THE CROWN Season 1 – Netflix TV Series written and created by Peter Morgan (UK/USA, 2016)
If you ever get me on the subject of the Royal Family it won’t be too long before you hear words like ‘leeches’ and ‘parasites’ or me expressing the view that The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’ would make a better national anthem for the UK.
My wife and I therefore began watching season 1 of The Crown on Netflix more out of morbid curiosity than out of any real expectation of viewing pleasure.
I was waiting to see how many layers of superficial dross and gloss would be applied in order to present HRH in a positive light. But the opening scene of King George VI coughing up blood (red not blue!) signals that creator Peter Morgan has something else in mind.
Through subtle and carefully nuanced writing, Morgan pulls off the audacious feat of both humanizing Elizabeth Regina while not shying away from exposing the anachronistic absurdity of her position.
The frequent advice she receives is to accept that her duty is to do nothing with regal solemnity and decorum. Only in this way will the pomp and glory of the crown remain intact.
The performances throughout are universally outstanding and hard to fault. Claire Foy as The Queen is presented as dull but decent, a shy yet stoic woman who instinctively understood the role she was fated to step into at the tender age of 26.
There’s a loneliness in her isolated position which she steels herself to. The boring platitudes of her public utterances are the essence of cautious diplomacy and understatement, perfectly embodying the stereotypical British traits of restraint and decorum.
Casting former Doctor Who Matt Smith as Prince Phillip is far from an obvious choice but proves a masterstroke. Smith’s arrogant bearing and supercilious glances denote a man whose surface charm and dignity mask a growing frustration and awkwardness in having to constantly exist in the shadow of his wife and monarch.
Best of all, though, is John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. This is a part that is easy to present as a caricature but the American actor brings out the complexity of this figure. Churchill was a domineering, cantankerous and stubborn bully but Lithgow also shows that he was a man with a fierce intelligence possessed of a charismatic eloquence and authority.
The highlight of this portrayal, and of the series as a whole, comes in the penultimate episode in which Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane) is commissioned to paint his portrait to mark his 80th birthday. Here we find a pitch perfect presentation of Churchill as an imposing yet slowly crumbling pillar of the establishment as he spars with taciturn ‘modernist’ artist.
A series costing a massive £100m is never going to be gritty social realism but, against all the odds, it backs Johnny Rotten’s angry rant that “our figurehead is not what she seems” while disproving the view that she’s a moron.
I doubt that this drama will make for comfortable entertainment at Buckingham Palace but the regal elite should be grateful to Peter Morgan. It has to be counted as a major PR coup for the monarchy when I, as a lifelong royal hater is nudged into conceding a grudging respect for the resilience of the institution.