Book review: James Callaghan – An Underrated Prime Minister?

James Callaghan is a prime minister who tends to be overlooked by history.

The new series of The Crown doesn’t even mention him at all. skipping straight from Jason Watkins’ Harold Wilson straight to Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher. Peter Morgan’s earlier play, The Audience, which inspired The Crown made a joke of how easy it was to forget him, featuring a scene in which both Helen Mirren’s elderly Queen and her youngest prime minister, David Cameron both repeatedly missed him out when attempting to remember everyone who had been in Downing Street during her long reign.

Callaghan, an ardent royalist and prime minister for three years between 1976 and 1979, would have been sad to see himself remembered like this. Or rather, not remembered.


It’s not just Peter Morgan though. I myself was born under Callaghan’s premiership but understandably have no memory of it: I was not yet two-and-a-half when he left office. But as a teenager, I’d notice blank looks whenever I brought up Callaghan during political discussions with my school friends. The same people had all heard of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath was still a public figure. But quite a few had never heard of Callaghan at all.

There are quite a few interesting facts about Callaghan. Although not amazingly tall (6ft 1), he was, in fact, the tallest PM we ever had. He was one of only eight British prime ministers not to go to university (a list which includes Disraeli, Lloyd George and Churchill). He was married longer than any other prime minister, his wife Audrey, who he married in 1939, died in March 2005. Callaghan himself, died just 11 days later, one day before his 93rd birthday. He was also the longest-lived prime minister ever, surpassing Harold Macmillan’s record, by just 39 days.

‘Sunny Jim’ was also the only person to have held all of the great offices of state. He was Chancellor (1964-67), Home Secretary (1967-70), Foreign Secretary (1974-76) and Prime Minister (1976-79). Some people hold just one of these positions (e.g. Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron – all just PM), some two (Eden – Foreign Sec and PM, Brown – Chancellor and PM, Jack Straw – Foreign Sec and Home Sec, May – Home Sec and PM, Johnson – Foreign Sec and PM) and others three (Churchill – all except Foreign Sec, Rab Butler – all except PM, Macmillan – all except Home Sec, Major – all except Home Sec). But only Callaghan has held all four.


This book of essays is about Callaghan’s record as Prime Minister. Generally, his tenure tends not to be remembered fondly, largely because it ended badly. In late 1978, with Labour ahead in the polls, he held back from calling a General Election. His caution was actually quite understandable in the circumstances, but his decision was to prove disastrous. The next few months would witness a total breakdown in relations between the unions and the government culminating in the catastrophic ‘Winter of Discontent.’ From that point on, a Conservative election win for Margaret Thatcher was inevitable. Callaghan’s image was further harmed by TV images of him appearing complacent and out of touch when interviewed during the strikes after returning with a tan after attending a summit in the Caribbean. The appearance inspired the famous Sun headline, ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ Callaghan never used those exact words but they certainly conveyed the essence of his reaction (he did say, “I don’t accept that there is mounting chaos”). In the end, the government fell as a result of a government defeat in the Commons, not due to an election called at a time of Callaghan’s own choosing. Mrs Thatcher and the Tories won with a majority of more than forty. Memories of the Winter of Discontent would poison Labour’s electoral prospects throughout their eighteen subsequent years in opposition.

Against some pretty stiff competition, Callaghan’s election postponement must rank high on any list of the greatest missed political opportunities of all time.

Putting these disasters to one side, however (if that’s possible), Callaghan’s premiership was up until late 1978, pretty successful. He inherited a dire economic situation from Harold Wilson and was thrown into the IMF Crisis of 1976 almost immediately afterwards. But he and his Chancellor, Denis Healey thereafter handled the economy pretty well. The economy was recovering and unemployment was falling when Labour left office.

In an incredibly fractious situation, he also did very well to manage rising tensions within his own party and cabinet. Despite clashes between Right and Left and the sometimes mischievous activities of Tony Benn, there were, almost uniquely, no major cabinet resignations during his premiership.

Finally, Callaghan was consistently popular and always preferred by most to his sometimes shrill younger opponent, Margaret Thatcher. It is little wonder he came so close to re-election in the autumn of 1978.

