Be­hind the scenes of TV drama The Crown

Mick Brown goes be­hind the scenes of the fantastic new 10-part TV se­ries on the life of Queen El­iz­a­beth II.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

In 1952, land­ing at Lon­don Air­port on a flight from Kenya, where she had learnt of the death of her fa­ther, King Ge­orge VI, and her own as­cen­sion to the throne, the new Queen El­iz­a­beth was handed a let­ter from her grand­mother, Queen Mary. “While you mourn your fa­ther,” it read,

“you must also mourn some­one else, El­iz­a­beth Mount­bat­ten, for she has now been re­placed by an­other per­son, El­iz­a­beth Regina. The two El­iz­a­beths will fre­quently be in con­flict with one an­other, but the Crown must win. Must al­ways win.”

This scene, which is played out in the new Net­flix TV se­ries The Crown, is a fic­tion. The King had, in­deed, died and his daugh­ter had landed at Lon­don Air­port. Yet the let­ter is the in­ven­tion of the drama­tist Peter Morgan – a de­vice that bril­liantly sets up the cen­tral theme of The Crown and of a reign that has lasted nearly 65 years.

The 10-part se­ries, which fol­lows the life of the Queen from 1947 and her mar­riage to Philip Mount­bat­ten, to 1955 and Win­ston Churchill’s res­ig­na­tion as Prime Min­is­ter, is the most lav­ish tele­vi­sion drama ever made about the royal fam­ily. Fans of the monar­chy, pe­riod drama and fam­ily and po­lit­i­cal in­trigue will love it.

Writ­ten by Peter Morgan, who was re­spon­si­ble for the film The Queen and the play The Au­di­ence, and star­ring Claire Foy as the Queen, Matt Smith as the Duke of Ed­in­burgh and John Lith­gow as Churchill, it is ex­actly the sort of gold-stan­dard Bri­tish pro­duc­tion that one might ex­pect to find on Bri­tish tele­vi­sion. In fact, The Crown is a pro­duc­tion by the US-owned in­ter­net stream­ing ser­vice Net­flix.

A fur­ther 10 episodes are al­ready in pro­duc­tion, with the op­tion to make more. Peter de­scribes

The Crown as “a sort of fam­ily saga”, but this is, of course, a highly un­usual fam­ily – and a unique saga. El­iz­a­beth was just 25 when she came to

the throne, in­her­it­ing a po­si­tion that, by all ex­pec­ta­tions, she should never have held.

The ab­di­ca­tion in 1936 of her un­cle, King Ed­ward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor), who gave up the throne to marry the Amer­i­can di­vor­cée Wal­lis Simp­son, led to the en­throne­ment of her fa­ther, a shy man whose death at the age of 56 left his el­der daugh­ter sud­denly fac­ing the tow­er­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­com­ing Queen.

“She is a pro­tag­o­nist with a predica­ment that none of us can re­ally imag­ine,” Peter says, “and that is the side I’ve ex­plored in this – to what de­gree does this enor­mous change in your life change all your re­la­tion­ships, the fam­ily power struc­tures? To what de­gree does it make you a dif­fer­ent mother, wife, sis­ter, daugh­ter, when sud­denly this thing means you’re not just a mother, wife, sis­ter and daugh­ter at all, but the head of the fam­ily and the head of the state?”

It is pos­si­ble that no drama­tist has ever de­voted quite so much time to a sin­gle per­son as Peter Morgan has to the Queen. Yet put it to him that he must find the sub­ject of El­iz­a­beth Regina end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing and he de­nies it. “Let’s be clear about this,” he says, “I re­ally don’t. I have no in­ter­est in the royal fam­ily what­so­ever, but for some rea­son I seem to be able to write this woman and I don’t know why that is.”

The Queen, the 2006 film which starred He­len Mir­ren, was orig­i­nally con­ceived, he says, as a study of how Tony Blair, as UK Prime Min­is­ter, re­sponded to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. “The Queen was the foil to the Blair char­ac­ter I was writ­ing, but the film then be­came all about her.”

Sim­i­larly, his in­ten­tion with The Au­di­ence was to ex­plore the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Crown and Par­lia­ment. “I wanted to write about the Prime Min­is­ters – but, of course, it ended up as a tour de force for who­ever was play­ing the Queen,” he says.

