The Netflix Queen

“What a marvelous way of looking at the history of modern Britain,” enthused the socialist historian Raphael Samuel when fellow historian Ben Pimlott told him in the 1990s that he was writing a ...

“What a marvelous way of looking at the history of modern Britain,” enthused the socialist historian Raphael Samuel when fellow historian Ben Pimlott told him in the 1990s that he was writing a biography of Elizabeth II.1 Twenty years later, in a very different medium, with a global Netflix profile, and more than a nod to Pimlott’s own research, audiences are being offered a new treatment of the Queen and a revised history of postwar Britain in the $130 million series The Crown. Twenty episodes have already aired, and many more are promised. How credible is the type of British history The Crown presents? And what can the show teach us about how audiences have reacted to the British monarchy across the 66 years of the Queen’s reign?

Why now? Royal watching of the House of Windsor in multiple media across the world never disappears from public view. But the recent spate of film and TV treatments of modern British history—Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Victoria, as well as The Crown—suggests the influence of Brexit. Though these shows were produced before the British vote to leave the European Union, Brexit is present in its felt effects for UK audiences. Brexiteers seek to reshape the national imaginary by appealing to Britain’s island inheritance and sense of independent sovereignty, separate from the country’s European heritage.2

The Crown rehearses an oft-told, romantic version of a reassuringly restricted national story of Englishness. This is a narrative driven by queens and kings and horse-and-carriage ceremonial, largely set in a London portrayed as a place of constitutional drama and palace intrigue, of family feuds and love and loss among the highest in the land. Europe is offstage, the location of the Queen’s Nazi in-laws and the refuge of forced émigrés, like her uncle David, the Duke of Windsor, aka Edward VIII. The United States, largely carried by Jackie Kennedy in the second season, is cast as an international competitor to the British monarchy in the stakes of global glamour.

The political theorist Tom Nairn has argued that one important effect of royal Britain is to reinstate a conservative and hierarchical image of power as immutable and concrete.3 When I was growing up in the 1950s, the monarchy’s prestige and authority was seen by my Conservative family as socially and politically robust rather than backward-looking. It coexisted uneasily with more obviously progressive visions of the country’s future.4 Have some of the traditional heroines and heroes of our national story taken on new life as a result of the political turbulence at home and Britain’s uncertain relationship with the rest of the world?

The Crown deals in a largely traditionalist version of the recent past, but the series is an intelligent and often arresting portrayal of contemporary British history. It is seriously researched and impressively acted, especially by Claire Foy in her compelling portrayal of the young Elizabeth II, arguably one of the most iconic yet enigmatic women of the 20th century. It is a mark of The Crown’s impact that historians of monarchy are taking it seriously.5

Peter Morgan and his team of writers carefully avoid the twin traps that often beset royal news coverage: hagiography and sycophancy. The high production values on display in the sets and costumes make the BBC’s recent offerings in a similar vein look a tad threadbare. Above all, the producers take risks with genre and with the conventions of historical verisimilitude in ways that challenge established ideas of what public history should look like. The show deliberately disrupts docudrama with fantasy sequences, while undercutting conventionally forward-moving plotlines with flashbacks.

Is factuality always the preferred medium for engaging audiences’ attention? Does entertaining television necessarily involve prurience and voyeurism?

It is revealing which aspects of postwar British society are absent and which overwhelmingly present in The Crown’s historical record. The series begins with royal events in 1947, notably Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip. But there is nothing in Season 1 about New Commonwealth migration from the Caribbean or India, arguably the single most significant factor transforming Britain after the arrival of West Indians on the Empire Windrush in 1948. Black characters feature only as troublesome Commonwealth citizens abroad, not at home. They blow in the winds of postcolonial change, especially in the coverage of Ghanaian President Nkrumah, whose Soviet sympathies eventually evaporate in the face of the Queen’s persuasive regal charm.

Conspicuous also by their absence are the challenges to the monarchy posed by mass political and cultural democracy and organized labor, which turned the 20th century into the people’s century, not one of deference to kings and emperors.6 Neither is there coverage of an event like the Festival of Britain, which preceded the coronation of the Queen in 1951 and aimed to provide a more regionally diverse, democratic, and inclusive “autobiography of a nation.”7

But sex and the changing social and moral character of the country there are aplenty, as 1940s austerity is seen to give way to 1950s and early 1960s affluence. The Queen’s enfant terrible younger sister, Princess Margaret, embodies postwar hedonism. She is a wayward royal modernizer, the foil to her sister’s public face of traditional reticence and restraint. An entire episode is devoted to the high drama of the Profumo affair in 1963, focusing public attention on the War Minister, John Profumo, and his relationship with a glamorous London call girl, Christine Keeler, who in turn was reputedly involved with Soviet spy Eugene Ivanov. The series includes the Profumo scandal ostensibly to address Prince Philip’s alleged involvement in it, but also to demonstrate the impact of the so-called permissive society on the English social elites.