James Callaghan – An Underrated Prime Minister? Edited by: Kevin Hickson and Jasper Miles. Published by: Biteback.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 10: War

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.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 5: Fagan

With so many matters of historical import being dealt with, it is no surprise The Crown has often come under scrutiny as to whether it is factually accurate. Broadly speaking, as with any historical drama, be it Wolf Hall, I, Claudius or anything else, it is fair to say, some dramatic licence has often been deployed.

For example, nobody really knows what the Queen talks about with her Prime Ministers in their weekly audiences, other than the Queen and the surviving ministers themselves (insofar as they would remember). The writers can speculate, however, based on our knowledge of the times and the personalities involved.

Events have sometimes been moved slightly in time or changed slightly. Princess Diana wasn’t in costume when she first met Prince Charles. Mark Thatcher’s disappearance in 1982 did not overlap with the start of the Falklands Crisis. However, the broad narrative sweep of The Crown is largely accurate. It is also interesting to note that many sources claiming to list things The Crown “got dead wrong about history” not only often misrepresent what actually happened in the series but are pretty free in their own speculation about historic events themselves.

This episode deals with an incident which seems so far fetched that it seems woefully implausible but yet did actually happen. In 1982, an unemployed painter and decorator, Michael Fagan (played here by Tom Brooke) did scale the 14 foot parameter wall of Buckingham Palace, shinnied up a drain pipe, climbed through an unlocked window and ultimately entered the Queen’s bedroom, briefly spending some time in the company of the understandably rattled monarch, before the alarm was raised.

Incredibly, this not only happened, but occurred only weeks after Fagan had breached Palace security before. On that first occasion, the Queen wasn’t present. Fagan had fled after being spotted in the Palace, having stolen and drunk what turned out to be a fairly cheap bottle of wine. Amazingly, although the Palace was fully aware of the incident, security was not tightened up enabling Fagan to do the same thing again soon afterwards, this time encountering the Queen, waking her up while she was in bed.

 As unstable figure as he was, it is actually surprising Fagan even managed to locate the Queen. It is fortunate she was not attacked or even assassinated. Fagan had mental health issues and was institutionalised for three months. He is still alive today, aged 70, and has been critical of the programme.

In The Crown, Fagan uses his time with the Queen (Colman) to vent some of his frustrations with the political situation at the time. In reality, it is unlikely Fagan was as articulate about these issues during his brief audience with the Queen, but the episode takes advantage of the incident to highlight the vast gap between the Queen’s life and that of many of her subjects at that point.

In what is generally a much grittier episode than usual, we get to see many aspects of Fagan’s unhappy poverty-stricken life as he proves unable to find work or gain access to his children.

Britain was at a low ebb in 1982: unemployment had more than doubled in the previous three years. Despite this Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) is accurately portrayed as being at the peak of  her political rebirth, following her victory in the South Atlantic.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 4: Favourites

So far, most of the episodes in this series can be easily divided into ‘Princess Diana’ episodes or ‘Margaret Thatcher’ episodes. At one point, in this one, we see Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) struggling through her pregnancy with the future Prince William as her husband, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) shouts at her through a door.

But otherwise, this is a Margaret Thatcher episode.

It’s 1982 and when we first see her in this episode, Mrs T (Gillian Anderson)is up in arms, not because of mass unemployment or the recession but because her son Mark (Freddie Fox) has got lost in the Sahara desert while taking part in the Sahara-Dakar Rally. Mark is soon recovered safe and well, but the Queen is surprised to see a more vulnerable side to the Iron Lady in the meantime. She is also surprised by the Prime Minister’s undisguised favouritism for her son Mark over his twin sister Carol (Rebecca Humphries in a role played by Olivia Colman herself in the 2011 film, The Iron Lady). Here, as in reality, Mark is spoilt rotten by his mother, becoming brash and overconfident, despite ultimately being pretty thick. Though genuinely intelligent, Carol, in contrast, comparatively ignored by her headstrong and domineering mother, has low self-esteem, only proving a success later in life as Mark proves a failure.

With some dramatic licence, the Mark Thatcher Sahara story here slightly overlaps with the start of the Falklands War. This wasn’t the case: there was in fact several months’ distance between the two events. It is thus unlikely Thatcher was venting feelings about her son when she reacted to the news of developments in the South Atlantic, as is suggested here.

Thatcher’s favouritism does prompt a teasing suggestion to the Queen from Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) that all parents have their own favourite amongst their own children. Philip here is upfront in admitting his own favourite is Princess Anne, a prejudice many viewers will doubtless share largely thanks to Erin Doherty’s winning performance.

