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.
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,” Colman’s Queen remarks. “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, 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, 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 here, 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…
There is now not a single person on the entire planet who was alive at the same time as Queen Victoria.
She was born two hundred years ago in May 1819. It was a different world then. Napoleon Bonaparte and Beethoven were both still alive. The Peterloo massacre occurred in Manchester that summer.
Victoria died in January 1901. By that time her funeral procession was able to be filmed and thus seen by more people than any who had witnessed the funerals of all previous English kings and queens combined. There were 1.6 billion people alive on the Earth then. Every one of them has since died, the last of which probably in 2017. 7.7 billion others have now replaced them.
Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born in the last year of the reign of her grandfather, George III, who despite being incapacitated by madness by that point, was the longest reigning king in English history. Victoria would herself exceed his record of sixty years on the throne by the end of the century. Some of her subjects such as the composer Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan), Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stephenson and the playwright Oscar Wilde lived their lives entirely within her reign. In 1819, however, her own succession looked uncertain.
With fourteen grown-up children, George III’s legacy should have been secure. But following the sudden death of his granddaughter, the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte in 1817, it became apparent not one of his children had produced a legitimate heir to succeed them. Victoria, the daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, was the result of the subsequent “baby race.” She was fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, but by 1837, when her uncle William IV died, Victoria became Queen at the age of eighteen.
Perceptions of the Victorian era have changed steadily as society has gradually transformed in the years since 1901. Arguably, little really changed until 1914, but the trauma of the First World War did much to undermine the Empire and accelerate social change. One day in January 1924, the King, George V wrote in his diary. “Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama died,” he wrote. “I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government”. By the 1920s, women could vote, and motor cars were becoming more prevalent. In 1926, the General Strike occurred. Old traditions persisted, however. George V enjoyed a warm public response to his Silver Jubilee in 1935, an event that doubtless evoked nostalgic memories of Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations in anyone then older than their forties or fifties and thus able to remember them. Victoria, herself, had in fact, not celebrated her own Silver Jubilee, there being no tradition of celebrating them in 1862. She had at any rate been grief-stricken following the death of her beloved Prince Albert in December 1861.
November 1936 saw the destruction by fire of the Crystal Palace constructed for the Great Exhibition in 1851. The timing seemed apt: the monarchy was now in its most serious crisis of the post-Victorian era. George V had died in January, his son Edward VIII abdicated in December: a major trauma for the Royal Family, the wounds of which would not heal for decades.
1937 was thus a coronation year with the reluctant George VI being crowned, a century after his great-grandmother had started her long reign. The line of succession now strongly suggested, Britain would have a new Queen one day. That was assuming the King’s wife, Queen Elizabeth didn’t now give birth to a son. This was quite possible: she was only 36 at the time of the coronation and until the 21st century, a son always overtook a daughter (in this case, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret) in the line of succession. But this didn’t happen.
Incidentally, the year 1937 also saw the release of Victoria the Great starring Anna Neagle. Although very reverent in its portrayal of the monarch’s early years, the Lord Chamberlain initially banned the play it was based upon as it used a member of the Royal Family for its subject matter.
The years ahead would see more change. Although the war, reinforced notions of patriotism and led to a rise in support for the monarchy, by the half way point of the century with the empire fast unravelling, Britain’s Victorian heritage was increasing looking like a thing of the past, perhaps unsurprisingly fifty years after Queen Victoria’s death.
But then in 1952, her great-great granddaughter succeeded to the throne, accompanied by her husband, himself one of Victoria’s great-great-grandsons. Elizabeth II was only the sixth ruling female monarch in English history. Any Briton in his fifties or over would have seen five new kings or queens come to the throne in the previous fifty years. As we know, this has not happened again in the nearly seventy years since. At the start of the Queen’s reign, both the Prime Minister and Opposition leaders, Churchill and Attlee had been young men at the time of Victoria’s death.
Harold Macmillan who was Prime Minister at the start of the sixties, was the last PM to be born during Victoria’s reign. The Sixties, more than any other decade, for good or ill, would see much of the residual spirit of the Victorian age vanish forever.
Probably, it was inevitable. Even by the early Sixties, only people of retirement age could remember the closing years of Victoria’s reign at all. Even then, these memories were likely to have been eclipsed by memories of bigger events since, such as the two World Wars and Great Depression. But even allowing for that, with the rise of tower blocks, the Beatles, free love, the contraceptive pill, decolonisation and the liberalisation of laws on divorce, and homosexuality – the pace of change was too great for any Victorian sensibility to survive.
Today, we view the Victorian age with mixed feelings: a golden age of literature and change undoubtedly although our other opinions might well be determined by our political outlook, However, what cannot be denied is that it was a decisive, transformative and crucial period in British history.
We would not be the same people without it.
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 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.
The new Pope Francis I is 76 years old.
Yes, that’s right. At the start of his tenure as Pope, he is already older than most people are when they retire. He is the ninth oldest Pope to have been elected since 1295. Would you be happy if your doctor, dentist, solicitor or bank manager was 76? Perhaps not. However, if you are Roman Catholic, you have no choice. He is now the head of the Church.
Let’s put things in perspective. Only three monarchs in the whole of British history have exceeded the age of 76,: Victoria, Elizabeth II our present Queen and George III during his mad phase when his son ruled as Regent.
