All hail, sage lady

Andrew O’Hagan watches ‘The Crown’

I don’t think the queen liked me. She’d seen it all before, the snooping anti-monarchist with the new tie, so she simply passed me to her husband, who asked if a novelist wrote books. As often with the duke, his question lay somewhere between existential brilliance and intergalactic dunce-hood. I merely smiled in imitation of his lovely wife. Prince Philip is a pure catch for a dramatist. Imagine nearly seventy years in the mellow afterglow of someone else’s radiance, two steps behind, a man infantilised beyond belief, provided with everything in return for being a constant second. It’s not such an unusual story if you’re a woman, but for a 1940s naval officer striated with pride, it came to seem, if reports are true, like a life sentence. William Shawcross, in his expertly genuflecting biography of the queen mother, shows us a Duke of Edinburgh just after his wedding, a young man in love writing to his mother-in-law of the new unity he has just achieved and hopes will bless the future. ‘Lilibet is the only “thing” in this world which is absolutely real to me,’ he wrote, ‘and my ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good.’ And yet, back in the real world, he couldn’t let his children have his name (they wouldn’t allow him to), he couldn’t keep his family in the home he had chosen for them, and his frustrations grew dark. Recently, when the actor Matt Smith was introduced to Prince William and the prince was told Smith would soon be playing his grandfather in an epic Netflix series, The Crown, William offered only one word. ‘Legend,’ he said, as if they were talking about Dolly Parton. And that is the way the boys view their grandfather, as a one-off, a classic exemplar, rather than the mythic, intransigent beast of agonised loyalty known to their father.

The Duke of Edinburgh becomes a wayward soul as The Crown progresses, a nincompoop with honours, swimming against the tide of political correctness with Boy’s Own brio and a racist heart. In Episode 2, he arrives in Kenya with Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) at the beginning of a tour of the Commonwealth. The scene opens with a group of African boys chasing ostriches off the runway. Philip, dressed in a starched naval uniform with gold braiding, stripes and medals, points to some medals on a tribesman’s chest. ‘Oh, gosh, look, I’ve got that one,’ he says. ‘Oh, Christ, I’ve got that one, too. Oh, come off it, where did you steal that one from, eh?’ The tribesman doesn’t respond but the whole line gives him the Mau Mau glare. The series, when it graduates to being a splendid box-set, might show us how that tendency in Philip never changed, while the world changed around him. It’s his tragedy, and our comedy, or the reverse, that he got to live out his inferiority complex on the world’s stage.

The Crown is like Coronation Street with coronations, and it is as riveting as a British soap opera based on the ultimate British soap opera should be. Naturally, it was produced for American digital broadcaster Netflix at a cost of £100 million, but that is what it costs these days to make England look like England. The show was created and written by Peter Morgan, its majesty and its wit are his – it would take an American ‘writers’ room’ of a dozen to do wrong what he does right – and a slew of British directing talent led by Stephen Daldry has brought it to the small screen. The British settings are spectacular, the whole thing like an implosion of David Kynaston, but the main achievement is Morgan’s, in finding ways to show the human side of monarchy. The British royals are a terrifying shower, but quite likeable, and sometimes essential, in their daftness, in their cunning and their opportunism, as well as in their willingness to place their own brief lives in suspended, glittering animation, so that the rest of us can feel lucky in our freedoms and our relative immunity from stifling duty. We have a long way to go – I predict countless, well-shod episodes, from Lilibet’s brogues to Lady Diana’s Jimmy Choos – and the emerging picture of a disappearing Britain may be too intoxicating to resist. The islands that these people ruled over are no more, or no more what they were, and the fog of cursing and conspiracy that distinguishes The Crown is already proving a friendly place in which to experience the pomp of our fading national story.

