The Crown returns to Netflix today

TV

Whether you’re a monarchist or not, The Crown’s second season is compelling TV

The hit series returns to our screens today. And it’s just as strange, and just as fascinating as the first instalment, says Helen O’Hara

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By Helen O'Hara on

The Crown is, in many ways, a strange TV show. In an increasingly egalitarian age, it’s one stuffed with posh people. There are no “downstairs” plot lines to balance out the royalty, no token working class characters to take the toffs’ measure, and very few speaking roles that aren’t white. In fact, the casting directors appear to have consciously aimed to make the background players diverse so that we’re not snow-blinded by the sea of pale faces. But then that profoundly limited sphere is, perhaps, also the point of a show that chronicles the reign of Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), and her careful stewardship of the monarchy’s steady decline into a background role. This second season is luxuriously designed, beautifully acted and often surprisingly moving, humanising the royals without entirely excusing their unthinking privilege.

The show’s great challenge is that the Queen herself does not go on the record about her life and has not written any memoirs or autobiography, so the vast majority of her scenes and reactions must be based on reconstructions from other people’s accounts, or invented wholesale. But a show that promises to show us what goes on behind Buckingham Palace’s doors must deliver, so what Peter Morgan and his team do brilliantly is to mine plausible drama from the edges of historical fact.

So this time Elizabeth and Philip (Matt Smith) experience serious friction in their marriage. The solutions they attempt include a de facto separation, as he spends much of the first half of the season carousing in the south Pacific after being despatched to open the Melbourne Olympics. After all, how does a traditional marriage between two ultra-traditional people endure when the wife is by far the more senior of the two? The “deal” that the couple made in season one is tested here, and if it endures – look, real life can’t be a spoiler – it does so at a cost to both. While one has to wonder how much of this can possibly have happened (and how much more happened that the show only hints at but coyly refuses to confirm), the scenes between the couple are powerfully written and played.

Elizabeth’s role, and great achievement, has been to stand unmoving while endless “great” men convulse around her, making only small interventions, usually in private, to help

Elsewhere, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) has found another ill-advised love affair with Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode) and Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) comes visiting with her husband (Michael C. Hall). That’s a particularly strong episode, since we see what it might look like when the Queen is thrown into a crisis of confidence, intimidated by the glittering American.

But that’s about it for the ladies’ stories: the rest are all male-focused. Poor Prince Charles (Billy Jenkins) is sent to the “living hell” of Gordonstoun, prime minister Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) faces the Suez Crisis and Harold Macmillan (Anton Lesser) finds himself in a similarly delicate spot during the Profumo affair. And an unruly peer proposes changes to the way the royals behave and is punched in the face. Through it all, Elizabeth attempts to sail quietly and – above all – steadily along, from quiet lunches in front of the TV with her mother to her weekly meetings with the PM. Her role is an interestingly paradoxical one: she’s one of the most famous and (on paper) powerful women in the world, but her freedom is extremely limited, and her power circumscribed. As Queen, she commands – and demands – deference, but as a person she frequently has to entirely set aside ego to do what’s best for the institution.

What’s interesting is watching the power dynamics shift as great men come into contact with Elizabeth. Macmillan blots his copybook almost at once, talking over her during a meeting as he would any other young woman at the time. And her prime ministers let her down, in the closest thing the show has to a display of real temper by the monarch. “Do you know, I’ve been Queen barely 10 years, and in that time I’ve all three prime ministers… Not one has lasted the course. They’ve either been too old, too ill or too weak. A confederacy of elected quitters.” Her anger seems driven by a sense of injustice: I am driven by duty; why do others get to be less devoted?

It's what the show’s Philip calls “the ghastly relentlessness of it all”: the unending struggle to preserve the institution even if that means a sort of death by a thousand cuts to Elizabeth’s pride, power and protocol. This is an endurance race, not an exciting sprint through history – hence the six planned seasons, with Olivia Colman taking over as the Queen for seasons three and four.

Elizabeth’s role, and great achievement, has been to stand unmoving while endless “great” men convulse around her, making only small interventions, usually in private, to help. It’s generally said that she has kept the monarchy alive, and popular, by means of doing as little as possible, and on this evidence that’s true. And it’s worth considering whether a man could possibly have subsumed themselves into the role this way. Could any king truly have put aside his own ego as she does? Could any king endure this succession of small losses, for the greater victory of staying in place? Would we now be a republic had Edward VIII (Alex Jennings) stayed on the throne? Whether you’re a monarchist or very much not, it’s a fascinating question that makes The Crown this season strangely and consistently compelling.

@HelenLOHara

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The Crown returns to Netflix today
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