SECRET OF THE UNSEEN QUEEN
An exclusive behind-the-scenes peek at the new blockbuster drama about the life of Elizabeth II
THERE’S high drama everywhere I look. Over there, the Queen is boarding a BOAC flight. Here’s Winston Churchill presiding over a cabinet meeting. And look: the Duke of Edinburgh is wandering around in his pyjamas. In a muddy field, I see perfect replicas of the frontages of Buckingham Palace and No. 10 Downing Street — although on closer inspection, they do look a little frayed.
Then the Queen swings her handbag at a courtier, and lets out a belly laugh.
It’s as if I’ve been sent back in a time machine to view — first hand — the early years of Her Majesty’s reign. But, in reality, the scenes unfolding before my eyes are part of the filming of the first series of The Crown — the most ambitious television programme ever made about Elizabeth II, and this autumn’s must-see drama.
‘It’s the story of this extraordinary family under extraordinary pressure trying to survive,’ said Stephen Daldry, one of The Crown’s executive producers and directors.
All ten hour-long episodes will be streamed, in all Netflix territories, from November 4 this year.
Viewers will be able to observe actress Claire Foy’s portrait of Elizabeth from her wedding to dashing naval officer Philip Mountbatten (played by Matt Smith) in 1947, to the debacle that was Suez in 1956.
People forget that in the early years of her reign, the Queen looked like a movie star.
‘She was glamorous and she was beautiful — but she had this extraordinary sense of duty as well,’ Daldry added.
His ambition, and that of his collaborators — writer Peter Morgan (who worked on the play The Audience with Daldry and also wrote the film The Queen, both starring Helen Mirren), Philip Martin (who directs four episodes) and producers Andy Harries, Matthew Byam-Shaw, Andrew Eaton, Faye Ward and Robert Fox — is to shoot ten episodes for each decade of Her Majesty’s 63-year reign.
The second series, covering the Sixties, starts filming next month.
Each show deals with a crisis: whether it’s political (Suez) or domestic, such as Princess Margaret’s desire to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, her father’s equerry.
ONE concerns the placement of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the funeral of King George VI. Another explores the different experiences Philip and Charles had at Gordonstoun school. ‘Why was it so powerful for Philip? And so horrid for Charles?’ Daldry wondered.
Another episode examines the explosive debate around the cabinet table — and in the Commons — over whether the Queen’s Coronation should be televised.
Philip Martin directed the Coronation episode. He said the argument about the perils of ‘letting daylight in on the magic’ (as 19thcentury essayist Walter Bagehot put it), and of ‘whether it was wrong for people to be able to sit at home and have a cup of tea and watch the Queen being crowned’ — in his words — was fierce.
A highlight is the sequence concerning the Act of Consecration.
In 1953, the anointing of the Queen was blacked out, so viewers never saw it. But Daldry was adamant The Crown should show Elizabeth being daubed on the palms of her hands, her breast and forehead with special consecrated oils — and the scene with Foy (who played Anne Boleyn, in Wolf Hall) is solemn but spectacular.
‘It explains so much about her, and how she sees her duties,’ Daldry said, as we walked to one of several sound-stages being used at Elstree, in Hertfordshire, for the show.
He stressed that The Crown is not a historical documentary (although he said an incredible amount of research had been done).
‘We’re not making up a lot. But obviously it’s not a docu-drama.
‘The Queen has maintained a mystique: the most visible, invisible woman in the world.
‘The dramas of her family affect our lives, as when Margaret wanted to marry “the staff” — and a divorced member of the staff, at that. A lot of what’s in The Crown is in the public domain, but it has never been put together like this before.
‘We’re checking ourselves to make sure we’re not stepping over the line.’
And what, exactly, would be ‘stepping over the line’?
‘Getting into areas that aren’t warranted, or in bad taste,’ Daldry said ‘I wouldn’t be interested in seeing them in intimate circumstances.’
I mentioned that when I was being shown around, a senior member of the crew explained one set was Prince Philip’s private rooms.
There was a corridor leading to another bedroom.
‘That’s the tunnel of love,’ the
person said, adding that it lead to the Queen’s private chambers.
Daldry confirmed ‘the tunnel of love’, but insisted: ‘We’re not portraying anything that hasn’t been said in biographies.
‘You do see Philip in pyjamas, and there is a bare royal bottom. They were a very passionate couple. One doesn’t want to be lurid or indiscreet in any way, but you also want to get a sense of how much in love with each other they were.’
Matt smith was even more circumspect, and said he wasn’t sure if the royal bottom would survive editing.
‘I think what will come through is that they are real soul mates,’ said smith, who will also portray the Duke of edinburgh in season two.
But, smith told me, his Philip is not the prince of gaffes, as we sometimes see him today.
‘There’s more to him than that,’ he said. ‘I think he’s quite a complex man really. His mother was estranged, his sister died in a plane crash and his father was busy in Monaco. Then his career in the Navy was taken away when elizabeth’s father died and she became Queen.
‘It’s very odd when you start walking two steps behind your wife.’
smith said he would not describe himself as a royalist (‘I like how bizarre and interesting they are’) but admitted that since working on The Crown he has found himself feeling ‘more affectionate towards them’.
several members of the cast and creative team had similar stories of discovering new levels of admiration for the Queen and Philip since embarking on the dramas, which were shot here and in south Africa.
executive producer Andrew eaton said he found himself crying when watching Foy in the Coronation scenes. ‘I thought: “What do I find that’s so emotional?” And I think it’s mostly about this country, and what’s great about it.’
He remembered watching the Queen the week after the July 7 bombings in London. ‘she stood under the archway in Horse guards with her handbag, and I got this sense from her of: “This is our country. Don’t f*** with me.”
‘That’s our Queen. she’s always had our back.’
Historic meeting: Claire Foy as the Queen with Prime Minister Winsto Churchill (John Lithgow). Right: The Queen and Prince Philip (Matt Sm
JUDI DENCH has got her man! Ali Fazal joins the Oscarwinner in Stephen Frears’s next film, Victoria And Abdul. Fazal, who was in Furious 7, will portray Abdul Karim, a clerk who travels to England to help with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and becomes one of her closest confidants. Dench will play the Queen. The film, based on Shrabani Basu’s book, was adapted by Lee Hall and developed by Beeban Kidron. Frears will begin filming next month.
Private moment: Foy is anointed at the Coronation, part of the ceremony never seen by the public. Left: With Jared Harris as George VI at her wedding