I didn’t mind the inaccuracies of Series 1 & 2 of The Crown because of the strength of the story. Writer Peter Morgan, knowing he could never get the Palace to co-operate, went ahead with his version of events anyway. And did it brilliantly. We all knew it wouldn’t be true. The Palace would never confirm or deny those key intrusive details Morgan needed and, in any case, the actual facts would certainly have stood in the way of the drama.
While watching Series 1 & 2, those who cared could remind themselves what really happened by referring to The Crown Truth & Fiction, a slim handbook by royal scholar Hugo Vickers. Some of Vickers’ complaints are pedantic. The Earl of Mountbatten should have been wearing a Garter collar during the Coronation, for example. Others are more grave. Prince Philip did not effectively cause his sister’s death by getting barred from leaving Gordonstoun for half term following a fight with a fellow pupil. Princess Cecile of Hesse, was flying over for a wedding anyway when her plane crashed. Also Philip is unfairly portrayed as a bit of an arrogant prat. Morgan, for his part, has said that while there will be ‘unavoidable accuracy blips’ in the name of the story’s coherence, he is ‘absolutely fastidious’ about there being an underlying truth.
And yes of course there is an underlying truth. Enough to make you feel it’s not totally preposterous. Besides, huge sums money have been invested and it’s enjoyable to luxuriate in palatial settings with the likes of Belvoir Castle, Wilton House and Ely Cathedral standing in for the real locations. The Wardrobe department has triumphed with exquisite vintage couture and some of the best actors in the country have signed up for this production.
Moreover what a retro joy to hear the Queen’s English spoken – almost an endangered language now, for the few and not the many, and there is a low incidence of violence and swearing. This is pensioner-friendly viewing. In Series 1 & 2 Claire Foy, as the Queen, exuded not only dignity but also a purity of mind and body that went beyond acting. It was hard to believe that an actress born as late as 1984, could even imagine such an uncorrupt mind to say nothing of conjuring up such a flawless and healthy complexion.
And so to Series 3 where we face the miner’s strike, Aberfan, the Queen’s horsey friendship with Lord Porchester and where the Dresden shepherdess of Claire Foy has morphed into the stolid and faintly cynical Olivia Colman who does much more of a comic turn as the Queen. Her skill is in being able to wear facial expressions which are simultaneously meaningful and inscrutable while delivering lines of wit and insight (as does the real Queen). So brilliant an actress is Olivia Colman she can even get her face to flush on cue. Meanwhile the lives of other participants in the drama become more complex.
Prince Philip, played uncannily well by Tobias Menzies, undergoes a cluster of crises, partly brought to a head by the moon landings. These are emotional, life purpose-linked and spiritual. It was good to see the appearance of his mother, Princess Andrew of Greece, herself a deeply religious woman who founded the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary in 1948 and lived as a chain-smoking nun, wearing the habit of the Russian Orthodox Church and spending the last two years of her life in Buckingham Palace where she died aged 84 in 1969. Who knew? Certainly few at the time.
Princess Margaret has changed from Vanessa Kirby to Helena Bonham Carter. Kirby was sexy but Helena is supercharged with sensuality (as was the real Margaret). We cringe through her marriage to Tony Snowdon and her own frustration at not having more of a Royal role. Prince Philip discourages the Queen from allowing it. He rates Margaret too much of a loose cannon but, ironically, it was being a loose cannon which caused her to triumph at the White House. This when her behaviour caused the chippy President Lyndon B Johnson to fall for her just at a time when the pound would have been devalued if the Americans hadn’t given us an £800 million loan. Margaret pulls it off by being indiscreet, smoking, drinking, dancing and flirting with the President.
Prince Charles becomes the Prince of Wales and never has there been a more nuanced and poignant portrayal of a wet son bullied by an impatient and unsentimental father, as by the stuttering Josh O’Connor (who comes with his own natural sticky out ears). His performance elicits every ounce of sympathy for the Prince that may previously have lain only dormant in our hard hearts (not in mine). As always Charles is well-meaning. The interaction between himself and the resistant Edward Millward (Mark Lewis Jones), vice president of Plaid Cmyru who is obliged, despite his fervent anti-monarchist views, to tutor the Prince in Welsh history and language for a term at Aberystwyth University before his investiture, is sensitively portrayed as each man reaches an understanding of the other.
Princess Anne is brought to life as a vivid character (for the first time in my living memory) by Erin Doherty with a cracker of a performance. She is having an affair with Andrew Parker Bowles (this is true) although Andrew Buchan the actor playing APB cannot compete with the real APB who, in real life, exudes the charm and testosterone of about five charismatic men.
‘Mummy, I have a voice,’ explains the Prince of Wales when his mother disapproves of his having gone off message by hinting at his own feelings of being overlooked in his speech at the Welsh investiture.
‘Let me let you into a little secret. No one wants to hear it,’ she retorts.
And she was right. Why do I love, indeed worship the Queen? Is it because I don’t know what she’s really like and have projected sainthood onto her? Possibly.
‘Never complain, never explain’ is a policy which has stood the royals in good stead in the past. Even when HRH Prince Philip was accused of being rude to the deaf (His own mother was deaf and he was even Patron of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf). Even when accused over many years of having a long affair with the actress Pat Kirkwood who he only met three times, twice in line up parades after shows…They rose above it.
Now even Olivia Colman has become a ‘lefty monarchist’ after playing the Queen. How could anyone be so humble and so steadfast a servant for so long? She wondered. I’ll tell you how. It has been her faith. What lesson does that teach the rest of us? So, in a nutshell, Well done Peter Morgan. Even if it wasn’t entirely true.
Meanwhile Hugo Vickers is bringing out his handbook to Series 3, The Crown, a Dissection on November 25th.