Before we come to Philip’s internal strife, we have to contend with the randy bonhomie of old King George. It is said that American viewers are distressed to find the word ‘cunt’ used in the first episode, spoken by George VI (Jared Harris) to his valet, but perhaps this is merely the latest in a long line of gifts from Britain to the former colonies, a way, shall we say, of normalising, even dignifying such laxity in the naming of female parts, in preparation for future press briefings by the president elect. The Crown opens with the dying king spitting blood into the lavatory bowl and he is almost followed in this habit of expectoration by his brave wife, Cookie, who runs short of breath every time she hears the words ‘Wallis Simpson’. Everyone smokes, especially Princess Margaret, who smokes for the United Kingdom, plus Antigua and Barbuda – yet the smoke fails quite to obscure the devastations brought about by American divorcees, for whom, apparently, the thread of tradition is no match for a golden bathtub and a Cartier wristwatch studded with diamonds. George VI is a steadily melting stoic before the prospect of an early death, and he denotes, with pallid looks, a stuttering speech and watering eyes, an almost Shakespearean notion of the monarch’s thankless task. There are times in The Crown when it seems as if every minor lady-in-waiting, to say nothing of the higher-ups, would sooner be serving tea and buns at a Lyons Corner House than serving the nation, but privilege shows no mercy.

The king dies in 1952. His abdicated brother returns for his funeral and is met by his mother, Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins), who announces very greyly that he mustn’t mention ‘that woman’s name’. David, or the Duke of Windsor as the lapsed Edward VIII is now to be called, is a benumbed and bitchy mummy’s boy (played here by Alex Jennings, a seasoned royal impersonator), and he spends the entirety of The Crown’s first series bumbling about and giggling at farting pugs. Some people imagine that such a life is no kind of life at all, but the avoidance of tasks can be a full-time job, and the Duke of Windsor is as bold in this respect as the checks on his suits. The throwing off and taking on of fetters is a major theme in the series, and Peter Morgan shows himself to be indifferent to the rules of the panegyric. Early on, the duke refers to ‘my smug, stinking relations’, and part of Morgan’s achievement is to offer a truly dramatic, case-by-case study of a family in crisis. On the other hand, he isn’t immune to what Robert Frost once called ‘the august occasions of the state’, and this makes his drama all the stronger. In Episode 3, when George VI is dead and the aforementioned David turns up at Marlborough House to have tea with Queen Mary, the atmosphere is daintily dark. She sits there, wreathed in pearls and dwarfed by gloomy pictures, the clock sounding the seconds, while her disappointing son bends to kiss her. ‘Poor Bertie,’ he says, not quite knowing how to seem anything but a failure to his mother. Eileen Atkins looks as if she has lemon juice coursing through her veins. ‘One can only be thankful for all the years one had him,’ she replies. ‘So wonderfully thoughtful and caring, an angel to his mother, wife and children. I honestly believe he never thought of himself at all. He really was the perfect son.’ And with that she rises from her chair. The clocks stop and the painted royals almost blush as she leaves the room.

In Shakespeare’s history plays, the fertile tongue is forever crowding in on the ambitions of love and power; it is words that are the spring of action. (‘This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head,’ Richard II says, ‘Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.’) The Crown has few pretences, and it isn’t Shakespeare, but it sets up a properly sophisticated relationship between words and actions, a relationship in which saying and not saying is all we need for tension. Every courtier and minister has things they would prefer to see happen and they enforce those preferences with language. Perhaps this is the reason, we learn by watching The Crown, that the royal family is unable to keep secrets: language is too active an agent in their constitutional nature. (The average family is much better than the royals at keeping its secrets. I mean, every family has a Diana, for instance, or a reckless grandfather, but with zero interest from the public most of us are able to shush the things that would lessen dignity.) Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) is a puff of words in a Norman Hartnell dress, arguing her case for marrying Group Captain Townsend; Winston Churchill is chapter and verse, bowed over with rhetoric, while the queen redounds with clauses and quells her worries with an amputating ‘no’. By Episode 6, I was certain that the subversive element in The Crown is strong, in some measure because of the way it exposes the royals by undressing their silence with words.

