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.
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“you must also mourn someone else, Elizabeth Mountbatten, for she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina.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.