The series is at its most intriguing, and most problematic, when exploring the monarchy’s private face—the world of personal life and the emotions, those quintessentially 1960s key words. Historians and public commentators have generally opted for an “either-or” narrative of modern British sovereignty. One camp has charted the growing constitutional propriety that began under the Queen’s grandfather George V, when the crown surrendered real political authority and partisanship for a largely advisory and ceremonial role.8 Another has identified British royals as modern proto-celebrities, whose personal lives and foibles were the creation of intense multi-media scrutiny.9 A third strand, however, is not reflected in The Crown at all: the idea and practice of a modern “welfare monarchy,” with the royal family acting as the patrons of and donors to numerous charities and being actively engaged in right-minded compassion for the poor and vulnerable.10

The series delivers emphatically on the constitutional story, covering the regular, one-on-one encounters between the sovereign and her first three prime ministers. Historians do not know the precise nature of these conversations, but they can piece together the political context from other sources. There is evidence, for example, that the Queen had concerns about Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s hapless imperialist adventure in the Suez Canal in 1956, which is reflected in the episode aptly titled “Misadventure” that opens Season 2.11 Coverage of Macmillan’s fall from power in autumn 1963 in the final episode of the season touches on the Queen’s own involvement in this contentious moment of political transition for the Tory Party.

On the questions of personal life, romance, and the royal marriages, the producers have opted, in the absence of historical evidence, to make things up. This is presumably done in the interest of making good television, but it may also be a deliberate experiment in how history can be “augmented” with skillful media scripting. For example, in “Beryl” (Season 2, episode 4), we are treated to the imagined pillow talk between the Queen and Prince Philip as they discuss their relationship in a four-poster bed. We listen to the Queen supposedly quoting her mother: “The first 10 years of marriage is just an overture. There’s often a crisis at 10 years, but then you work it out, and it’s only then it gets into its stride. Do you suppose that’s what’s happened to us?” Cut later to Princess Margaret slumming in the studio of the unconventional photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (later her husband) when he says to her: “I prefer you to be yourself, but … you’ve no idea who you are.”

The strategy of making things up is controversial. Royal historian Hugo Vickers has painstakingly detailed the “truth and the fiction” of each of the show’s episodes.12 But rather than try to sift fact from fantasy, we might focus on their juxtaposition, which curiously unsettles viewers’ expectations. Well-charted and well-known themes clash with made-up dialogue and events. For example, the imagined scenes from royal private life quoted above are interspersed with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 rocket in 1957 and Lord Altrincham’s trenchant critique of the monarchy as out of touch with the social realities of modern Britain the same year.

“The Crown” deals in a largely traditionalist version of the recent past, but the series is an intelligent and often arresting portrayal of contemporary British history.

My immediate response at these junctures was to ask: what genre are we in now? Is this docudrama, magical realism, or something else? This form of viewing is of course an occupational hazard; only professional royal watchers like myself, in the historical business of chronicling the monarchy, would know the difference. Many viewers I have listened to have not distinguished real events from the fabrications. Nonetheless, The Crown’s self-conscious experimentation does pose sharp questions about how to represent postwar British history. Is factuality always the preferred medium for engaging audiences’ attention? How to handle the private life of major public figures? Does entertaining television necessarily involve prurience and voyeurism?

These questions about how audiences respond to the show now alert us to how the show represents audiences. The Crown depicts publics simply and homogeneously, as the massed crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace for the 1953 coronation and other big state occasions, or as the implied hands that turn the pages of popular press coverage of royal comings and goings. The series is generally not in the business of charting the people’s story of Elizabeth II’s reign as popular experience; it tells the story of monarchy from above. Interestingly, the producers refuse the upstairs-downstairs genre that has been such a successful feature of so many British costume dramas, most recently Downton Abbey (2010–15). In The Crown’s reading of the social hierarchy, servants are very much kept in their place. Subalterns do not speak!