Of course, with contemporary drama, one must always be alert to the possibility of fibs or the question of libel. The royal family, in a way, are a bit like the dead: you can’t quite libel them, but you can insult their memory. And yet the royals’ various press offices, at least since the heyday of Charles and Diana and possibly long before, have sparred constantly in what they derisively call ‘the court of public opinion’. The life of a British royal, if the merrily-bearded Prince Harry is to be believed, is an endless round of lies and harassment, with the public’s addiction to fantasy the major spur. Hugo Vickers, the eminent historian or the historian of eminence, took to the Times the other day to state, among other things, that The Crown is inaccurate – FALSE – in its suggestion that Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were charged by an elephant while in Kenya. I have to say I don’t fully care; it was simply time, in that particular episode, for Philip to stare down an elephant, the kind of event for which poetic licence was surely invented. I hate to drag old, wounded High Culture into the frame, but Holinshed’s Chronicles make no mention of bra-less witches in their account of Macbeth, speaking only of fairy nymphs. Imagine how sad we’d be to lose the snaggle-toothed ones snorting and prophesying at the hurly-burly to come. Realism isn’t the point of the royals, or of the stories that surround them and raise them into history, and fibs are fine, so long as they tap at the human problems underneath.

Only the queen will emerge well from The Crown. She is still in her twenties in the first series, but, already, the former Lilibet – hands joined prettily in front, corgis engaged at the ankles, her hair a crown of tousled airs – is an ageless woman ready to run the empire from a sofa covered in Colefax and Fowler. Prince Philip, all the while, is out being young, driving silly cars, and generally rebelling against the demands of tradition. Not that the Greek playboy is really part of her tradition, but the point is she’s on her own, and always will be in the mind of the British public, a distantly amused ‘country woman’ raised to uncomplaining servitude, ready to see out at least seventy years and 12 prime ministers. Claire Foy, who plays her, is softer and more searching than the original: to the viewer, her queen is a vividly shy person who must watch in slow motion as her limitations are swamped by demands. Foy shows enormous subtlety in capturing the way fear and inexperience may bake, under the correct conditions, into a nearly impeccable hauteur, but the overall effect will be to remind people of Elizabeth II’s quiet martyrdom. ‘All hail, sage lady,’ a photographer says to her as he takes her picture in the final episode. She wears the crown, and all normal loyalties to sisters and husbands and father’s memory are now quelled. ‘Not moving, not breathing,’ the image-maker continues. ‘Glorious Gloriana. Forgetting Elizabeth Windsor now – now only Elizabeth Regina.’

It may appear odd in the minds of those who have other flags to wave that these English nobs in their palaces are to be thought of as being chiefly sacrificial bodies, but in their own pampered way the royals do give up their freedom in meeting their roles, and there’s drama in that. I’m not sure, in these troubled times, that The Crown will have us weeping quietly at how the caged bird sings, but the whole pantomime is given a fresh, ironic airing here. The older queens, Mary and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, were very keen on sacrifice: the queen mother famously felt that her family had to stay in London during the war so that they could ‘look the East End in the face’; while Mary, a Victorian effigy in her weedy trophies, felt her abdicated son had let down those who sacrificed sons in the Great War. In view of all that, and with one foot perpetually on the bottom step of the Cenotaph, the current queen learned early that sacrifice is the only game in town. Amid the fluttering of dresses and the ticking of clocks, the cheering of the crowds and the turning of the carriage wheels, British royalty – at least the television kind, and probably the real ones, too – must forever reckon with the conundrum of having to give away so much in order to seem to have everything. ‘It is my duty,’ says our television queen, ‘to refuse Margaret marriage to a divorced man. Everyone advises me so. And yet I will be breaking a promise not only to my sister, but also to my late father.’ She advises Anthony Eden to persuade his cabinet colleagues to allow the marriage and she says she will do her best to persuade the Church. But the audience knows what must happen: Margaret must give up Peter, the queen must give up Margaret, the crown must survive its wearers.