But who is the Queen’s favourite? Her Royal Highness (played by Olivia Colman who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in the film, The Favourite) arranges a meeting with each of her four children. She is briefed about each of them first, just to ensure she is up to date.

The Queen finds her daughter as dry and grounded as ever. And yet she is clearly miserable: annoyed by how she is portrayed in the media (particularly when contrasted with the newcomer, Diana) and, crucially, unhappily married.

Charles is unhappily married too and turning into a world class bore. The Queen reprimands him for his poor treatment of Diana and for continuing to see Camilla on the side.

For the first time we also get to meet the teenaged Prince Edward (Angus Imrie), who seems arrogant and is bullied at school. Despite being keen to go the Falklands, Prince Andrew (Tom Byrne) also already seems to be developing unsavoury attitudes and is clearly utterly fixated on his own chopper (his helicopter, I mean).

Little wonder as the Queen here concludes: Mark Thatcher may be the one to have gone missing. But it is her own children who seem lost.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 2: The Balmoral Test

Balmoral: 1981. And the holidaying Royal Family are buzzing with excitement at the news a computer-animated stag has been sighted, limping across the nearby landscape. Who amongst them will be the first to fell the wounded beast? This episode is entitled, ‘The Balmoral Test.’ It could just have easily been called, ‘Stag Party.’

The Windsors also have other prey in mind too, as the Prime Minister and her husband are set to join them for a few days of socially excruciating fun and games. Will Margaret and Denis Thatcher (Gillian Anderson and Stephen Boxer) prove up to the challenge? Will they, in short, pass ‘the Balmoral test?’

Spoiler alert: no. They don’t.

As usual, writer Peter Morgan presents a balanced view of things. On the one hand, Margaret Thatcher was clearly a workaholic, with little sense of humour and no sense of fun. In real life, she described Balmoral as “purgatory.” She commits a number of social gaffes, notably turning up for a rural excursion to hunt the stag in a brilliant blue suit more appropriate for addressing the Conservative Party Conference. The woman who, in reality, spent nearly every New Year’s Eve of her eleven-year premiership in the company of Jimmy Saville, leaves after only a few days with the Windsors. She has better things to do: the country is in the grip of recession and her Cabinet, some of whom were in ‘Allo ‘Allo (Guy Siner – Gruber in the sitcom, sir Francis Pym in this) are in open revolt.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why any outsider might struggle to get involved in the long established traditions of a close-knit family, particularly one as jaded and weird as the Windsors are. The Royal Family treat the Thatchers with frosty disdain, never explaining anything and assuming everyone else already knows their silly little rules. It is easy to see why Thatcher might not enjoy playing ‘Iggle Piggle’ or enjoy the delivery of Princess Anne’s (Erin Doherty) spirited animal impressions at close quarters. It also doesn’t help that two of the Royals, Princess Margaret and Prince Philip (Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies) are amongst the rudest people to have ever lived.

Later, Mrs. Thatcher diminishes herself still further in the eyes of the Queen (Colman) explaining her purge of the Wets (Tories, uneasy at the severe consequences of her economic policies) occurred almost entirely due to a lack of resolution on their part resulting from their privileged social background. This would have been an odd tactic to adopt when talking to the Queen, of all people, and doesn’t really do justice to the stubborn self-belief which enabled the Iron Lady to cling doggedly to such policies, even as society was devastated by mass unemployment.

Back at Balmoral, however, another new arrival – Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) brings a new subject for the family’s scrutiny, young Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin). There is a slight sense of manipulation in the way Diana wins over the Royals – for example, she tells Philip (falsely) she is essentially a country girl at heart. But this isn’t overstated. Diana soon helps the Duke kill the stag, effectively winning over all the Royals (except Margaret) in one fell swoop. She has passed the Balmoral Test with flying colours!

Next time we see her, she is Diana as most of the wider world in 1981 first saw her. A beautiful but seemingly ordinary young woman at the centre of stories about her relationship with the Prince of Wales, smiling self-consciously as she walks down the street surrounded by a growing number of snapping photographers, seemingly slightly irritated by all the attention, but also rather enjoying it at the same time.

And so, it begins…

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 1: Gold Stick

We pick up pretty much exactly where we left off.

