Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Marriage of Drama and History: The Crown

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II with Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown.

The elements of good drama based on real people – believable three-dimensional characters, conflict, and an engrossing plot – often do not make good history. Historians and biographers must sift through documents and interviews with people who knew the subjects and fashion a portrait that adheres to the record. They may speculate, but speculations must be grounded in an evidentiary base. Screenwriters and directors have more creative freedom to imagine what might have been, to reassemble chronology, and to create dialogue and motives for their characters as long as they are plausible. Based on my viewing of two seasons of The Crown (on Netflix) that cover the 1950s and early 1960s, I would argue that a smooth synthesis of history and drama has been achieved.

The creator and screenwriter of The Crown, Peter Morgan, is a major reason for the successful marriage of history and drama. He has distinguished himself by taking the lives of public figures and recasting them as drama. In 2006, he wrote the screenplay for The Queen, which dramatized the effect of Princess Diana’s 1997 death on Prime Minister Tony Blair and the royal family. In the same year, he wrote the script for Frost/Nixon, a theatrical drama based on the 1977 televised interviews between the television personality, David Frost and the disgraced president, Richard Nixon. (Two years later, Morgan would adapt his play for the large screen for director Ron Howard.) In 2013, he widened his lens on Queen Elizabeth, spanning a much longer period of her life, by writing The Audience, an engaging stage drama based on the weekly private audiences the Queen hosted in Buckingham Palace with twelve of her Prime Ministers from Churchill to Gordon Brown. In both the film and the play, Morgan offers a sympathetic view of the Queen.

In The Crown, Morgan’s focus on accuracy – the Queen's biographer Robert Lacey, in The Crown: The Official Companion Volume 1, has applauded its meticulous research, stating that there is a "strong kernel of truth in almost every episode" – is matched by the series’ attention to period detail. The result is a sumptuous television creation that has spared no expense in mounting a high-quality production that includes fine and, in some cases, memorable acting, meriting the almost universal acclaim that it has received.

The first season focuses on the installation of Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and her learning curve after the death of her father King George (Jared Harris) from lung cancer; on her relationship with her husband Prince Philip (Matt Smith), who increasingly chafes at his diminished role, having given up his name and job, among other indignities; and on her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby). After the bishops tell her that as head of the Church of England she is forbidden to bless a union tainted by the disgrace of divorce, the Queen informs Margaret that she cannot marry Peter Townsend (Ben Miles). One of Elizabeth's most important relationships is with her political mentor, Winston Churchill (played with blustery verve by John Lithgow). Perhaps not surprisingly, the two best episodes in this season focus less on the machinations of the royal family and more on Churchill: the 1952 Great Smog that killed thousands of Londoners and his encounter with the artist Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane).

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in The Crown.

The show's fourth episode, "Act of God," introduces Venetia Scott (Kate Philips), one of Churchill's secretaries, who through her own dogged efforts and personal sacrifice convinces the Prime Minister to take the smog seriously. Though Scott is fictional, Morgan's dramatic license is persuasive. According to Lacey in The Official Companion, Venetia is a composite figure for the remarkable team of women who worked tirelessly for Churchill.

In "Assassins" (the ninth and penultimate episode of the first season), Sutherland paints a portrait of the aging Churchill, defiant but showing the ravages of decay, that the Prime Minister despises – a painting that his wife Clemmie (Harriet Walter) ultimately burns. But it is the conversation between the two men while Churchill sits for the artist that is the most moving: Sutherland compliments the Prime Minister on his water colour paintings of his pond, remarking that beneath their tranquility he sees pain. Churchill dismisses the comment until he reflects that he painted it years earlier, after the death of his two-year old daughter, which had unleashed such grief in his wife that he forbade any mention of the tragic incident. It is a riveting exchange.

The second season (1956-63) shifts focus and is more opulent as it dramatizes the fragility of personal and political relationships, the power of the past to colour the present, and how national and international politics is filtered through the eyes of the Queen. The series also strives for a high degree of historical accuracy. One of the other strengths of this season is that it expands Philip's role and provides greater range for Matt Smith beyond "whining" (Elizabeth's word) about the constraints imposed upon him. There are some interesting threads established in the first season that continue to unfurl in the second.

The first three episodes explore the troubled relationship between Elizabeth and Philip. Their turmoil is precipitated by Philip's five-month goodwill tour of far-flung outposts of the Commonwealth, which is filmed with a lush panache, after he performs his official duty of opening the 1956 Olympic Games. The film suggests that the cruise has all the earmarks of a bachelor holiday for an Alpha-male one-time Navy officer and hints that Philip may have joined in the fun, but rightly nothing in the episode explicitly reveals any infidelities, though in the series, as in reality, there were rumours that the press seized upon.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth discovers the photograph of a ballerina in his luggage who she suspects is having an affair with her husband. (The dancer is fictional although there were widespread rumours about Philip's trysts with an actress.) Foy, who becomes increasingly comfortable in her role in the second season, communicates the Queen's incandescent anger through steely silences, as her body muscles tighten, and more directly through her forceful voice while maintaining her composure.

Matt Smith as Prince Philip.

Biographer Sarah Bradford reportedly said, in 2004, that the Duke of Edinburgh had affairs, but in her 2012 biography of the Queen she abstains from rendering any definitive judgments. Lacey, in his 2002 biography, acknowledges Philip's "flirtations" and that the Queen, aware that her prickly husband regarded himself as a "kept man," tolerated his lady friends.