In elected situations, only one US president Ronald Reagan has exceeded 76 years while in office. He was arguably in the first stages of dementia when he left office aged 77 in 1989. In Britain, both William Gladstone and Winston Churchill ruled into their 80s. Both were great leaders, but both were past their best by this point.
Times have changed since the 81 year old Churchill faced the 72 year old Labour opponent Clem Attlee in the Commons in 1955. Leaders have got younger since then. Perhaps it is as well. Three PMs retired in a row on grounds of ill health in the fifties and sixties: Churchill in 1955, Eden in 1957 and Macmillan in 1963. All did live to a good age though (Macmillan and Churchill were both over 90 when they died) unlike Labour Opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell who died suddenly in his 50s in 1963.
Thereafter, leaders got younger. Harold Wilson may have looked portly and unglamourous next to President Kennedy when he visited him in 1963. But Wilson (born 1916) was actually only one year older than JFK. He was to be the youngest PM of the century so far when he entered Downing Street aged 48 in 1964.
Wilson retired aged 60 in 1976 and thereafter Labour leaders got older again. his successor Jim Callaghan, already prone to afternoon naps and stints on his rural farm, was 64 when he took over. Callaghan reportedly wanted to be succeeded by someone younger when he stood down in 1980 with Labour back in opposition. And, technically, he got his wish. Michael Foot was 67 and thus a full year younger than Callaghan. Indeed, Foot was two years younger than the dark haired charismatic Ronald Reagan who was elected president one month after he became leader.
But Foot with his walking stick and long scruffy white hair seemed much older than his years. “Do you want this old fool to run Britain?” was the cruel Sun headline during the 1983 General Election. “Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away!” urged comedian Kenny Everett in front of an audience of cheering Young Conseravtives during the same campaign. Labour lost heavily.
It thus took until 1983 for Labour to elect a leader born after the end of the First World War. Perhaps overreacting slightly, they elected Neil Kinnock, a man of 41 with no cabinet experience. Kinnock never got to Downing Street either but the trend towards younger leaders has continued (with a few exceptions notably sixtysomethings Michael Howard for the Tories and Menzies Campbell for the Lib Dems) ever since.
John Major became the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century, taking over at 47 in 1990. But his successor Tony Blair (who, like Kinnock, had become Labour leader at 41) was younger still in 1997. William Hague was only 36 when he became leader in 1997 and is widely seen as having peaked too early in this regard.
But Cameron was only 39 when he became Tory leader in 2005. He had no Cabinet experience at all and had barely been in parliament for four years. He was younger than Blair or Major had been when he succeeded to Downing Street. Today all three party leaders are in their 40s. George Osborne, the Chancellor is barely 40.
What does all this mean? Much was made, after all, of Tony Blair’s youth and inexperience in 1997. But, in practice, even his opponents would agree, he actually took to the job of being Prime Minister with far more ease than ostensibly more experienced souls like Callaghan and Eden had done.
Old age need not be a disadvantage either and it should be noted that the Queen continues to do her job very well. But the Papacy is starting to resemble the last days of the USSR with one elderly leader such as Brezhnev – who once famously addressed an audience of communists while facing in the wrong direction – being succeeded by another (Andropov) and then another (Chenenko) within a couple of years.
Happily, the Vatican is not a nuclear power. And it is worth remembering that the upshot of the succession of geriatric leaders in the USSR was that it eventually led to the appointment of a younger man Mikhail Gorbachev, a reformer who presided over the destruction of a corrupt and archaic regime.
Is it too much too hope that history might repeat itself?
Nothing becomes Pope Benedict XVI more than the manner of his retirement.
He is the first Pope to resign since 1415, the year of the Battle of Agincourt. This is absurd. Where on Earth has this stupid idea come from that people should remain in certain positions until they die? The Pope is eighty five. He is slightly older than the last Pope was when he died. He is already the fourth oldest pope since 1295. He was already too old to be Pope when he took over in 2005. Of course, he should retire. In any other job, he would have been pensioned off years ago.
Remember the last Pope? Jean Paul II. Considered a successful Pope by many, his last years were painful to watch as he visibly deteriorated in front of the world’s eyes. The satirical magazine The Onion captured the mood with the headline “Ageing Pope ‘Just Blessing Everything in Sight’ say Concerned Handlers”.
There is much to condemn about the Roman Catholic church but the Pope and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands who announced she is to stand down recently (she is in her mid-70s) are here setting a good example.
Queen Elizabeth II should heed these examples. She is doing well now but do we really want her to feel she has to go on if her health seriously declines? It is time the Queen removed the stigma attached to the concept of abdication left by her uncle Edward VIII.
She is not Edward VIII. There is no scandal here. Furthermore, her son – the future Charles III – is not a reluctant George Vi type as in 1936.
The Queen should wait until On that date, her own reign will finally surpass her great great grandmother Queen Victoria’s reign by precisely one day. Elizabeth II will thus become the longest serving monarch in British history.
Then she should abdicate.
It seems a reasonable question. This is, after all, Elizabeth II’s sixtieth year on the throne. The jubilee celebrations across the UK suggest that support for the monarchy is at least as strong as it was when Elizabeth II became Queen as a young woman in 1952.