Saturday, 19 November 2016

The second episode of the Netflix series "The Crown" is probably the finest hour of TV drama I've ever seen

Television drama has rarely left me emotionally drained - but "Hyde Park Corner", the second episode of the new 10-part series, The Crown, was overwhelming...

...The ending, when a heavily-veiled Eileen Atkins as Queen Mary - looking like some minatory, supernatural figure in a Japanese horror film - walks slowly towards the new Queen, halts, performs a full curtsy, and, as she rises, is shot from a low angle so cleverly that she turns into a vast, threatening, night-black bird of prey: I could barely breathe, and found I was pressing back into the sofa trying to escape her overpoweringly threatening presence. Wowsers! So why is the series working so well?

1.  Peter Morgan's dialogue is pitch-perfect. This sounds like the way the upper classes actually spoke amongst themselves. This is something that British historical television drama often gets wrong.

2. The accents sound (mostly) spot on. This is an area where British historical television pretty much always gets it wrong, because proper posh accents have changed out of all recognition (just compare Prince Charles/Prince Phillip and Prince Harry/Prince William). Whoever is in charge of the accents (presumably there is such a person) deserves an award: if the actors are doing it themselves, Bravo!

3. Even though it's essentially been made by a bunch of lefties, as with the Helen Mirren film, The Queen, they've so far managed to avoid any knee-jerk sneering at either the Royal Family or the the upper classes in general.  Quite the opposite - the respect and admiration are palpable.

4. The sheer, crushing significance of the events being described - for the nation, as well as for the principal characters - is being conveyed beautifully. The Royal Family isn't just theatre - here, it matters: the fate of the nation is inextricably linked with the fate of this young woman.

5. The muted, slightly foggy dankness of the cinematography captures (I imagine) the rationed, war-weary, pre-Festival of Britain '50s to a T - it made me want to grab a bite to eat and turn the central heating up.

6. They must have spent an absolute bloody fortune on locations - and yet they've been used subtly. We're not being asked to admire the scenery: the drama is entirely focussed on character.

7. The actors - well, my goodness, they're great. I've never been a huge fan of Jared Harris, but his performance as the dying king, George VI, was magnificently understated yet emotionally powerful - Harris is evidently a much better actor than his dad ever was, and deserves every award going. As for the other performances, I haven't spotted a dud - even a semi-dud - among them. Trebles and BAFTAs all round!

8. Prince Phillip is not only being played brilliantly by Matt Smith, the production is treating him with enormous sympathy and, it seems, genuine admiration. We will so miss the old boy when he's gone.

9. Peter Morgan (as one might expect from such an experienced scriptwriter) has managed to avoid the pitfall of cramming in masses of historical information at inappropriate moments - there's none of the "I wonder what Clement Attlee, the Labour leader and former Prime Minister, will have to say about that!" sort of nonsense.

10. One of the most touching sequences in the second episode followed Princess Elizabeth, on holiday in Kenya, learning of her beloved father's death, getting ready to leave for home, and then stepping out onto the verandah of the house where she has heard the news, to find the locals lined up to pay their respect to their new monarch - the change in her life, her role, her meaning is signalled by an old man kneeling to kiss her shoes in an act of homage, while the change in Prince Phillip's life is marked by the sad look of farewell he exchanges with two carefree local kids who are perched in a tree to witness their departure. When their plane lands in London, Phillip offers to step out first to face the waiting throng - but is stopped by an official with the words: "No, sir, if you don't mind, the Crown takes precedence."

I was going to stop at 10 points, but I must mention the role of duty in Morgan's script - that's what the second episode was really about, from George VI having a quiet word on a duck-shooting outing with Phillip about the need for him to forego his naval career ("She is the job now"), to the rather chilling note penned by Queen Mary to Elizabeth explaining that her old self is dead now that she has become Queen - "I have seen three great monarchies brought down by their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty. You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes."

The Crown is the most expensive televisioon drama series ever made. Money well spent, as it may also be the best historical drama ever to be made for television: it has weight, heft, meaning. It is - so far - quite magnificent.


  1. After "The Queen" with Helen Mirren I did not think they could squeeze another drop of drama out of the Royal Family. After your great encomium [hope you are not turning into a Palace Creeper?] I am now really looking forward to seeing it. I looked it up on IMDb and the estimated production cost is $156 Million. And the cast seems to include the complete English acting profession plus John Lithgow as WSC? Was Sir,no, don't.

    "Separating personal indulgence from duty". Queen Mary was a great nomad of the sharing economy [free loader] and was a lover of beautiful objects so after her frequent visits to the great country houses she rarely came away empty-handed. Her taste was impeccable apparently and she added great value to the Royal Collection. I suppose that is a kind of duty?

    1. Sir Lenworth may have been an extra in one of the many Kenyan crowd scenes - either that, or he'll turn up playing Enock Powell in a later episode.

      Your attempts to slur Queen Mary might go down well, in the Socialist Republic of Scotland, but we take a pretty dim view of such behaviour down here. I may have to snub you the next time we meet in the street.

  2. I am afraid that there is a lot of historical evidence to support notorious lefty Republican SDG's subtle reference to HRH QM's acquisition of other people's valuables. The top stuff tended to be stuffed out of sight a few days before a visit, as word got around.

    I was so captivated by the first episode of The Crown that my fellow viewer and I binge-watched until about episode 8. It's utterly compelling. There is some completely unsubstantiated speculative stuff in later episodes about the Townsend affair, the Brenda n' Phil marriage and the Porchester rumour rubbish. I thought the portrayal of Edward VIII was a bit too sympathetic to the little shit but that's a personal perspective. Taken as a whole, the whole thing is a triumph and a joy to watch. You have captured it very well..

    1. No wonder my parents were so reluctant to have the old girl to stay at Grønmark Towers.

      I'm not sure I possess the emotional stamina to binge-watch - trying to limit ourselves to two episodes a week. No. 3 tonight.

      I see the BBC is hitting back with a proposal for a Netflix-style radio offering. That'll do it!