The Strange Thrills of “The Crown”

The Strange Thrills of “The Crown”

Heavy Is the Head

The British Royals in the age of streaming.


I was in Barbados, visiting relatives, when Princess Diana died. That afternoon I met an Englishwoman on a walk. “I feel so awful just being out enjoying myself,” she told me.

“I’m sure if you died, she’d have no problem going on with her holiday,” I replied. The woman was appalled and offended. I was genuinely baffled. It was the first and last conversation I had with a stranger on the topic.

In both my personal and professional life, I don’t do royals. There is more to this than a simple lack of interest; mine is a far more proactive ambivalence. I will go out of my way to avoid any and all talk about the British monarchy. Conversations about the royal family don’t upset me for the same reason that conversations about Barack Obama’s birth certificate didn’t upset me when I lived in the United States: I just make it my business to live my life so that I never have to be around anyone who talks about them. After Queen Elizabeth II died, I merely didn’t watch the news for 10 days, until the period of mourning was over.

It’s not that I dislike the royals themselves; I don’t know them personally and really don’t think about them much. But I do think about race, class, power, and postcolonial inequalities quite a bit, and so I harbor an unwavering contempt for an institution that stood at the pinnacle of empire and places inherited privilege at the very heart of the British establishment.

There is also, if I’m honest, a lack of understanding on my part. I have never fully comprehended the monarchy’s popular appeal. Why would hundreds of thousands of people queue for hours and miles for a glimpse of the coffin of a leader they never elected, or get excited about the wedding of two wealthy people they are never going to meet?

But while I loathe the monarchy, I love the Netflix series The Crown, which has now completed its fifth season. I don’t enjoy it as a guilty pleasure, like singing along to Michael Jackson or eating a chocolate éclair—a small sin for which I know I’ll pay a price, be it karmic or calorific. Nor do I enjoy it ironically, as a show so bad and problematic that I think it’s somehow good, like Old School or Dodgeball, which I would never defend but often watch. Instead, I enjoy it because it is informative and evocative, elegantly relating some versions of Britain’s past that are known but rarely told, let alone screened, and because the series is driven by a compelling dialectical tension between individual freedom and structural responsibilities.

The Crown spans two-thirds of what’s been spun as the second Elizabethan age. It starts with King George VI coughing up blood, presaging his death and the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and ends with Lady Di packing for one of her final holidays.

Period dramas of this nature are generally too monochromatic and parochial to appeal to me. Renditions of postwar Britain all too often fail to take into account that by 1955 there were enough Black people in the country for Winston Churchill to suggest to his cabinet that the Conservative Party run on a “Keep England White” campaign. The fact that by the end of World War II there were 10 times as many people living in colonies under the British flag as lived in Britain itself, and that the overwhelming majority of these people were brown and Black, also manages to elude them. My mother came from Barbados to England in 1962, when Barbados was still a British colony. So when I see stories that ignore those realities and portray England as a small white island hermetically sealed from the outside world, I tend to switch them off.

But that is not the case with The Crown. Empire is an essential element of the story it seeks to tell about postwar Britain, and that alone is refreshing. There’s a low bar here. The Crown offers no criticism, let alone critique, of what the British Empire did; its center of gravity, of course, is not empire but monarchy. And many people in Britain have a peculiar ability to wallow in their country’s former glory without ever really examining how Britain came by it and why it lost it. As George Orwell observed in his 1941 essay “England Your England,” “It is quite true that the English are hypocritical about their Empire. In the working class this hypocrisy takes the form of not knowing that the Empire exists.” A decade later, at a time when Britain still controlled much of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, the UK government’s social survey showed that nearly three-fifths of the country couldn’t name a single British colony.

So for The Crown simply to present the empire in this era sets it apart. Early on, we see the queen arrive in Kenya in the early 1950s to deliver a speech—one in which she describes Nairobi as a recently “savage” place that has now been civilized—to a segregated reception committee that, local dress notwithstanding, could have been gathered in the Deep South. We hear the beplumed governor whisper, “Independence is sweeping across the continent. Their support is important more than ever,” and see Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, insult the local dignitaries. The fifth-season episode that profiles Mohamed Al-Fayed, his rise from the Egyptian middle class to the status of wealthy outsider among the British upper class, and his relationship with his Bahamian butler, Sydney Johnson, is particularly strong in this regard.

