The Crown



BICKERING over Europe and who governs Britain, economic upheaval and royal scandal: it is back to the future as the new series of Netflix’s The Crown swings into the 1960s.

The award-winning drama is one of the US-based streaming giant’s biggest guns in the fight for subscribers, a battle now joined by Apple and Disney. The success of the Crown matters, not least to the company’s share price.

The third season opens in 1964 with a changing of the thespian guard. A delegation from the Royal Mail has arrived to show the Queen (now played by Olivia Colman) a new set of stamps. Beside them are ones of the young Elizabeth (Claire Foy). As her eyes flit from one to the other, Colman’s Elizabeth says forlornly: “Age is rarely kind to anyone, but there we are, nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.”

The burden of duty is a central theme of the series, but it applies largely to the Queen. Elsewhere, there is plenty of recklessness on display, much of it perpetrated by Princess Margaret, played by Helena Bonham Carter. Where Colman’s Elizabeth is a cardie and slippers presence, Bonham Carter’s Margaret is a silk dressing gown at noon kind of gal.

It is a close run thing between the Queen’s sister, a young Princess Anne, and Prince Philip as to who can be the most spectacularly rude. Margaret tops the bill for insults against Scotland. In one episode, while staying at The Glen, she visits Peebles to buy her lover a pair of swimming trunks. “Oh God, we’ve stumbled on an experiment in in-breeding,” she remarks on getting out of the car. Elsewhere, President Johnson, invited to Balmoral in a bid to get an American bailout for the struggling British economy, slates the Queen’s Scottish home as a “creepy haunted castle”.

Did they say such things? Creator Peter Morgan has always said the lavishly shot series draws on documented sources, but in the end it is a drama, an imagining of history. Even so. After the umpteenth time of saying, “No, really, did that happen?” and rushing to Google and the bookshelves, I gave up trying to fact check. Some scenes and plot twists were so outrageous the piece began to stray uncomfortably into soap opera territory. It felt like watching Dynasty sans the shoulder pads.

On other occasions the drama was over-engineered, and the dialogue too on the nose, as when the Queen disagreed publicly with Anthony Blunt, spy and surveyor of the royal pictures, about fakes.

Where The Crown excels is as a political drama. We see Harold Wilson’s first audience with the Queen, and watch their relationship grow from wariness on her part to something close to friendship. She finds Heath a chilly bore.

We see, too, the younger royals coming up. Charles meeting, and losing, first love Camilla. Old wounds are reopened with the death of the Duke of Windsor (Derek Jacobi). Then there is the society whirl, led by Margaret and Lord Snowden before their marriage turns into a bad production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Standout episodes include the one covering the disaster at Aberfan, when a giant slag heap collapsed on to the village below, burying the school. The Queen is seen resisting pleas, from Wilson and others, to visit the scene on the grounds that it was not the sort of thing the Crown did. Eventually, she relents. Parallels with the response to Diana’s death loom large, but that is another story, for some seasons down the line.

Over ten episodes, The Crown presents a grand sweep through tumultuous times, for the country as much as the monarchy. At the head of it all stands Colman. She is never less than a magnificent actor, managing to say so much while remaining largely buttoned up, but she does not disappear into the character. Tobias Menzies is excellent as the perennially exasperated Philip, Josh O’Connor is promising as complicated Charles, and Charles Dance is a wonderfully snooty Mountbatten, stroking his black Lab the way Blofeld caressed his Persian cat. As Margaret, Bonham Carter comes close to pinching the show.

The season ends in 1977. As ever, one leaves this less than everyday tale of royal folk wondering if Morgan’s drama is the best thing to happen to them or the worst. Probably the former.

The Crown Season 3 will be available on Netflix from November 17