It’s 1977 and the Queen is celebrating her Silver Jubilee. She is now around fifty (slightly older than Olivia Colman who plays her) and there is a sense the focus of the action is now shifting slightly away from her, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) and her drunken, unhappy, newly divorced sister, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) to the next generation: Charles (Josh O’Connor) and his youthful romantic entanglements and to Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) who is now married and enjoying success in her show-jumping career. The Queen’s two other children, Prince Edward and the now disgraced Prince Andrew, both teenagers at this point, have not really featured yet.

In the meantime, there’s a new face in Downing Street. Despite being an enthusiastic monarchist during his three-year spell as premier, poor old Jim Callaghan, doesn’t even get a look-in here. As with Alec Douglas-Home (who admittedly only lasted twelve months), “Sunny Jim” gets missed out of The Crown’s narrative completely. Instead, we jump straight to the May 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman PM and the only one of the Queen’s 14 First Ministers to date, to be roughly the same age as the monarch herself was at the time.

There have been a number of great dramatic portrayals of Margaret Thatcher over the years ranging from Lindsay Duncan, Patricia Hodge, Haydn Gwynne and Meryl Streep. In Peter Morgan’s 2006 film, The Queen, Sylvia Sims, who had once starred in 1991’s TV drama, Thatcher: The Final Days played The Queen Mother. Fittingly, when Meryl Streep starred in The Iron Lady, her daughter, Carol was played by Olivia Colman, who, is, of course, now The Queen in The Crown.

Margaret Thatcher is certainly not an easy role to play, partly because years of elocution lessons topped off with Saatchi and Saatchi-inspired voice exercises combined to ensure that she literally spoke like no one else who has ever lived on the planet Earth. Gillian Anderson does very well, capturing amongst other things Thatcher’s total lack of any sense of humour whatsoever. Like Thatcher herself though, it seems likely her performance will divide audiences. Philip and Margaret’s husband Denis (Stephen Boxer), meanwhile, react in similarly old school fashion to the news that Britain is now being ruled by “two menopausal women”. The Queen, in time, (like many others) found the famously headstrong, combative and stubborn woman premier difficult to like. In this first episode, however, set in 1979, the monarch seems very receptive to her.

At one point, we see the new Prime Minister doing the ironing. She is the Iron Lady.

Elsewhere, following Lord Mountbatten’s (Charles Dance) generally bad advice to “sow his wild oats.” Prince Charles is still carrying on with his now married, old flame, Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell, not actually in this episode) while simultaneously dating one Lady Sarah Spencer (Isobel Eadie). It is during one visit to the Spencer household, having been briefly left alone with plenty of plants to talk to, that the thirty-ish Prince first encounters Sarah’s bewitching teenaged sister, Diana (Emma Corrin). More on her later…

This episode also deals with the assassination of Lord Mountbatten and three others by an explosion caused by a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA in August 1979. The explosion is cleverly spliced between footage of the other Royals seemingly simultaneously hunting, shooting and fishing during their own separate summer holidays.

Anderson’s Thatcher (who had lost her own friend and colleague Airey Neave to a terrorist bombing only a few months earlier, although this isn’t referred to) promises vengeance to the Queen. Speaking during a private phone conversation, Anderson’s Thatcher adopts a vicious, vindictive tone, which one suspects, wasn’t what the grief-stricken monarch really needed to hear at the time.

The Crown. Season 3. Episode 10: Cri de Coeur

And so the third series of The Crown comes to an end, bringing us up to 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

At one point in this episode, the dastardly Lord Snowdon (Ben Daniels) shows the Queen (Olivia Colman) some pictures of herself and Prince Philip, presumably supposed to have been taken in the early 1960s. “Gosh! Don’t we look young!” the Queen exclaims. The pictures are not, of course, of the Royal couple as we see them in the series now, but as they were in their younger incarnations when played by Claire Foy and Matt Smith in the first two series.

It is a nice nod to the past. For all Foy and Smith’s success, Season 3 has seen Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies make the roles their own. Colman (in reality, now 46 years old) has taken the Queen from her late thirties in 1964, just into her fifties. Season 4, which is about to be released, will take the story up to 1990. The current plan is for two final series after that starring Imelda Staunton (an actress, currently in her mid-sixties) which will take us through most of the remaining years of the Queen’s long reign.