Not only do the producers make vivid a set of power relations that are rarely made visible, but they also give a sense of how that power dynamic was shifting. Complaining about the pantomime futility of their forthcoming royal tour of 1953 to ‘54, Philip observes:

Twenty years ago, Britain had influence and control over one-fifth of the world’s population. Look where we are now in India, Pakistan, South Africa, Iraq, Jordan, Burma, Ceylon—all independent. But nobody wants to face it or deal with it, so they send us out on the Commonwealth road show. Like giving a lick of paint to a rusty old banger to make everyone think it’s all still fine. But it’s not. The rust has eaten away at the engine and the structure. The banger is falling apart. But no one wants to see it. That’s our job. That’s who we are: the coat of paint.

Within a decade, the banger is all but ready for the knacker’s yard, as Cyprus, Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, Kuwait, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, Sudan, Tanganyika and Zanzibar (later to become Tanzania), and Trinidad and Tobago all break away.

This sense of fragility as to the purpose and viability of the monarchy and the popular consent required to sustain it is a constant theme of The Crown. Central to that anxiety is the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 over his marriage to the twice-divorced Mrs. Wallis Simpson, which forces his younger brother, George VI, and his progeny from the wings to center stage. But while the abdication is key to the royals’ sense of precarity, it is not the only source of it. Philip, born the prince of Greece and Denmark, repeatedly tells the story of how he was smuggled out of Greece and into exile as a baby when the country turned against the monarchy. Just four years earlier, his relatives the Romanovs—who were also distantly related to Elizabeth—were executed en masse by the Bolsheviks, an episode explored in depth in season five. (Indeed, Philip’s DNA would be used to identify Maria and Alexei Romanov, two of the Russian royal children, whose bodies were found in a field in 2007.)

Such recent history leaves deep scars. It turns out the royals live in perpetual, mortal fear of losing the very popular appeal that I find so incomprehensible. When Philip urges Elizabeth to have her coronation televised, he warns her: “You forget I have seen firsthand what it is like for a royal family to be overthrown because they were out of step with the people. I left Greece in an orange crate. My father would have been killed. My grandfather was.”

These varied efforts of the royal family to sustain a sense of tradition, superiority, and mystery while adapting to a society demanding greater transparency and equality provide engrossing story lines. But it is their efforts to parse their lives as human beings, along with their roles as figureheads, that create the drama. Shortly after George VI’s death, Elizabeth’s grandmother tells her, “While you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else: Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is the Crown must win. Must always win.”

Elizabeth is not alone in this split personality: Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, and Prince Charles all have to wrestle with the lives of ceremony and futility assigned by their specific roles. But the series is called The Crown, and Elizabeth is the one who wears it, so this is effectively the struggle that will define her and, through her, the rest of the family throughout. When Philip requests that he not kneel before her at the coronation because to do so would be humiliating and emasculating, she responds, “You won’t be kneeling to me. You will be kneeling before God and the Crown.”

“Are you my wife or my queen?” he asks. “I’m both,” she replies. “I want to be married to my wife,” he complains. “I will not kneel before my wife.” Her answer is firm: “Your wife is not asking you to.” “But my queen commands me?” “Yes.”

The queen relates to other family members the same way. Margaret, her younger sister, intends to marry the man she loves, Peter Townsend, and as Margaret’s sister, Elizabeth is happy for her. But she also cannot allow it, because Townsend has been divorced. Margaret could marry him if she were to give up her royal privileges, but privilege is all she has. And when Edward VIII made the choice to give up the throne, he dealt a near-fatal blow to the institution. The unhappiness is bequeathed from generation to generation, each apparently more miserable than the last, producing a litter of peevish, entitled libertines, almost all unhappy in love.

The royals’ individual travails are the stuff of soap opera—the occasionally racy, often tawdry, but not particularly interesting or original peccadilloes of everyday noble folk. But beyond the rarefied setting, the challenges they face are essentially a philosophical and universal one: What must we be ready to give up to assert our freedom in the world? How do we balance whatever structural roles we occupy—at work or elsewhere—with our human needs and responsibilities? What would we sacrifice for love? Admittedly, these are the least sympathetic characters through which to examine such questions; fortunately, they are engaging, perennial questions.

