I’ve decided to begin this arts column by talking about the Netflix series, The Crown, which has recently ended. Though I’m an ardent republican and had to be persuaded to watch it by my husband, Chris, this is such compelling drama, I quickly overcame my loathing for the Windsors and became hooked.
It begins in 1947, with king George VI (Jared Harris) coughing up blood in the bathroom, as he prepares for the wedding of his daughter Elizabeth (Claire Foy) to Philip (Matt Smith).
Though Philip is a royal, son of the former king of Greece, he is considered an upstart by the court. ‘How did she do it?’ muses an onlooker, giving us an insight into the future queen’s determination and powers of persuasion before she’s hardly said a word.
From this strong opening, we watch an ailing king realise his daughter will inherit his job sooner than either of them would wish, and a young grieving wife and mother having to come to terms with this uncomfortable fact.
Aged 25, Elizabeth is surrounded by powerful elders. The queen mother (Victoria Hamilton), George VI’s secretary, Tommy Lascelles (Pip Torrens), and prime minister (from 1951 – 1955) Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) all consider her too young and naïve, in need of guidance that quickly becomes irksome and controlling.
The new queen also has to contend with the impact the job has on her personal relationships. Philip is resentful of constantly being in her shadow as he is forced to give up the job he loves and the home of his choice, and even to bend the knee to her.
Her gregarious sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) is riddled with jealousy as she thinks she’s more suited to such a public facing role. Margaret’s love affair with the divorced captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) also provides Elizabeth with a constitutional headache, coming so soon after the abdication crisis of 1936.
Uncle David, the former Edward VIII (played with delightful maliciousness by Alex Jennings), snarks from the sidelines from Paris, fuelled with bitter rage at the institutions that rejected his wife and forced him to give up the crown.
Elizabeth’s relationship with her children is also changed forever. Her duties interfere with her ability to be a good mother and Charles becomes a constant reminder she is replaceable. In later series, when first Olivia Colman and then Imelda Staunton take on the role, their fraught relationship is further stretched as Charles struggles for a role and is forcibly separated from Camilla Shand, the woman he loves, resulting in his disastrous marriage to Diana Spencer.
All of this could be soap opera (and sadly some of the later Diana episodes are weak), but what makes The Crown memorable is how it explores its themes of love versus duty, individuality versus collective good, and the ebb and flow of political power.
The story may be fiction and the show often plays fast and loose with history, but it speaks to the truth of the coldness at the heart of the house of Windsor. A family where time and again people are forced to make sacrifices for the institution they serve.
Elizabeth loses the possibility of another life as an ordinary housewife looking after horses; Philip, his freedoms; Margaret, Peter Townsend; Charles, Camilla; Diana, her self-esteem. Whether such losses are worth it is a question the characters keep returning to.
Alongside the family psychodrama, The Crown offers powerful political critique on events such as the 1952 smog, the Suez crisis, Aberfan and Thatcher’s Britain, while ruminating on the inevitable passing of power from Britain and the people who lead it.
Churchill can’t cope with the honest portrait telling him he’s too old for the job. Thatcher wrongly believes she can still manipulate her party into loving her. Blair is more popular than the queen till her Golden Jubilee gives her a boost and the Iraq War destroys his reputation, suggesting the crown will always endure.
I don’t buy into the mythology of The Crown, but I still love this show and think it’s worth investing in. Seeing the Windsors as humans rather than enemies, reminds us we have common cause: ending the monarchy will be as freeing for them as it is for us.
We might disagree with Elizabeth but her steadfast commitment at a heavy personal cost, in the face of conflict, exhaustion and disillusion, can be an inspiration for our own activism. Besides it’s rattling good telly, and we all need some of that to get us through the dark winter nights.