While the Queen is initially distracted by the difficulties in her marriage, the Suez Crisis erupts, a fiasco that forever alters Britain’s position on the global stage after its invasion and humiliating withdrawal from Egypt. The invasion is initiated by a cocky Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) who colludes with Israel to invade Egypt for what the series suggests was a personal distaste for Gamal Nasser, and for self-aggrandizement: his goal was to make a name for himself in war to rival the accomplishments of his predecessor, Churchill. Elizabeth, drawing upon her education (dramatized in a first-season episode) and further encouraged by her husband's mentor, Lord Mountbatten (Greg Wise), to read the cabinet minutes carefully, subsequently confronts Eden about his precipitous action, which destroys his career and his already deteriorating health; and later his successor Harold MacMillan (Anton Lesser) for endorsing the decision to invade Egypt after MacMillan criticized the vanquished Eden. (Both Lesser and Northam are excellent in these supporting roles.)

One of the most powerful episodes in the second season explores the Nazi background of Elizabeth's uncle, the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), whose 1936 abdication, prompted by his insistence on marrying a divorcée, Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams), forced his brother to become George VI. In the first season, the frosty relationship between the arrogant Duke and Elizabeth is on full display, but more for personal than for political reasons. I thought Morgan might skirt around the Nazi connection, so I was pleasantly surprised when he tackled it directly in a second-season episode. Here Morgan draws upon the so-called Marburg Files – in the opening scene, Allied forces in May 1945 unearth these in a large cache of documents – that detail the Duke's support for National Socialism,  including a bizarre plot to install him as a puppet king after the invasion of England. The files relating to Edward were eventually published in 1957 despite the initial efforts (shown in a brief flashback scene) of the King and Churchill to suppress them at the end of the war, and their contents are chillingly outlined in this episode. This is history and drama at its best, concluding with the actual 1937 photograph of the Duke smiling with the Führer.

The Nazi connection is also explored in an episode arising from Philip's decision to send his son and heir to the throne, Prince Charles, over the objections of the Queen, not to Eton College but to a boarding school in Scotland. This rough-and-tumble school, Philip's own alma mater, subjected its students to severe physical rigours. Charles hated his time there and later commented in an interview that his father's rebukes for “a deficiency in behaviour or attitude . . . easily drew tears.”  The episode also includes memories of Philip's early family experiences with an absent father and a mother institutionalized for schizophrenia, which resulted in a closer relationship with a sister married to a German Nazi officer. I would be giving too much away if I related any more details but much is revealed that may surprise viewers even well-informed about the royal family, and the flashback scenes of Philip's adolescence and experience with tragedy are powerfully executed.

Matthew Goode as Antony Armstrong-Jones and Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret.

Some viewers may have wondered whether Margaret's embitterment and raging anger in the first season were veering into soap-opera terrain, an impression that initially carries into the second season. The introduction of the louche photographer, Antony Armstrong-Jones (superbly played by Matthew Goode with a deft combination of debonair charm, ruthless calculation and a vulnerability around his mother), into her life may change that perception. Secondly, the staging of Armstrong-Jones's risqué photograph of Margaret and his erotic coupling with another woman (which contrasts with an image of Elizabeth and Philip retiring to their separate beds) enhances the aesthetic quality of the filmmaking. The concluding scene depicts Philip escorting Margaret on her wedding day, the two royal family members most dissatisfied with living in gilded cages -- though Margaret is finally leaving hers.

Not every episode works as well. The Queen's awkward exchange with Jacqueline Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) over derogatory remarks about the Queen that she allegedly made at a public event takes dramatic license too far. The premise behind it is that Elizabeth is motivated to outshine the more glamorous celebrity by travelling to Ghana, enticing its leader Nkrumah back into the Commonwealth after he was tempted by Soviet offers. In reality, she did succeed in that mission but the staging of a dance with Nkrumah to charm him seems improbable given her shyness and reluctance to dance publicly – a platform in which Philip excelled.

The other misstep occurs in the final program, which explores the scandal that ended the careers of Secretary of State for War John Profumo and Prime Minister MacMillan and torpedoed the Conservative government. Profumo initially lied in Parliament about his liaison with the call girl, Christine Keeler, but when she acknowledged it to the press, along with one she enjoyed with a Soviet naval attaché, he was finished. The public humiliation of MacMillan is painful to watch, but one may ask what it has to do with the royal family. The link is, of course, Philip, but it is a tenuous one at best. Philip visited an osteopath, Stephen Ward, for a professional session, and the latter became linked with Keeler with the revelation that he procured women for wild parties. A provocative photograph emerged from one of these parties showing the back of a man's head, which  the press speculated belonged to Philip. Ward was also a portraitist, and among the portraits found after his death was one of Philip, but there were also samples executed of other royal family members, a fact not made clear in the program. This is salacious stuff that does not comport with the conscientious efforts throughout both seasons not to veer radically from the historical record.

These minor blemishes aside, The Crown in its first two seasons has achieved both high-quality drama and sound history. The third season promises substantial changes, including the replacement of Claire Foy and Matt Smith with older actors, but as long as it continues to offer its trademarks of faithfulness to the historical record and polished drama, it will be well worth watching.

Photo by Keith Penner.
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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