Most of this episode deals with Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) and the wreckage of her disastrous marriage to philandering photographer, Lord Snowdon. An increasingly boozy and unhappy figure as she enters middle age, thanks to Snowdon’s womanising and general nastiness, Margaret finds solace in the arms of younger landscape gardener, Roddy Llewellyn (Harry Treadaway). After some brief and much deserved happiness, she ultimately narrowly survives a suicide attempt, provoking a genuine show of compassion from her sister. Sadly, Margaret’s ordeal does not inspire the same response from her mother (Marion Bailey) who dismisses this as a Cri de Coeur, (essentially ‘a cry for help’) rather than a serious attempt on her life. ‘Cri de Coeur’ is the title, an episode in which the Queen Mother comes across very badly.

Strangely, although Princess Anne, as played brilliantly by Erin Doherty has emerged as a major character in this series. her first marriage to Captain Mark Phillips in 1973 and her attempted kidnapping in 1974, both major events at the time, are not mentioned here at all.

We do, however, witness the departure of Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) in 1976, resigning suddenly after being returned to power in the two General Elections of 1974. Wilson here cites his Alzheimer’s diagnosis as his official reason for resigning. I’m not sure this was ever clearly stated, even in private, at the time.

As with creator Peter Morgan’s earlier play, The Audience, this series has seen the Queen and Wilson’s relationship blossom from an initially awkward one into probably the best relationship between a Prime Minister and the monarch of her entire reign. The Queen is visibly sorry to see Wilson go. Thanks to Jason Watkins’ brilliant performance, so are we.

Next up: a girl called Diana and a woman called Margaret show up as we begin The Crown Series 4…

The Crown. Season 3, Episode 7: Moondust

In July 1969, man finally walked on the Moon. It was an astonishing achievement, the summit of human accomplishment. Even today, many of the world’s stupidest people still struggle to comprehend that it actually really happened.

The Apollo 11 landings had many consequences. One important one, often overlooked, is that they seem to have caused the Duke of Edinburgh to have a mid-life crisis. At least, that’s what The Crown says anyway.

From the outset, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) is mesmerised by the media coverage of the Apollo mission. This is portrayed as coinciding with a loss of faith he was experiencing. At one point, during a journey in a private plane, he terrifies his co-pilot by taking the controls and flying to a dangerously high altitude. It as if he is intent on launching an impossible mission to go to the Moon himself, his own life having been eclipsed by the Queen’s.

On another occasion, he is rude to a bunch of vicars, (one of whom, is incidentally, played by the great comic actor, Kevin Eldon, in a rare straight role). Later, he meets the three astronauts who have now returned from space. Although he is awe of their achievement, Philip is disappointed by their conversation, apparently regarding them as mediocre. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he reflects. “I was expecting them to be giants, gods. In the end they were just three little men. Pale-faced, with colds.”

To the viewer, of course, it is only Philip who seems like the dull one. It is unclear why he is so annoyed that the spacemen have colds (as they apparently really did when he met them in 1969), for example, as this is a perfectly human and unavoidable anyway. In a not always believable episode, however, the characterisation of Philip as a frequently rude and ill-tempered man is, however, only too plausible.

In the end, the Duke befriends Dean Robin Woods (Tim McMullan) and finds the courage to ask for help in his quest to find his own personal sea of tranquillity.

One giant leap for the Duke? Perhaps not. But it’s certainly one small step for the man.

The Crown. Episode guide: Season 3, Episode 5: Coup

It’s easy to forget that in the late 1960s, Britain was beset by many problems, one consequence being the devaluation of the pound in 1967. Many of these issues now seem unimportant and comparatively minor compared to some of the things we have seen since. They did, however, seem pretty important at the time.

At one point, indeed, things seemed so desperate that a cabal of powerful people including Cecil King (played here by Rupert Vansittart), head of Mirror Group Newspapers in the pre-Maxwell era, approached the ageing Lord Mountbatten of Burma to help out.

Mountbatten was, in fact, the second son of the eldest daughter of the second daughter of Queen Victoria, but what was viewed as a distinguished record of service had elevated him to the status of a high profile role in the post-war Royal Family. He was a famous and respected figure, particular admired by many of those who also happened to have right-wing tendencies.

Mountbatten was played by Greg Wise in the first two series of The Crown. He is now played by Charles Dance, an actor totally unlike Wise, yet at the same time, like Wise, very well suited to the role.

