There’s not a bum note in latest royal drama The Crown

by Greg Dixon / 29 November, 2016
 

Another week, another royal drama. And no, I don’t mean poor Prince Harry.

One does pity the dear ginger boy and his desperate quest to find a wife before his hair goes the way of the British Empire. But it wasn’t about him and that most unsuitable American woman that I was thinking.

No, it was the appearance of a second television drama about the British royal family in as many weeks. First there was Victoria, an iffy series about a young Queen Victoria on TVNZ 1, and now there is The Crown, about our own dear Queen Elizabeth, on Netflix. It never rains, but it reigns, as I’m sure someone, somewhere must have said sometime.

However, before you go off in some sort of republican, red-peak flag-waving huff, I should report – and I do so with considerable relief – the latter, unlike the former, is truly fit to rule.

Even in a year that has been packed to the gunwales with ever more expensive, ambitious television, The Crown impresses: a rumoured US$156 million budget, two years of research, hundreds of speaking parts, ravishing frocks, opulent settings – it’s like the Versailles of TV dramas.

The scale of this first, 10-part series is dwarfed only by the plans of its British creator and writer, Peter Morgan, who wants the entire drama to span 60 episodes over six series, taking Queen Elizabeth II from her marriage in 1947 to the present day.

Being bigger than Ben Hur is all well and good, of course, but for it to be gripping television drama, a lot of things have to work well to make it more than expensive spectacle. The first difficulty is that the Queen and her family’s history has been so well documented and dramatised over the decades that to breathe fresh life into it might seem rather like trying to revive a corpse.

The second problem is avoiding, while trying to revive the corpse, the natural tendency of historical telly drama towards soap (Victoria’s crime), and the third is to give us a cast of humans rather than mere impersonations.

I’ve watched the first three episodes of The Crown and it’s astonishing how well it leaps these huge hurdles and succeeds in investing recent history with genuine emotion and a sense of seeing old events anew.

The script is first-rate. Morgan, whose best-known work, the Oscar-winning The Queen, dramatised the royal family’s crisis after the death of Diana, has the uncanny ability not only to put you in the room with these rather remote and removed people, but also to make them flesh and blood.

A scene in episode one, for example where Christmas carollers bring a dying George VI (Jared Harris) a cardboard crown as a gift, reducing the poor man to tears, is deeply moving, without wallowing in sentimentality.

But it’s not so Sunday Theatre-ish and forelock tugging it can’t have fun: in the early episodes we’re treated to the unexpected sight of Philip’s bum and a filthy limerick from George VI. There are deliciously waspish one-liners from Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother, too. “Look at her,” she says of Prince Philip’s mother, who turns up at her son’s wedding in a habit, “… a Hun nun.”

The cast, led by Claire Foy as Elizabeth and Matt Smith as Philip, are uniformly excellent. Foy brings a delicate balance of vulnerability and steel to the young queen.

But in the early episodes it’s Harris who really stands out, as well as John Lithgow, who plays Churchill with the sort of relish Churchill might have played himself.

In episode three, the disgraced Duke of Windsor calls his family “a bunch of ice-veined monsters … cold and thin-lipped”. It isn’t true. There are real beating hearts in this drama. It’s a glittering jewel of a crown.

THE CROWN is streaming on Netflix.

This article was first published in the November 19, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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