It is primarily for this reason that the fifth season of The Crown was the least satisfying. In previous seasons, Queen Elizabeth agonized over her structural obligations and personal life—but Prince Charles, who dominates the fifth season, doesn’t. Most of the scandals involve him either briefing against his mother, in the hope that she will stand down and allow him to save the institution with his modernizing zeal, or getting exposed as an adulterer, caught in a private phone call telling his mistress that he would like to be her tampon.

The only problem Charles can see with dating the married woman he is in love with—while being married himself to the future queen and waiting impatiently for his mother to either die or abdicate—is that nobody else seems to understand why it’s all so unfair on him. The two Charleses, regal and personal, aren’t in conflict here, because there is only one Charles and he wants it all. That doesn’t make for particularly interesting television.

Some of this may be untrue, and all of it may be unfair to Charles. It may also be completely accurate. I really don’t care: The Crown is a docudrama, not a documentary, although its episodic introduction of actual news footage does blur the genres. For those heavily invested in the personal dynamics of the royal family—who said what to whom, when, and why—this might be confusing and even upsetting. (More on this in a bit.) Since most of what is known about the royals has already been filtered through the tabloids and self-interested briefings anyway, truth was long ago an early casualty.

However, as I was not remotely invested in taking sides between Charles and Diana, Diana and the family, the queen and Charles, or any of the other permutations, the veracity of these depictions didn’t concern me in the slightest. Throughout the series, it seemed fairly clear that the major events portrayed—wars, tragedies, elections, strikes—had in fact happened; that the private conversations and intrafamilial rivalries were fictionalized and dramatized for effect; and that the dominant story arcs had some basis in reality.

There was also another layer to the new season: It premiered just two months after the queen’s death signaled the end of the so-called second Elizabethan age and the ascent of King Charles III to the throne. Buckingham Palace, no doubt, hoped for a more endearing and forgiving introduction to the new monarch. His defenders came out in force, as though The Crown were not a TV show but a government report, and a parade of the imperious and pompous lined up to trash the series, including two former prime ministers (John Major and Tony Blair), two biographers (Jonathan Dimbleby and Sally Bedell Smith), and The Daily Mail, which had done more than most to spread the scandalous rumors in the first place. Dame Judi Dench, esteemed actor and friend of the royals, wrote a letter to the London Times describing the series as “an inaccurate and hurtful account of history” and demanding that Netflix add a disclaimer to the new season “for the sake of the family and a nation so recently bereaved.”

They needn’t have bothered. For in the prelude to the fifth season’s release, Britain’s political class made a better case for the monarchy than the monarchs ever could. The last picture taken of the queen showed her greeting Liz Truss, the new prime minister, in Balmoral Castle and inviting her to form a new government after Boris Johnson was forced to resign for partying through the pandemic. Truss was the third prime minister Elizabeth had seen in six years. Her first three premiers—Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, and Harold Macmillan—spanned 12 years; Truss lasted just 50 days, the shortest tenure ever (it would have been even shorter were it not for the 10 days of public mourning), during which she managed to crash the economy, tank the pound, jack up interest rates, and lose a chancellor and a home secretary. If this is the best democracy can do, the monarchy’s defenders argued, then where is the harm in a figurehead, answerable only to God, whom we can look to for stability?

The United States answered this question fairly conclusively in 1776, France in 1789, and Russia in 1917. History has already delivered its verdict on those who inherit power and remain unaccountable; The Crown merely illustrates the degree to which the institution doesn’t even work for the people who run it.

As I type, Prince Harry is touring studios selling his book, leveraging his personal story as part of family’s new business model following the couple’s Netflix documentary. Tales of fisticuffs with William at Kensington Palace, his frostbitten penis at his brother’s wedding, and his taking out Taliban fighters suggest that his next booking might be with Maury. The monarchy produces no end of drama; only The Crown provides entertainment.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred several times for George V; these references should have been to George VI. It also incorrectly referred to the fifth season of The Crown as its final one.

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