The Crown’s lack of interest in the people’s Queen is all the more striking given how much we know about popular attitudes toward the House of Windsor. The process of popular information gathering about the royal family began in late 1936 and early 1937, with the advent of the social research organization Mass Observation. Mass Observation was set up in response to the powerful emotions unleashed by the abdication of Edward VIII, who elected to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson against the advice of the government and the Anglican Church. Mass Observation’s express aim was to provide, in the words of its cofounder Charles Madge, “an anthropology of our people.” Madge argued that social research would begin to map the conscious and unconscious impulses that produced both empathy and disenchantment with the monarchy in equal measure.13

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The producers are right to grasp the fact that this late 1930s moment of crisis for the British monarchy is the real beginning of Elizabeth II’s story. That crisis shadows the postwar action and drives many of the key plotlines. By 1953, Mass Observation was mapping the varied responses to the Queen’s coronation across different parts of the country. People in Sheffield and York said they saw it as “a London thing”; parts of Scotland were downright hostile.14

But their special team of researchers also noted the warmth of feeling about the Queen when she was seen in public. A 21-year-old bank clerk who had previously thought her remote wrote of “a rising excitement in myself” when she came past in the state coach.15 A woman in a poor part of Fulham who had spent large sums of money on street decorations explained on the eve of the celebrations: “We’ve always liked her as Princess Elizabeth. … She seems so homely. Let’s hope she’ll be happy and we’ll all have peace.”16 Taken together, Mass Observation’s interventions accelerated the desacralization of the British monarchy, positioning it less as part of establishment power and elite ceremonial and more integrated into British everyday life and the world of human feelings.

So what does Buckingham Palace make of The Crown? “Never complain; never explain,” is a maxim coined by British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, but it has been a consistent royal watchword across the 20th century. It would be surprising if the Queen and her family had not seen or heard about the series given its international coverage. Indirectly, royal watchers detected the hint of a response from the monarch herself when she came the closest ever to giving an interview in January of this year, talking about her coronation with the BBC’s Alastair Bruce.

No direct questions were put to the Queen, and the series never came up, but she did address the ways that she embodies sovereignty in her own person, and in the crown itself, along with the rest of the royal regalia. Some of this was throwaway and tongue-in-cheek. “I like the Black Prince’s ruby,” the Queen said, while the pearls hanging below the crown she thought were “not very happy.”17

But there was also a robust message about the monarchy that assumed its continuing presence in British culture and popular experience. In the Queen’s own words: “There are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they’re quite important things.” This cryptic but telling rejoinder from a shrewd, elderly monarch exudes confidence in sovereignty in a turbulent world and reasserts the position of the crown in 21st-century national life.

 

This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

  1. Ben Pimlott, The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II (Harper Collins, 1996), p. xiii.
  2. I am grateful to my colleague Alessandro Schiesaro for this insight.
  3. Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy (Radius, 1988), p. 287.
  4. Frank Mort, Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society (Yale University Press, 2010), p. 19.
  5. Hugo Vickers, “How Accurate Is The Crown? We Sort Fact from Fiction in the Royal Drama,” The Times, December 19, 2017; Kelly Lawler, “How Accurate Is ‘The Crown’ Season 2? We Asked a Historian Five Burning Questions,” USA Today, December 19, 2017.
  6. Selina Todd, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 19102010 (John Murray, 2014).
  7. Becky Conekin, ‘The Autobiography of a Nation’: The 1951 Festival of Britain (Manchester University Press, 2003).
  8. David Cannadine, “The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition,’ c. 1820-1977,” in The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 101–64.
  9. Laura E. Nym Mayhall, “The Prince of Wales versus Clark Gable: Anglophone Celebrity and Citizenship between the Wars,” Cultural and Social History, vol. 4, no. 4 (2007), pp. 529–43.
  10. Frank Prochaska, Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy (Yale University Press, 1995).
  11. Pimlott, The Queen, p. 255; Vickers, “How Accurate Is The Crown?”
  12. Vickers, “How Accurate Is the Crown?”
  13. Charles Madge, “Anthropology at Home,” New Statesman and Nation, January 2, 1937, p. 12.
  14. Mass Observation Archive: TC Royalty, 69/5/M, Pre-Coronation Diaries, Sheffield, April 21, 1953, and 69/5/L, Interviews Regarding Coronation Souvenirs, May 1953.
  15. Philip Ziegler, Crown and People (Collins, 1978), p. 114.
  16. Mass Observation Archive: TC Royalty, 69/9/C, General Observations and Overheards, Lillie Walk, Fulham Coronation Decorations, May 30, 1953, p. 6
  17. BBC One, The Coronation, January 14, 2018.
Featured image: Claire Foy in The Crown. Photograph courtesy of Netflix