“I fell in love with Margaret
From the wild world of Princess Margaret to the private tensions inside the Queen’s marriage, Juliet Rieden goes behind the scenes on set to uncover the secrets of season two of The Crown.
It’s a chilly early Sunday morning on The Mall in the heart of London. The regal red road running from imposing Admiralty Arch at Trafalgar Square to the heavenly gilded Winged Victory statue atop the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace has been closed off to cars for a few precious hours and transformed into a scene from the 1950s. Morning joggers are politely asked to take a detour as vintage cars – Triumphs and Rovers – are parked up and 22 extras, picked for their retro haircuts and 1950s look, parade in period costume – nipped in waists, long pencil skirts; and men in homburgs, brogues, grey suits and trench coats. This is the only time the road can be closed, and director Ben Caron is working against the clock.
The Australian Women’s Weekly has been invited on set to watch the filming of a crucial scene for episode seven of season two of The Crown, the multimillion-dollar (the most expensive TV series ever made), critically acclaimed, hit show that tells the inside story of the life of Queen Elizabeth II and that has the whole world glued to Netflix.
As “action” calls for silence, a motorbike speeds past with actor Vanessa Kirby in old-fashioned helmet and goggles riding pillion, her arms wrapped around the waist of her co-star Matthew Goode. I think I see her snuggle into Matthew’s neck for a sneaky kiss as he grips onto the handlebars. And when the scene is reshot four, five, six times more, I see I’m right.
The breathtakingly elegant
Vanessa Kirby is playing the Queen’s troubled sister, Princess Margaret, who at the end of season one we saw angry and broken when her proposed marriage to the love of
her life, divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend, was vetoed by the Queen in a piece of what Margaret perceived to be sibling treachery. In this season, Margaret is back in a relationship with another less than suitable beau, society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, and their sex, booze and rock and roll ’n’ roll romps, which brought a frisson of modern glamour to the stuffy House of Windsor, are played out in racy detail.
The daring storyline doesn’t pull punches as we see bored, entitled Margaret transformed, falling in lust with the exciting, arty and unconventional demi-monde that her lover inhabits, a world away from her sister’s tweedy courtiers, separate bed marriage and prayers before lights out.
At least that’s how writer Peter Morgan has portrayed the two sisters. Peter is a master at creating what feels like a very accurate voice for not just the Queen, but all of the royals. Of course, he’s inhabited Her Majesty before, when Dame Helen Mirren took on the Monarch in his play The Audience and film The Queen. And so far, Morgan’s interpretation has walked a very delicate line between respectful and revelatory.
In season two he investigates the private worlds of the Queen and Princess Margaret, he questions Prince Philip’s fidelity, airing the dirty laundry of past accusations of impropriety, while Prince Charles’ difficult relationship with his father and brutal time at school is dramatised in detail. It’s going to make decidedly uncomfortable viewing for the royal family, although the beating heart of the show is not salacious gossip but a study of what it really means on a private and personal level to bear the burden of the monarchy.
Earlier this year, a report revealed that the Queen had watched series one, but it’s not something that sits comfortably with Peter Morgan. “In my own heart of hearts I want to pretend that she hasn’t watched and I hope she never does,” the writer told a UK newspaper.
As I stand on The Mall, I can see the flag flying high above Buckingham Palace, which means the Queen – that’s the real one – is in residence, probably just waking up, maybe even watching out of the window. Only a few days ago I was part of the Australian contingent invited onto the forecourt of Buckingham Palace to watch Her Majesty launch the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games baton relay, and a few days before that at the Women of the World Festival cocktail bash inside the Palace. So it’s ironic that today I will be watching and meeting the actors who play a fictionalised Queen and royal family.
It must be strange to be dramatising a real-life story while the Monarch, the star of the show, is today at least, just a few hundreds metres away. “Oh God, yeah,” says Vanessa Kirby when we sit down to chat later in the day. “In the first week I kept thinking about it.
“As Margaret, I was taking on somebody who is known, and it’s weird because I don’t really look like her. But then you just throw it all out of the window and go, actually, it’s about the spirit or the essence of the person. I have got to be true to Peter’s version of Margaret and try to create somebody four dimensional, who has lots of layers and complexity.”
Vanessa says she’s having a ball playing the playgirl Princess. As a 29-year-old, she didn’t grow up with a sense of Margaret’s past, so it’s been as much a history lesson as it has been an acting role. “I really didn’t know anything about her.
