THE ROYAL TREATMENT
Two new top-shelf British series deserve to be welcomed with great fanfare
Around of “Three cheers for the Queen” is required as you venture into the eagerly awaited The Crown, the splendid new 10-part original drama from Netflix, which gives us the intimate story of Queen Elizabeth’s early reign. Dramatised with cinematic felicity by a group of distinguished creative collaborators, the many personal intrigues, filial affections, clandestine passions and courtly jealousies behind her ascension to the throne are assayed with a nicely witty edge. Based on the meticulous research by a team that spent 2½ years poring through archives, biographies and cabinet minutes, the series chronicles the lives of the Windsors from 1947 to 1956. Elizabeth is played by Claire Foy ( Wolf Hall) and Philip by Matt Smith ( Doctor Who), and the show is reported to have cost about £100 million ($160m), making it the most expensive TV show in history. And you certainly see it on the screen.
Creator Peter Morgan ( The Queen, Frost/ Nixon) and director Stephen Daldry ( Billy Elliot, The Hours) reunite with executive producer Andy Harries ( The Queen), with whom they worked on the Tony award-winning play The Audience, which dealt with Elizabeth’s weekly meetings with the 12 prime ministers of her reign. Morgan also penned the Oscar-winning film The Queen starring Helen Mirren, which examined the relationship between Elizabeth and Tony Blair in the days after Princess Diana’s death.
The series begins in 1947. Britain is still reeling from the devastation of World War II, enduring the drab, impoverished economic circumstances of a defeated country rather than a victor. But the nation is momentarily spellbound by the wedding of the beautiful young Princess Elizabeth to dashing naval officer Philip Mountbatten. Behind the scenes it’s a union without a single ally in court or government. “Yet here we all are,” says the Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins), speaking of Elizabeth’s quiet determination to marry Philip. “She turned us all on our heads and barely opened her mouth in the process.”
It’s the regal beginning of highly nuanced and elegant tale, an absorbing narrative of rectitude, loyalty and self-sacrifice. Its focus is not only on the arcane rituals, pageantry, ceremony and theatre — handled with wonderful cinematic verisimilitude, full of sweeping crane shots and superbly costumed extras — but the quiet moments where the real drama lies. And intense it is.
“There are the big public events that we all know so well, but it’s also the other scenes that are really fascinating — in the bedrooms, in the quiet places you would never get access to,” says Daldry. “A lot of these scenes can be utterly heartbreaking when you think about what the family have been through, put themselves through, or indeed, what we’ve put them through.”
The divide between Elizabeth and her roguish husband Philip, who is reluctant to walk in her shadow; the king’s (Jared Harris) growing dismay at his physical frailty; the sexual tension between Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and the king’s equerry Peter Townsend (Ben Miles); and Elizabeth’s apprehension at just what is involved in being a monarch: all are established in emotionally weighted scenes with space given to the actors to find the truth of Morgan’s epigrammatic dialogue.
It’s almost as if the cameras keep a discreet distance to respect their privacy; the artistry with muted colour, light and shadow contributes as much emotion at times as pages of script might. The camera doesn’t merely show, it reveals. “We’ve tried to have as much scale as possible on camera and we try to do justice to these enormous historical events,” says Philip Martin ( Prime Suspect), who joins Daldry as a director and executive producer. “But at the same time we’re mindful of the fact that what’s moving about the show is this privilege to access the world of our characters and to be able to be close to them, to be able to get inside their heads, and to experience the world as they experience it.”
The intimate scenes — the series is directed with consummate taste and discretion — carry as much emotional weight as the spectacular set pieces in palaces and cathedrals. Only pedants would complain of the pacing, which is appropriately stately at times.
“Don’t you get sick of it all?” Elizabeth asks her father, the king. “I do,” he replies. “And lonely?” she asks again. “Sometimes,” he says slowly. It’s just one in a series of beautifully played personal scenes. The first episode quietly develops the subtext of Elizabeth’s growing understanding of what will be required of her as queen. Later, in a speech she gives during a Commonwealth tour she accepts on behalf of her ailing father, she says: “There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors, a noble motto: I serve.’’ (Morgan says the various historical events weren’t what made the series so interesting to write: “It’s been that this is a family, and within that family is the Crown, and the Crown is a bomb that changes the structure of everything.”)
This is television of the highest artistry, and which at times is so moving you feel your throat tighten. If the aim is to humanise those royal figures usually lampooned, ridiculed or politically disdained, and who in recent decades have represented all that is tawdry, archaic, dimwitted and servile about Britain, then it looks like it is going to work a treat. One of Us is the latest BBC First drama to come our way, a kind of profound morality tale centred on two Scottish families from writers Harry and Jack Williams, who recently gave us the hit series The Missing. Like that show, One of Us is a story of how people move on after a family tragedy; how it can drive them apart or pull them together. And maybe also how they cope with what appears to be malignant fate.
William McGregor directs with cinematic Claire Foy as a young Princess Elizabeth with Jared Harris as King George VI in The Crown; Foy tries one on for size, above polish; the dialogue is sparse and relies on music, noirish camera angles and helicopter shots to let the story unfold. The drama is about how two long-feuding families — the Elliots, headed by alcoholic mother Louise (Juliet Stevenson), and the Douglases, led by gloomy and highly religious Bill (John Lynch) — are affected by the murder of two of their adult children.
Devoted childhood sweethearts, Grace Douglas and Adam Elliot grew up in the isolated rural Highlands, their two family homes close to each other amid the deserted wild countryside. The Highlands’ remoteness is a crucial part of this story, dwarfing the characters right from the start when a weather warning promises gale-force winds. “Can’t move for all this talk about the friggin’ weather,” Bill Douglas growls as the family returns from church, Hank Williams’s The Lone Highway (“I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost”) playing on the car radio.
We meet Adam and Grace through a video of their wedding (before seguing straight to the murder scene). After going to university together they lived in Edinburgh, had recently married and were full of expectation — until they were murdered by a knife-wielding man. When the killer arrives on the families’ doorstep on the same day as the deaths, violently overturning a stolen car, they have to decide what to do next.
Issues of religious constraints, abandonment and alcoholism are all present. Absent Elliot father Peter (Adrian Edmondson) appears only fleetingly, presenting another mystery within the mystery.
This is a dense psychological crime thriller, dubbed “family noir” by British critics, that asks us what we would do in the same circumstances. (“We wanted to avoid the familiar tropes, so doing it all from the victims’ point of view felt like a more interesting way to go,” says Harry Williams of this quirkily different approach to a crime drama.) And just what are the moral consequences of taking the law into our own hands? Is that something any of us is truly capable of?
What we are left with at the end of the harrowing first episode is an uncomfortable kind of recognition, and a modern murder mystery that is not only a lovely exercise in the construction of a puzzle but a dense, dark study of character. streaming on Netflix. Monday, 8.30pm, BBC First.
Joe Dempsie, Juliet Stevenson, Julie Graham and John Lynch in the Scottish family noir drama One of Us