The group approach Mountbatten with a suggestion which appeals both to his patriotism and his vanity: why not depose the democratically elected Labour Government of Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) and rule Britain yourself until you’ve got the nation back on the ‘right’ track? A very British coup, in effect.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is crown-2-1.jpg

And, yes, this is one conspiracy theory based on a conspiracy which did actually exist. Dance’s Mountbatten is sceptical about the chances of this particular game of thrones resulting in victory. But he does, at least, seem to entertain the possibility of going ahead with it.

Meanwhile, the Queen (Olivia Colman) perhaps taking her eye off the ball slightly, has gone on a tour of France and America. The tour sees the Queen indulging her love of horses at one point confiding her to her friend and colleague, Lord “Porchie” Porchester (John Hollingworth) that a life and career breeding horses is one which she might in an ideal world, have preferred to have lived, had not “the other thing” got in the way. ‘The other thing,’ of course, refers to her duty to serve the Crown, a burden she blames her uncle, the Duke of Windsor for offloading onto her late father and her.

It is an interesting idea. If she ever has thought this, the Queen is, of course, largely ignoring the fact that it is largely only down to an accident of birth (namely being a member of the aristocracy) that she was ever in a position to contemplate a career breeding horses in the first place. Many non-aristocrats have enjoyed such a career, of course. But, for most people, such a life, travelling around visiting stables and racetracks has never really been a realistic possibility.

And what of the Queen and ‘Porchie’? Travelling without Philip, the Queen often seems surprisingly intimate with her childhood friend on this tour. There is a bit of dramatic licence here: the trip did not occur at the same time as Mountbatten’s manoeuvrings. It was slightly later in 1969: a paranoid Wilson would not have called her about Mountbatten’s plotting during it. Indeed, for all we know, the two may never have ever discussed the subject. We wouldn’t know, either way.

However, the tour itself definitely did happen. The real Lord Porchester died in 2001.

But contrary to rumours about the programme, the writers of The Crown do not in any way suggest anything unseemly happened between the monarch and her fellow equestrian. The writers too, may have entertained the possibility, but at the end of the day, they are no keener on committing treason than Lord Mountbatten was.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 4

A whole TV programme dedicated to exposing the behind the scenes lives of the British Royal family! Can you imagine such a thing ever occurring?

Yet this is exactly what happened when, in 1969, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), determined to demonstrate that the Windsors were good value for money in the face of growing muttering from left-wing elements within the ruling Labour Government, agreed to let TV cameras have unprecedented access to their lives. The result was a special one-off documentary called ‘The Royal Family.’

As demonstrated here, from the Windsors’ point of view, this exercise didn’t really work. The Royals came across as stiff and unconvincing. At the same time, the overall effect was to shatter the air of mystique surrounding them. In one amusing scene, we see the nation’s first family being recorded watching TV together. As Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) wryly notes, they never do this in real life anyway and are now effectively in the banal position of being on TV, watching TV. To more modern eyes, it is as if the Royal Family have become The Royle Family.

Matters are complicated by unexpected mother-in-law problems for the Queen as Philip’s elderly mother, Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) is uprooted from her life in a Greek convent following the 1967 right-wing military coup in Greece. She finds temporary residence in the palace. Philip (who she refers to as “Bubbikins,” the episode’s title) undergoes a difficult reconciliation with her.

Meanwhile, Colin Morgan (Merlin) plays a fictional Guardian journalist who at one point, in an unconvincing scene, reads out his own scathing review of the documentary to his enthusiastic colleagues. The episode also sees the introduction of Erin Doherty as the Queen’s dry and sharp-tongued teenaged daughter, Princess Anne, a perhaps slightly flattering portrayal, which nevertheless becomes one of the best in the series.

Ultimately, the Queen (Olivia Colman) learns a few valuable lessons in media relations from the documentary experience and from her wily old Prime Minister (Jason Watkins: perfect). Wilson has gradually transformed himself from a high-achieving but uncharismatic numbers man who smokes cigars privately into a seemingly thrusting , witty and dynamic moderniser never seen without a pipe and perfect for the TV age. It is Wilson who articulates the essential paradox facing how the public view the Royal Family. They want them to be essentially normal, relatable and like them, while at the same time, fundamentally unusual and different from everyone else.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 3

On October 21st 1966, after a period of heavy rain, 30,000 cubic yards of coal sludge collapsed on 19 houses and a primary school in Aberfan with predictably devastating results. Episode 3 of The Crown focuses on he disaster and its aftermath. The Queen herself reacts slowly to the tragedy, forcing her to confront her own apparent tendency to react with the traditional stoicism and reserve to such events, rather than the public show of emotion which might be expected or even needed by the watching public in the media age. The monarch would, of course, fall foul of similar issues following the death of Diana, 31 years’ later.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 1

The Crown is back. We rejoin proceedings at the dawn of a new era.

