experienced way beyond the realm of comedy and thanks in part to some due some modifications to alter his appearance (Lithgow is nearly a foot taller and slimmer than Winnie was) he is great in this. And Churchill was half-American anyway. What’s the problem?
MONARCHY IN THE UK
“I have seen three great monarchies brought down through
their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty,” says Eileen Atkins’
Queen Mary at one point, warning her granddaughter Elizabeth, “you must not
allow yourself to make similar mistakes. The Crown must win.”
Rather like Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey, The Crown’s Queen Mary seems to specialise in saying controversial and sometimes prophetic things in this. Presumably, the three monarchies she means are Victoria (who arguably indulged herself by grieving over Prince Albert’s death excessively), Edward VII (who basically drank, ate and womanised his way to death) and her own son Edward VIII, who abdicated. Although as a heavy drinker and smoker, Elizabeth’s father George VI (also Mary’s son) was hardly free of personal indulgence either.
The excellent Alex Jennings incidentally crops up as the Duke of Windsor, whose abdication in 1936 (as Edward VIII) ensured Elizabeth would be Queen. Jennings also played Prince Charles in the film The Queen.
As with any good drama, there is the potential for
controversy. Though the Queen no longer has the power to put people who annoy
her in the Tower, there will still be a desire not to cause offence.
If The Crown proves a success, five more series could be in the offing. The opening episode which begins in 1947, clearly lays out the framework for what is to come. The King (Jared Harris, son of the late Richard Harris and perhaps best known for his role as the token Brit in Mad Men) has a bad cough and is clearly not long for this world. His daughter Princess Elizabeth is about to marry Prince Philip and though the couple are happy, there are hints of awkwardness to come. Philip is giving up a lot for “the greatest prize on Earth” including his love of smoking and Greek nationality. “Not a single person supported the match,” warns Queen Mary.
The action then jumps forward four years to 1951 during which time, the King’s health has deteriorated further and Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage has yielded two children, Charles and Anne. There are also allusions to trouble brewing with Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), notably the strong suggestion of an affair with dashing equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a married man. With a title sequence, reminiscent of Game of Thrones, there are also political manoeuvrings afoot. Returning Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon knows more about the true state of the King’s health than the monarch does himself. And Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) is already assessing the great war leader’s vulnerabilities: as Tory heir apparent in effect, he is clearly eyeing up the elderly Churchill’s job.
Ultimately The Crown is essential viewing. It is as much
about how Britain has changed in the last seventy years as the monarchy has.
There is certainly plenty of material.
AND WHAT DO YOU DO…?
Three stars of The Crown…
Claire Foy as Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II
Foy has played royalty before and was the ill-fated mother
of the Queen’s Tudor namesake (Elizabeth I) Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall. She sprung to fame in the title role in the
BBC’s Little Dorrit in 2008.
Matt Smith as Prince
Best known for playing the last Doctor Who but one, the
thirty-four -year-old Smith plays the young Duke of Edinburgh, a man struggling
in the traditionally feminine role of partner to the monarch.
John Lithgow as Winston Churchill
Although often associated with comedy roles such as Bigfoot
and the Hendersons and Dick in the sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, veteran US
star Lithgow is an acclaimed and prolific dramatic actor.