I had seen pictures and I thought of her as an old lady. I had heard a little bit about some drinking habits but that was all.
“I tried to read everything I could to find out who she was and how she ended up like that. I really loved taking on the journey of somebody who was all set for one thing, and then your father dies and your life completely changes, and how that affects everything, even down to the person you want to marry and have children with. Also, how it affects your inner self and defines you as a human. And I fell in love with her.”
When we first see Margaret in season two she is still distraught over her lost love, but then everything changes. “She’s not in a good place and then unexpectedly this man walks in and there is an instant electricity that she has never felt before and then mayhem ensues,” explains Vanessa with a wicked chortle. “I think they found their match in the energy and the power both of them had. Margaret needed somebody to say no to her, actually, and somebody that intellectually matched her. He showed this whole other side of life, underground bohemian
She’s not in a good place, then this man walks in.
London, jazz clubs, the art scene, the things that were always essentially her, but she never had access to inside these walls. And the first season pretty much showed that. You have got a girl that is desperate to get out but doesn’t know how. Her whole identity is royal princess. So then meeting somebody who throws that away is something incredibly exciting, alluring, dangerous. To get on the motorbike, it’s danger, it’s thrill-seeking and I think she goes head first into it.”
Matthew Goode was cast as Antony Armstrong-Jones just before the death of the real life Lord Snowdon (as he became after his marriage to Princess Margaret). While he confesses it feels odd to be playing someone so recently deceased, it did take the pressure off his portrayal. “It sounds awful, but it did. It’s like, I suppose he is not going to see it so that’s okay,” he says.
Vanessa says the secret to the show’s success is the intimate detail revealed on screen and the searching character analysis.
“I think they are the last remaining public personas that you don’t have access to and you don’t really know who they are behind the closed doors.”
But how accurate is it? After The Mall shoot, we move to Lancaster House, which doubles for Buckingham Palace in the show. The historic house that Netflix rents from the current owner, the UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is next door to Clarence House, where Prince Charles and Camilla live, and a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. The crew can only use the place at weekends and have to cover all the lavish carpets and handrails in plastic cling wrap and styrofoam to ensure nothing is damaged.
Major David Rankin-Hunt used to work for the royal family and has come out of retirement to act as Royal Adviser on the series. When he was asked by Netflix, he says he made sure the Palace approved, so it’s reasonable to assume the royal household isn’t seething about the series.
The Major is on set most days and advises on everything from protocol to the way people speak or how they are dressed. “The funny thing is that the crew and the cast have done so much detailed research, they are punctilious in getting it right, which makes my life so much easier. I mean, they really are extremely good at getting the detail right,” he says.
“There has been very, very little that isn’t very accurate. Obviously there is always going to be a little bit of artistic licence, that goes with the territory, but I don’t think there have been any occasions that I can think of where they were way off the mark.”
As Margaret’s love life develops in this season, her sister’s hits a few roadblocks and the Duke of Edinburgh’s struggle with living in his wife’s shadow is analysed in detail. “I think that was very difficult for him and so it’s been interesting to explore the conflicts of him,” explains actor Matt Smith, who says he approaches the role firstly by mastering his physical gait.
“He is quite a rangy guy and he has a particular gait, he dips in and out, it’s a physical shape.” Similarly, Claire Foy says the key to her Queen is the voice ,which she admits “is a lot of work”.
The camaraderie between the actors, and especially Claire and Matt, is very evident when I meet them on set. “I just love him,” says Claire. “He is a real friend and we really got on from the start. I think we both don’t take ourselves very seriously, which really helps. We both approach things with a humour and joy about how sort of ridiculous it is that we are playing these parts.”
Matt Smith says he didn’t really think about the royals as people before this role came along, but now that’s all changed. “The royals are ingrained to your cultural sensibility, really. I mean, I was aware of them but I didn’t really pay that much attention to them. They were just there. Buckingham Palace was just there.
But now I drive past it with a renewed sense of interest. I sort of know what goes on in there and so I have become much more fond of them having made this show.”
I suspect the viewers will agree with him.
You don’t know who they are behind doors.
The 10-episode season two of The Crown is available to stream on Netflix from December 8.
Vanessa and Matthew play royal rebels Princess Margaret and photographer beau Antony Armstrong-Jones.
Claire Foy revels in the “joy about how sort of ridiculous it is” to be playing the part of the Queen.
In season two, the Queen also has to play Mum to the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne.