December 1, 2019


An adult view of monarchy (Mark Le Fanu, November 2019, The Critic)

The magnificence touched on here and in other scenes -- for example, the extended Coronation sequence at Westminster Abbey in Season One -- is an important if not essential aspect of the impact, one could almost say the meaning, of the series. For what is a monarchy without magnificence? Republicans, and not just republicans, complain about how much it must cost in real life to keep the whole show on the road. But this is to fail to see (or else to see only too clearly) that without a certain amount of extravagance there wouldn't be a monarchy worth talking about. Its mystique is tied up in some complicated way with the wealth that sustains it, and with the beauty, the settings and the ceremonial it draws upon.

In a democratic age such as ours, it is strange, perhaps, that we continue to be impressed by such things, but there it is: we are children in such matters. I think it is good that the writing of The Crown takes all this for granted. The lavishness of the monarchical mise en scène is neither politicised nor satirised. By all rights, the conspicuous consumption of the royals (on a truly grand scale) should be out of bounds in an epoch of equality. Yet, deliberately it seems to me, the series hasn't over-emphasised this side of the matter.

 A similarly magisterial neutrality, or evenness of tone, is observable in Morgan's approach to the show's dramatis personae. He wants to demonstrate, in each case, the human complexity of the make-up of the inhabitants of the institution. They are absolutely not to be portrayed as marionettes. While one or two characters seem not to be liked under any circumstance (I am thinking of the show's portrayal of Harold Macmillan and, oddly enough, of the Queen Mother), the series as a whole specialises in enabling us to see even the most monstrous instances of arrogance and privilege in contexts that fail to rule out generous doses of broad human sympathy.

How else are we to explain the curiously wistful pathos surrounding characters as reprehensible as the Duke of Windsor, Princess Margaret (together with her bisexual husband Tony Armstrong-Jones) and Prince Philip? Their actions are one thing; their frailties -- their demons -- another. In each case, the writing of the series encourages them to emerge as fully-rounded human beings.

At the centre of the series is the Queen herself, incarnated in the first two seasons by the luminously beautiful actress Claire Foy (the role is about to be taken over by Olivia Colman). What praise could be eloquent enough to encompass the elegance, irony, wisdom and discretion of this performance of Foy's? Such acting, of course, can't be conceived of without appropriate writing to sustain it, and here I would argue Morgan excels himself.

There are two things that needed to be got right and he gets them right. On the one hand there is the Queen's private life -- her ordinary affections: her hopes, troubles and disappointments in the midst of a complicated family nexus. On the other hand - subliminally present, so to speak, at all times -- is her conception of the meaning of the institution she heads, and how that is to be put into practice in each of her actions and decisions.

Her behaviour overall is never less than principled: the steeliness of her will, combined with the gentleness of her general demeanour, has been immensely moving at all times. She gives orders crisply, but at the same time, as incarnated by Foy, she is the most wonderful listener and questioner. Meanwhile, the series as a whole derives a kind of immense ongoing pathos from the strand of the narrative which shows the monarch -- daringly, one might think (how can the writers know the truth of the matter?) -- attempting to attract, to rekindle, and to keep up the affections of an ever-ready-to-roam husband. Will Colman, I wonder, be able to maintain the exquisite delicacy of this posture?

Faithfulness, then, is a mainstay -- the mainstay -- of the Queen's character as presented in The Crown. And faith too, in the more religious sense. An episode in Season Two shows her saying her prayers at night, kneeling by her bedside. It is an extraordinary conception: how many of us, after all, keep up this ritual after childhood?

That the Queen should be pictured engaged in intimate private devotion is one of the most original strokes of the series so far. For it silently makes the connection that, in order for the institution to have meaning and heft, there needs to be some kind of belief in the sacred. To put it another way, monarchy doesn't make sense without religion. It is an extraordinarily sophisticated aspect of the series, in the midst of the varied populist pleasures it offers, to understand this notion of anointed obedience so perfectly, and at the same time to put it across to the audience with such clarity.

Posted by at December 1, 2019 8:39 AM