In De­cem­ber 2013, Peter met with ITV and the BBC to dis­cuss the project and, in Jan­uary, flew to Los An­ge­les for meet­ings with four ma­jor US net­works and Net­flix. “Ev­ery­body had liked it, but Net­flix com­mis­sioned two se­ries – 20 hours of tele­vi­sion – straight off,” he says. “It was im­pres­sive just how speedy their re­sponse was.”

The pro­duc­tion is a mea­sure of how on­line plat­forms such as Net­flix and Ama­zon are chal­leng­ing tra­di­tional tele­vi­sion chan­nels and film. Net­flix has paid a re­ported $169 mil­lion for the first 20 episodes – a fig­ure that, ac­cord­ing to the pro­ducer An­drew Eaton, would have been very dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, for a net­work TV sta­tion to match. “But when you’re do­ing some­thing that’s pe­riod and it’s about one of the most wealthy and fa­mous fam­i­lies in the world, you do need a rea­son­able amount of money to achieve it,” he says.

The Crown un­folds through a se­ries of crit­i­cal per­sonal and con­sti­tu­tional mo­ments in the first years of the Queen’s reign: the Corona­tion; the sac­ri­fice of her sis­ter, Princess Mar­garet, and Group Cap­tain Peter Townsend’s prospec­tive mar­riage – and hap­pi­ness – on the al­tar of con­sti­tu­tional cor­rect­ness and the dik­tats of the Church (“one half sis­ter, one half Queen”); and the crip­pling great Lon­don fog of 1952, which almost ended Churchill’s ca­reer.

In its mix of as­sid­u­ously re­searched his­tor­i­cal fact and vividly imag­ined char­ac­ters, it en­larges our un­der­stand­ing of the Queen and her role in na­tional life, and just how re­mark­able it is that a woman who in­her­ited the crown, un­pre­pared, at such an early age should have ruled with such res­o­lu­tion for 65 years, with 13 Prime Min­is­ters serv­ing un­der her in that time.

As Peter Morgan points out, at first sight, El­iz­a­beth Windsor is the op­po­site of what a drama­tist looks for in a char­ac­ter. “Shy, in­tro­vert, coun­try­woman, rel­a­tively unimag­i­na­tive… non-cho­leric. You’d want a front-foot char­ac­ter – ec­cen­tric, full of fa­tal flaws, li­bidi­nous, drug­tak­ing.” Rather, the drama comes from the char­ac­ter she is and the role it is de­manded that she play. With the Queen, it’s, “Where does my loy­alty lie? With my iden­tity as a wife, to my hus­band, or to the Crown?”

“It’s that strug­gle that her un­cle [the Duke of Windsor] couldn’t cope with at all and which crushed her fa­ther, but which she man­ages to sub­sume some­how. His­tory will see her as a

The Duke was bright and witty, and a great fa­ther. – Matt Smith

sort of cer­e­mo­nial fig­ure, but un­derneath she is an in­di­vid­ual like you or me. So a lot of the dilem­mas and sit­u­a­tions feel fa­mil­iar and per­sonal. It’s just the lan­guage, the pro­to­col – the an­thro­pol­ogy – that are dif­fer­ent.”

Claire Foy has some ex­pe­ri­ence of roy­alty – she played Anne Bo­leyn in TV se­ries Wolf Hall. “But this is on such a dif­fer­ent scale,” she says. Claire is mar­vel­lous in her part. The Queen who emerges is a woman griev­ously ill-pre­pared for the role she must play, ed­u­cated in her con­sti­tu­tional po­si­tion, but lit­tle else, more knowl­edge­able about horses than pol­i­tics, and strug­gling to rec­on­cile the con­tra­dic­tions of fam­ily and duty – not least in her mar­riage – with char­ac­ter, keen in­tel­li­gence and re­solve. “I do think the job she’s done is ex­tra­or­di­nary,” says Claire. “On a hu­man level, to lose her fa­ther when she was so young and to have two young chil­dren, and all of a sud­den she has this huge re­spon­si­bil­ity, the weight of the world on her shoul­ders. You could say her life was cut short in a way. A lot of peo­ple might say, ‘Well, you be­came the Queen of Eng­land. Hur­rah!’ But there is some­thing un­set­tling to me about that. I feel a lot of sym­pa­thy for her and the longer I’ve worked on this, the more my ad­mi­ra­tion for her has grown.”

