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  • Post last modified:01/15/2024

The Crown: An Audience with Elizabeth


Olivia Colman, Imelda Staunton and Claire Foy. Photo: Netflix

Queen Elizabeth II has been a part of Peter Morgan’s life for a long time now. After writing several lauded plays in Britain, he broke through internationally with his screenplay for The Queen (2006), a film that gave Helen Mirren her Oscar for playing the monarch. Seven years later, Morgan was praised for a new play called ”The Audience”, dramatizing the weekly meetings between the Queen and her prime ministers. The experience made Morgan wonder if there wasn’t a TV series in this somewhere.

You might think that BBC would be the natural home for an ambitious series about the royal family, but when Morgan, together with director Stephen Daldry and producer Andy Harries, considered their next move, they wanted to try something bold: fledgling streamer Netflix.

A 25-year-old queen
The series began in 1947, with the wedding between Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and Philip Mountbatten (Matt Smith). In their new roles, the young couple had some learning to do. Soon, Elizabeth was Queen and apart from her public duties as sovereign, the 25-year-old had to take control of her new function as matriarch of a royal family, that consisted, after all, of flawed human beings. That’s how The Crown began, and when it stood clear that the show was a hit that would run for quite some time, a decision was made to portray the life of Elizabeth II over several years, changing cast on two occasions. Foy and her gang got the first two seasons; Olivia Colman played a middle-aged queen in the third and fourth seasons; and Imelda Staunton was the aging sovereign in the fifth and sixth seasons. All three actresses embodied the role in a way that felt independent, but also linked.

This was also true of the three men who played Philip at different ages, but the real stand-out was perhaps the joint effort of Kirby, Helena Bonham Carter and Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret, always a source of joy, heartbreak and lust for life; Manville gave a very touching performance as we reached Margaret’s tragic end. Much more uneven were the often unconventional choices to play the prime ministers over the years; Gillian Anderson’s somewhat campy turn as Thatcher divided critics, but it was a lot more effective than, say, Jonny Lee Miller and Bertie Carvel as Major and Blair.

Picking up forgotten crises
At its best, The Crown was a beautifully, elaborately produced drama highlighting the darkest aspects of the Windsors and what it must be like to live in that gilded cage. It also frequently picked up crises and incidents from the past that perhaps were a little forgotten, and retold them in engaging and thoughtful ways, showing how they might have posed challenges for Elizabeth; one of the finest episodes of the entire series dramatized the 1966 Aberfan disaster in Wales.

Only in the last seasons did Morgan seem to surrender this ambition in favor of retreading all the familiar details of Princess Diana’s last years, as well as the mundane romance between Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Still, wrapping it all up with the 2005 wedding between Prince Charles and Camilla provided an opportunity for closure that was ultimately both wise and touching.

It was classy, compelling entertainment that helped Netflix look like a serious contender when it came to original programming.

The Crown did what every movie and TV show does: employ artistic license. There were times when it caused outrage from politicians and other figures who knew that what they were watching wasn’t true. But it was classy, compelling entertainment that helped Netflix look like a serious contender when it came to original programming – and, reportedly, not even the royal family could stop watching.

The Crown 2016-2023:U.K.-U.S. 60 episodes. Color. Created by Peter Morgan. Theme: Hans Zimmer. Cast: Claire Foy (Elizabeth II, 16-17), Matt Smith (Philip, 16-17), Vanessa Kirby (Margaret, 16-17), Olivia Colman (Elizabeth II, 19-20), Tobias Menzies (Philip, 19-20), Helena Bonham Carter (Margaret, 19-20), Imelda Staunton (Elizabeth II, 22-23), Jonathan Pryce (Philip, 22-23), Lesley Manville (Margaret, 22-23), Josh O’Connor (19-20), Dominic West (22-23), Elizabeth Debicki (22-23), Marion Bailey (19-20), Charles Dance (19-20), Victoria Hamilton (16-17), Alex Jennings (16-17), Lia Williams (16-17), Jeremy Northam (16-17), Emerald Fennell (19-20), Olivia Williams (22-23), Bertie Carvel (22-23), Khalid Abdalla (22-23), Salim Daw (22-23), Greg Wise (16-17), Ben Miles (16-17), Jared Harris (16-17), Emma Corrin (20), Gillian Anderson (20), Ben Daniels (19), Geraldine Chaplin (19), Derek Jacobi (19), Jonny Lee Miller (22), John Lithgow (16), Matthew Goode (17), Anton Lesser (17), Jason Watkins (19), Stephen Dillane (16), Eileen Atkins (16).

Emmys: Outstanding Drama Series 20-21; Directing 17-18, 20-21; Writing 20-21; Actor (O’Connor) 20-21, Actress (Foy) 17-18, (Colman) 20-21; Supporting Actor (Lithgow) 16-17, (Menzies) 20-21; Supporting Actress (Anderson) 20-21. Golden Globes: Best Drama Series 20, 21; Actor (O’Connor) 21; Actress (Foy) 17, (Colman) 20, (Corrin) 21; Supporting Actress (Anderson) 21, (Debicki) 23.

Last word: “[Charles is] one of those characters for whom you have sympathy and criticism in equal measure, a perhaps not-uncommon attitude toward the monarchy in general. As an institution, it’s indefensible. Of course it is. And yet the whole thing’s so bloody ridiculous you can’t help feeling slightly sorry for them.” (Morgan, The New York Times)

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