The Crown: Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson (1964-70, 1974-76)

Played by: Jason Watkins (Series 3)

Wilson was the first Labour Prime Minister to take office during the Queen’s reign and as in Peter Morgan’s earlier play, The Audience, the two are shown approaching each other somewhat warily after Wilson wins power in 1964.

The Queen (now played by Olivia Colman) is wary of the new socialist PM, having been tipped off by Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) that he might be a Soviet agent. In reality, this was definitely untrue although this was certainly a prevalent rumour in right-wing circles at the time and to some extent still is. So it’s quite likely the Queen would have heard such rumours if not from Philip, then someone else.

Wilson is initially presented as being slightly chippy and with a social inferiority complex about meeting the monarch.

A special relationship: In time, however, this initial mutual caution transforms into something approaching a warm friendship. It is generally thought Wilson was one of the Queen’s favourite Prime Ministers and this is reflected in the series. She certainly never warms to the stubborn stuffy Edward Heath (Michael Maloney) whose unhappy spell in Downing Street interrupts Wilson’s period in office and is sorry to see Wilson go when he finally retires for good. For his own part, he essentially becomes a royalist, keeping republican elements within his own cabinet such as Barbara Castle and Anthony Wedgewood-Benn in check.

Although not physically very like Wilson, Jason Watkins brilliant captures Wilson’s distinctive voice (think Michael Parkinson) and mannerisms. A man who smokes a pipe in public, but who prefers a cigar in private, Wilson is acutely aware of the growing importance of image in the TV age and advises the slightly younger monarch accordingly. He has transformed himself from a highly intelligent but dry numbers man into a charismatic and witty, dynamic working-class hero for the 1960s in order to win power. On screen, he evolves from the greying 1960s Wilson into the snowy-haired Wilson of the 1970s very effectively.

Coup warning?: A slightly paranoid Wilson is shown phoning the Queen during her world tour to warn her that Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) might be becoming involved in a plot to mount a right-wing coup against him. This isn’t far off the mark: Mountbatten was approached by plotters in the late 1960s and the Queen may or may not have discussed it with Wilson: we do not know. This did not coincide with her tour though.

Resignation reasons: The political world was stunned by Wilson’s sudden seemingly inexplicable resignation in 1976. It is now widely acknowledged Wilson who had a famously good memory in his heyday, probably retired when he did as he sensed he was beginning to suffer from what would turn out to be Alzheimer’s. He was already increasingly paranoid and the effects of alcoholism (not really suggested here) were dimming his abilities further. In The Crown, Wilson is shown very specifically citing Alzheimer’s as the reason for his resignation.

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 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.” Here, 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, proves unable to tolerate more than a few days with the holidaying 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) were clearly 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 (that is, more moderate 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. Episode guide: Season 3, Episode 6: Tywysog Cymru

It has long been accepted that just because someone holds the title Prince of Wales, it does not mean that they are necessarily Welsh or have much to do with Wales.

Indeed, not since an early medieval example, who later became King Edward II, no Princes of Wales have been from Wales at all. No, being Prince of Wales just means is that you will probably be King some day, and even then, the odds are not great. Looking back, only about two in every three Princes of Wales have ever made it to the throne. These are much better odds than the average person faces admittedly, but still not exactly a shoe-in.

In 1969, Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales at a lavish ceremony at Caernarfon Castle, as a young man. Over fifty years later and Charles is a grandfather in his seventies. He is still waiting to be King. As Alan Bennett wrote in ‘The Madness of George III,’ “being Prince of Wales isn’t a position. It’s a predicament.”

As his ceremony approached, it was decided that Charles (played here by Josh O’Connor) should be taken out of Cambridge University, where he seemed to engage in constant amateur dramatics and be temporarily transferred to Aberystwyth where he could brush up on the Welsh language. This would serve him well as he would have to speak in Welsh during the ceremony.

According to The Crown, Charles had a difficult time at Aberystwyth, encountering some hostility from the burgeoning Welsh nationalist movement and enduring an initially awkward relationship with Edward “Tedi” Millward (Mark Lewis Jones), the Plaid Cymru politician, dedicated republican and tutor assigned to inculcate the future King Charles III in the ways of the Welsh tongue.

Incidentally, on a personal note, I could relate to some aspects of this as I studied at Aberystwyth myself. It was thirty years after Charles was there though, I did not study Welsh while I was there and I did not undergo an investiture ceremony to become Prince of Wales shortly afterwards.

Good though this episode is, in some ways, the later scenes are most interesting, revealing a colder, harder side to the Queen (Olivia Colman) than we have seen before.

And ‘Tywysog Cymru?’ It just means ‘Prince of Wales.’

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 2

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Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) articulates an interesting theory in the second episode of the third season of Peter Morgan’s The Crown.

The theory states simply that just as there is a clear pattern of steady, reliable, generally boring Royals, such as Queen Victoria, George V, George VI and the Queen herself, there is equally a parallel lineage of wild, reckless and hedonistic rebels. Consider: Edward VII, George V’s brother Prince Eddy or the notorious Duke of Windsor. Just as the older Queen, played by Helen Mirren in Morgan’s 2006 film, famously held back from shooting a stag, the other bunch would probably have ended up riding it roughshod over the hills and far away.

The Royal couple here are clearly thinking about the Queen’s own naughty little sister, Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), glamorous and popular, but also increasingly wayward as she tours the mid-1960s USA. Viewers at home will, of course, be wondering how this theory applies to Prince Harry. And Prince Andrew.

At any rate, Margaret, at this point, gets an opportunity to restore Anglo-US relations which have been damaged by the new Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s (admirable) refusal to join America in the disastrous quagmire of Vietnam. The princess is thus dispatched to the White House in use her charms to win over President Lyndon B. Johnson (Clancy Brown) in the hope that L.B.J. will go all the way in resolving a British balance of payments crisis.

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.