I met the ac­tress at Lan­caster House, used in the se­ries as a stand-in for Buck­ing­ham Palace. A parka over her queenly dress and pearls, slip­pers rather than heels, she was help­ing her­self to a cup of tea in the court­yard.

One of the de­lights of the se­ries is the grat­i­fy­ingly pruri­ent glimpses it of­fers into the

(of course, imag­ined) pri­vate world of the roy­als – the sep­a­rate bed­rooms of the Queen and the Duke of Ed­in­burgh; the Ru­ri­ta­nian scenes in the Palace, with red uni­formed courtiers bobbing their heads as the Queen hur­ries along the cor­ri­dors; the cosy sit­ting room where she sits read­ing Sport­ing Life.

This feels like the royal fam­ily as we have never seen them be­fore. In the first episode, there is an ex­tra­or­di­nary scene in which sur­geons, in or­der to keep the grav­ity of his con­di­tion a se­cret, ar­rive at Buck­ing­ham Palace to op­er­ate on the ail­ing King Ge­orge. The pro­ce­dure takes place in a state room un­der a ma­jes­tic chan­de­lier – and ac­tu­ally hap­pened. (“I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘Blimey! I’d like my tooth ex­trac­tion done here, please,’” says Peter Morgan.)

The Queen’s bridal gown is an ex­act replica of the dress de­signed by the cou­turier Nor­man Hart­nell, which took Hart­nell’s seam­stresses six months to make. (In keep­ing with the na­tional mood of aus­ter­ity, the 21-year-old then Princess saved ra­tion coupons to pay for the ma­te­rial, sup­ple­mented with a 200-coupon do­na­tion from the govern­ment.)

The wed­ding dress in The Crown was made in just seven weeks at a cost of $50,000. Claire Foy says it was dur­ing the film­ing of the Corona­tion scene, dressed in rit­u­al­is­tic fin­ery and don­ning the crown, that she felt most weighed down – lit­er­ally – by the majesty of the char­ac­ter she was play­ing and the role the Queen had been re­quired to play.

“It took five days to shoot that scene and the dress, an ex­act replica, weighed a ton,” she says. “All the fid­dling to get it right and need­ing the loo, and you’ve got a crown on your head. For this young woman to be wear­ing all that and then have the com­po­sure to walk through the Abbey full of dig­ni­taries and heads of state, and then hav­ing to be anointed. It must have taken huge gump­tion. You think, who else could have done this? Who else could have taken that re­spon­si­bil­ity on and who else could have done the job so well for such a long time, and never com­plained? It’s amaz­ing.”

In a stroke of imag­i­na­tive ge­nius, the Corona­tion it­self is viewed largely through the per­spec­tive of the TV cam­eras, which were ad­mit­ted to the Abbey for the first time – in this ac­count, fol­low­ing pres­sure from the Duke of Ed­in­burgh about the need to bring the monar­chy into the mod­ern age.

The broad­cast is watched in ex­ile in Paris by the Duke of Windsor, for­bid­den to at­tend, and here seen of­fer­ing a run­ning com­men­tary to an as­sem­bled group of friends and cronies. At the most sa­cred mo­ment in the cer­e­mony, the anoint­ing with holy oil, the new monarch is hidden from view un­der a golden canopy. So why can’t we see it, an Amer­i­can guest of the Duke asks.

“Who wants trans­parency when you can have magic?” he replies. “Who wants prose when you

Who else could have done the job so well for such a long time? It’s amaz­ing. – Claire Foy

can have po­etry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An or­di­nary young woman of mod­est abil­ity and lit­tle imag­i­na­tion. But wrap her up like this and anoint her with oil and, hey presto, what do you have? A god­dess.”

Fit­tingly, per­haps, Peter Morgan gives the best lines about the con­flict be­tween per­sonal hap­pi­ness and royal duty to the Duke of Windsor (played by Alex Jen­nings). Ag­o­nis­ing over how to tell Mar­garet she can­not marry Cap­tain Townsend, the Queen phones the Duke in France. In one of those imag­ined con­ver­sa­tions Peter does so bril­liantly, the Duke likens him­self and the Queen to the Sphinx and Ganesh, “We are half peo­ple, ripped from the pages of some bizarre mythol­ogy, those two sides of us, hu­man and Crown, en­gaged in a fear­ful civil war, which never ends and which blights our ev­ery hu­man trans­ac­tion as brother, hus­band, sis­ter, wife and mother. I un­der­stand the agony you feel. And I am here to tell you it will never leave you.”