For after two glorious seasons with the marvelous Claire Foy playing the Princess and young Queen in her twenties and thirties, we now give way to the new age of Olivia Colman. The transition is neatly symbolised by a tactful discussion of a new Royal portrait for a new range of postage stamps. It is 1964 and the monarch is in her late thirties, what might normally be seen as her “middle years.”

“A great many changes. But there we are,” Her Majesty reflects philosophically. “Age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.”

Other changes are afoot too. Then, as now, a general election is in progress, resulting in the election of the first Labour Prime Minister of the Queen’s reign, Harold Wilson. Jason Watkins captures Wilson’s manner perfectly, although not yet his wit. In time, we now know Wilson would become the favourite of the Queen’s Prime Ministers. At this stage, however, both figures are wary of each other: the working-class Wilson seems socially insecure and chippy while the Queen has heard an unfounded rumour from Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies – a good likeness) that Wilson is a KGB agent.

Elsewhere, another age comes to an end as the elderly Churchill breathes his last. In a rare piece of casting continuity with the first two series, John Lithgow briefly resumes his role.

Suspicion also surrounds Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt. Although not exactly a dead ringer for the art historian and Soviet spy, the always excellent Samuel West is well cast as Blunt. West is a fine actor anyway, but his lineage here is impeccable. His mother, Prunella Scales played the Queen in the Alan Bennett drama, A Question of Attribution, which was about Blunt and which parts of this episode strongly resemble. Blunt then was played by James Fox, whose brother Edward, incidentally played Churchill in The Audience, the Peter Morgan play which inspired this series. West also played the Queen’s father George VI in the (not very good) film, Hyde Park on the Hudson. His wife, the future Queen Mother was played by one Olivia Colman. West’s father, Timothy, of course, famously played George VI’s grandfather, Edward VII (and also played Churchill, several times), while Colman won an Oscar for playing the Queen’s ancestor, Queen Anne in The Favourite, earlier this year.

Fellow Oscar winner, Helena Bonham Carter is, of course, now cast as the Queen’s glamorous but troubled sister, Princess Margaret, replacing the excellent Vanessa Kirby. The makers clearly feel obliged to feature Margaret frequently in this episode, presumably because of Bonham Carter’s star status, but aside from much drinking, rudeness, singing and fretting about her wayward photographer husband Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels), who is pictured motorbiking about a lot, she does little of interest.

The next episode promises to be much more Margaret-orientated…

The Crown

The Crown

Preview, gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016).

The Crown Season 1

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.

WINDSOR CHANGE

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.

The Crown

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 Philip

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.

Top 5 finest British political TV dramas

Political thriller Secret State has now come to an end. But what other series deserve a place amongst the best British TV political dramas of all time?

Image

The Deal

Year: 2003

The plot:  It’s 1983 and when a newly elected young Labour MP Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) finds himself sharing an office with a hardworking Scot, Gordon Brown (David Morrissey), he soon recognises his dour companion could one day be a future Prime Minister. But as the next decade rolls on it is Blair, not Brown whose populist instincts gradually put him ahead and by 1994, the two friends are forced to make a tough decision concerning their own, their party and their nation’s future.

The series: The first of Peter Morgan’s “Blair Trilogy” starring Sheen, before the film The Queen and the later (somewhat inferior) Special Relationship. At the time, critical attention focused more on David Morrissey’s uncanny portrayal of Brown than on Sheen’s Blair. Other interesting casting included Dexter Fletcher as Charlie Whelan and Frank Kelly (Father Ted’s drunken Father Jack) as Labour leader John Smith.

Remade?: No. Peter Morgan’s next project The Audience will focus on the different relationships the Queen has had with her various PMs during her long reign.

Basis in reality?: Clearly based on reality. Although Blair and Brown have both denied any deal (namely that Blair agree in advance to stand down in favour of Brown after an agreed time lapse) was ever made.

coup

A Very British Coup

Year: 1988

The plot: Former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) has been elected Labour Prime Minister in a landslide. The Establishment (the Civil Service, media, MI5 as well as the CIA) do not like this one bit and soon conspire together in the hope of triggering Perkins’ downfall.

