When Upstairs, Downstairs became an international hit, British television producers assumed that they could quickly come up with another dramatized exposé of country-house life. Wrong again. It took British television four decades to create Downton Abbey, a series in which the butler and the cook were every bit as engaging as Lord and Lady Downton.
Now the Brits have another smash—but this one marks a significant departure from its predecessors. In The Crown, what happens below stairs stays below stairs. This drama is all about the current Queen Elizabeth, from the time of her childhood, through initiation into the roiled world of royal worldlings, to her difficult marriage, to her troubled middle age and ultimately, after she learns to connect with the British public, her serene senior years.
In Parts I and II, Elizabeth (deftly played by Claire Foy) watches her odious, Nazi-sympathizing uncle, King Edward VIII (Alex Jennings, in a tour de force performance), abdicate the throne to wed a commoner. Then she witnesses her stuttering, publicity-shy father (Jared Harris) take over (The King’s Speech built an epic drama on these shortcomings). Alas, before his elder daughter is ready to wear the crown, King George VI dies of lung cancer.
The new queen is so innocent that the staff, out of earshot, refer to her as Shirley Temple. The naivete is not to last. Elizabeth’s new husband Prince Philip (Matt Smith) assumes the responsibility of her sexual education. But the political and social schooling is led by Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), the lion at sunset. The prime minister is determined that this young lady absorb the basics of regal propriety, diplomatic lingo, and British back-bench maneuvering. She starts out abysmally ignorant of all three.
Sir Winston is a shrewd tutor, but he is also infirm. As Elizabeth grows, she learns to lean on her courtiers. Soon she finds a way to show nothing in her face, to express little in her speeches, and to exert control while seeming to be above the considerations of politics and the Great Game of a shrinking empire. But this mastery of form demands a mask of remoteness lacking human sympathy. Elizabeth alienates Prince Philip, turning him into a distant consort who would rather make merry than make tours. She refuses to allow her sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) to wed the man she loves because RAF hero Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) is divorced and therefore anathema to the Church of England, which Elizabeth nominally heads. Of greater significance, she takes an unseen hand in national policy, chews out the occasional prime minister, and makes sure to kick the ailing Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) when he’s down.
The Crown is a costly enterprise—some $100 million has been spent on production. But every dollar is up there on the screen—the palaces were either shot on location, or persuasive substitutes were found. The crowd scenes are played by real crowds, not impersonated with computerized trickery. The locations in foreign countries and rural Scotland are also authentic. And the cast is perfection, from castle-dweller to commoner.
But if the series presents convincing locales and personalities (in subsequent episodes Foy and Smith are replaced by age-appropriate actors), its candor about the royal family discreetly omits some revealing facts about Elizabeth’s heritage and history. The coming year, for example, marks the centenary of the execution of Czar Nicholas II, along with his wife Alexandra, their five children, and four servants. The family had been sequestered in a country dacha until they were told to go to the basement for a group photograph. Once they were seated, a squad of Bolsheviks burst in and shot them at point-blank range. Afterward, those who still breathed were stabbed to death.
This atrocity need not have occurred. Nicholas and his lookalike cousin George had been boyhood friends, and the Romanovs had reason to hope tthat the Windsors would help them find sanctuary in England. But Elizabeth’s grandfather had a pathological fear for his own crown—suppose a revolution were to occur in London, as it did in Moscow? The infection had to be contained; his cousins were barred from entry.
After the murders were headlined, George V sought to lay the blame on his prime minister, and for many years historians (and consequently the public) bought this fiction. But long after the king’s own death, records revealed that he had gone against the advice of PM David Lloyd George, demonstrating a ruthless survival instinct. In the Windsors, blue blood ran cold. It still does.
Though Elizabeth and Philip have long since made their peace, it was only at the intervention of Prime Minister Tony Blair that the queen went into public mourning for Princess Diana, the loathed ex-wife of her son, Prince Charles. After much delay, Princess Margaret married the playboy-photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960 and descended into a life of indulgence and promiscuity. They divorced in 1978, and though the princess had many widely publicized romances, she never remarried. Writer Gore Vidal recalled a conversation with the prematurely aged Margaret. Assessing her rollercoaster life, she remarked sadly: “It was inevitable, when there are two sisters and one is the Queen, who must be the source of honor and all that is good, while the other must be the focus of the most creative malice, the evil sister.” The princess suffered a series of strokes and died in 2002. Unlike the other Windsors, she was given a private ceremony; and unlike them, she was cremated.
For QE II, life is synonymous with duty, something she never shirked. The Crown shows her dutifully performing on the public stage, from Balmoral to the BBC, her image buffed to a fare-thee-well. To the world peering through the windows at Buckingham Palace, she has become a benign and charming figurehead. The ruler’s hard-won and hard-nosed legacy is rarely glimpsed, even in this opulent presentation.
Photos: Sean Gallup/Getty Images (L), Netflix (R)