For the Queen, this dilemma is most acute in her re­la­tion­ship with her hus­band, whose hopes at the time of their mar­riage of con­tin­u­ing with his own ca­reer in the Royal Navy were dashed the mo­ment King Ge­orge died. The Crown de­picts a Duke of Ed­in­burgh torn be­tween the de­sire to sup­port his wife and the re­straints of pro­to­col, and the strain this puts on the mar­riage, driv­ing him to seek refuge in the com­pany of play­boy friends – and, as the pro­gramme tact­fully im­plies, other re­la­tion­ships.

The young, hand­some, vi­tal fig­ure fall­ing drunk­enly out of sports cars, em­bod­ied by Matt Smith, will be a com­plete stranger to most of us, more fa­mil­iar with the stiff-backed, im­pa­tient and un­re­pen­tantly tact­less Duke of more re­cent his­tory.

“If you ask most peo­ple in Bri­tain about Prince Philip, that’s what they think of,” says Matt Smith. “But I found that in his younger self there was such a lot to ad­mire. He was a great naval man, revered in the Navy. He was bright and witty, and a great fa­ther, ac­tu­ally – he was very much the one in­volved with the chil­dren.” Matt says that prior to tak­ing the role he had never had much in­ter­est in, or af­fec­tion for, the royal fam­ily. “But hav­ing made this, both of those things have changed. I have a great in­ter­est and a great af­fec­tion – par­tic­u­larly for Philip. I re­ally be­gan to side with his point of view and his sense of, ‘No! I am a man! And I need to be heard. And why should I walk two steps be­hind you?’

“He was an out­sider in the early years; it was a mar­riage made in the face of op­po­si­tion from just about ev­ery­body – in the se­ries, the Queen Mother, talk­ing about Philip’s mother, calls her ‘the Hun Nun’. And he was a mod­erniser, when the es­tab­lish­ment within the royal fam­ily didn’t want to mod­ernise. But I was watch­ing some film of the Queen say­ing, ‘You’ll never know the great debt that I and our coun­try owe to this man,’ and I think that’s true. And he’s done it du­ti­fully and grace­fully.”

Like any his­tor­i­cal drama­ti­sa­tion, The Crown treads the fine line be­tween fact and fic­tion. Peter Morgan em­ploys a team of re­searchers to en­sure over­all ac­cu­racy. “They’re almost like my com­pli­ance peo­ple,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘That didn’t hap­pen,’ or ‘That’s ridicu­lous.’ I want to pro­tect my abil­ity to write things as I would love them to have been – then I get crushed by how they ac­tu­ally were. Then, of course, it gets sub­mit­ted to lawyers who make sure we don’t end up in the Tower.”

Yet the char­ac­ters and their pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions are an in­ven­tion. As Peter says, this is not the Queen, it is his Queen. “It’s as if I was paint­ing a por­trait – I can’t take my hand out of it,” he says. “If ab­so­lute ac­cu­racy was all you were af­ter, you would take a pho­to­graph with flat light.”

The irony is that hav­ing lived, so to speak, with the royal fam­ily for over 10 years, Peter doesn’t “much care for these peo­ple”. Yet, at some pro­found level, he goes on, “they are all of us and we are all of them.” The Queen, he says, is, to the month, the same age as his late mother.

“There is barely a per­son in Bri­tain for whom she hasn’t been alive ev­ery day of their life. She is my mother, she’s other peo­ple’s grand­mother and great-grand­mother. Like her or not, at a deeper, sub­con­scious level, that’s in­cred­i­bly po­tent.”

See Kate Rodger’s re­view of The Crown on p155.

You’ll never know the great debt that I and our coun­try owe to this man. – Queen El­iz­a­beth II

ABOVE AND OP­PO­SITE: Claire Foy in the role of Queen El­iz­a­beth II in The Crown. TOP: The Queen in the real crown in 1955.

BE­LOW: Di­rec­tor Stephen Daldry with Matt Smith as Prince Philip.

TOP: Then Princess El­iz­a­beth with the Duke of Ed­in­burgh af­ter their wed­ding. ABOVE: El­iz­a­beth es­corted down the aisle by her fa­ther, King Ge­orge VI (Jared Har­ris) in The Crown.

BE­LOW: El­iz­a­beth and Philip share an in­ti­mate mo­ment out of the spot­light in The Crown.

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