The series: Based on the novel by onetime Labour MP Chris Mullin and discussed more thoroughly in my recent blog entry. The excellent McNally tragically died soon after playing Perkins.

Remade?: In the UK as The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne. Author Chris Mullin enjoyed a brief cameo as a vicar but the plot – which centred on the aftermath of the disappearance of a Prime Minister as his plane flew over the Atlantic – was very different.

gbh

GBH

Year: 1991

The plot: Charismatic Trotskyite Labour politician Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay) has taken over the council of a northern city and soon calls for a “Day of Action”. This soon turns into a very personal battle with local schoolteacher Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) who resists. But Murray has more than a few skeletons in his closet, notably a traumatic childhood incident and various figures on the Right are soon seeking to frame him for a series of racial attacks.

The series: Alan Bleasdale’s series initially portrayed Murray as a clear villain, then a figure of fun (a sequence in which a twitchy, over-stressed Murray attempts to acquire condoms is hilarious) before ultimately becoming a very sympathetic and somewhat tragic figure. Julie Walters, who played Lindsay’s wife in their next Alan Bleasdale drama Jake’s Progress, here plays his elderly Irish mother. In reality, Walters is slightly younger than Lindsay.

Basis in reality?: Derek Hatton, the former Militant deputy leader of Liverpool  City Council criticised the series claiming it was based on him, a charge Bleasdale fiercely denied. Although ultimately an attack on the Right and the extreme Left, many critics at the time seemed to think (wrongly) that Bleasdale had turned his fire on the Kinnock Labour Party.

ian_richardson

House of Cards

Year: 1990

The plot: When scheming Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is passed over for promotion by the lightweight new post-Thatcher Tory PM Henry Collingridge, he soon decides to use his own insider knowledge and an attractive young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) to plot for the leadership himself. A gripping story which benefits hugely from Richardson’s brilliant performance and his character’s tendency to speak directly to the camera as well as elements of Shakespearian drama incorporated into the action.

The series: Adapted from Tory insider Michael Dobbs’ novel (which ends differently to the TV version) by Andrew Davies, this spawned two slightly inferior sequels, To Play The King, in which Urquhart clashes with a Prince Charles-like monarch (Michael Kitchen) and The Final Cut.

Remade?: A US TV remake starring Kevin Spacey will appear early in 2013.

Basis in reality?: The timing of the first series was uncanny, with Margaret Thatcher being challenged and overthrown by her old rival Michael Heseltine and being replaced by John Major almost exactly in parallel to the progress of events in the four-part series on TV. Later series got so popular that Urquhart’s evasive catchphrase, “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment,” was soon being quoted in parliament. The last outing was criticised by some for featuring Lady Thatcher’s funeral, many years before she had actually died in reality.

our-friends-in-the-north-006-e1411040577269

Our Friends In The North

Year: 1996

The plot: Four friends travel from youthful optimism to middle age over thirty years from the era of Harold Wilson’s first victory and the Beatles in 1964 to the advent of New Labour and Oasis in 1995.

Nicky (future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston), a keen Labour supporter drops out of University to assist local politician Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong), but becomes implicated in civic corruption, then later counterculture terrorism before enduring a horrendous stint as a Labour candidate in 1979.

Geordie (future James Bond Daniel Craig, then largely unknown), flees a broken home only to find an ill chosen surrogate father figure in East End gangland boss Benny (Malcolm McDowell).

Tosker (Mark Strong), seeks pop stardom, has an unhappy marriage before becoming, despite being in many ways the stupidest and least likeable of the four,  the most successful, establishing himself as a keen Freemason and Thatcherite.

Mary (Gina McKee, who is also in The Secret State), is caught up in an awkward love triangle between the unsuitable Tosker and true love Nicky. She later becomes a New Labour MP.

The series: A wonderful sprawling series this had a long gestation period, originally as a play with the action only going up to 1979.

Remade? No, although there has been talk of a US remake.

Basis in reality?: Although fictional, this drew heavily on real events. Austin Donohue’s character was based on real-life city developer T. Dan Smith, while a character played by future Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes owed a lot to Tory Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling. Revelations concerning police corruption, 1970s anarchist movements and events during the Miner’s Strike of 1984 also played a major part in the story.