Public life has never been more public than it is today, and the lives of famous people are examined as never before. Gone are the days when a President’s polio or marital infidelities were passed over in silence by a compliant press corps. A rhinoceros hide is required now, as perhaps never before, for a life in politics—though, as the new President has amply demonstrated, a rhinoceros hide is by no means incompatible with a thin skin.
Who among us has no embarrassing secrets? The constant risk of exposure and humiliation must deter many good people from seeking public office. We demand perfection and get mediocrity.
It is not even necessary any more for the famous to die for their lives to be turned into soap opera, as has happened to the British royal family with The Crown. The first 10 hour-long episodes of the Netflix series cover a period of about five years, from 1951 to 1956, which means that, at this rate, it will take 120 more episodes to bring the story up to date. At the outset The Crown reminded me, I must confess, of the story by Jorge Luis Borges in which geographers produce a map on a scale of 1:1, exactly reproducing, to the last detail, what they set out to map.
If the show’s dramatic moments are real enough, so are its longueurs; and if I ever again see a film sequence of a vintage Rolls Royce pulling up under a porte-cochère, no matter how grand, I think I shall scream. One gets the impression that the producers of The Crown were trying desperately to draw it out as long as possible—and succeeding in the effort.
We are in the land of pauses that are supposed to be pregnant with meaning, and also, of course, of dazzlingly sumptuous sets and costumes. There is more than enough here to feed anyone’s fantasy—which, come to think of it, is the main function of the institution of monarchy in a modern democratic society such as Britain’s. To judge by the interest in that monarchy in magazines such as Paris Match, in republican France, it feeds fantasies outside Britain too. That is why there are almost no scenes here of the grinding life of most people in the immediate postwar, a time of war-exhausted austerity that still necessitated, or at any rate included, rationing. Rationing lasted for many years after the 1945 victory of the Allies, when Britain’s national debt stood at more than 200 per cent of GDP and when, in contrast to the present, interest rates were not kept artificially low.
Only once in the show, in fact, is anything less than luxury allowed to obtrude on the fairy-tale extravagance surrounding the royal family: the 1952 winter smog over London that was responsible for between 4,000 and 12,000 deaths. Briefly we see London descending into an eerie kind of hell. All I can say is that, as a child, I loved those fogs that were known by all Londoners as “pea-soupers,” during which men walked in front of buses carrying lanterns and vehicles loomed out of the thick grey atmosphere with their headlights like the eyes of fiery monsters that appeared as if by magic. As a child, I was much disappointed when November ceased to be the season of fog (and, unbeknown to me, of the respiratory-related deaths of thousands) thanks to the 1956 passage of the Clean Air Act.
The purpose of this particular episode was to show Winston Churchill, Prime Minister for a second time, as a doddering and incompetent geriatric, delusional about Britain’s place in the world and unable to overcome his prejudices, such as that the smog was an act of God that had to be passively endured. When finally Churchill roused himself to action, much later than he should have done, he was popularly regarded for the second time as the saviour of his country: an unmerited accolade that casts doubt on the judgment of the people.
This brings me to the other side of the coin of royal fantasy: that what human beings set up as the dream of perfection they want also to pull down to their own level. We exalt only to humiliate; pedestals are erected to be stood on by feet of clay. Our gods and goddesses live on an Olympus in which sordid intrigue flourishes, ambition overcomes principle, and unhappiness is as much the lot of the gods as it is of lesser beings.
The Crown, then, takes us behind the scenes of a group of still-living individuals who are treated as if Britain were a consequential and powerful country. It allows us to gawp at a décor that includes the finest art collection in the world (not that any member of the royal family is seen taking any notice of it, because for them it has always been there and is really no more than elaborate wallpaper), while eavesdropping on petty conflicts and—for the Queen (Claire Foy)—real and sometimes agonizing dilemmas.
It is not easy to judge whether the intimate portraits of the principal characters are accurate. Some seem unfair or at least unrealistic. The young Prince Philip (Matt Smith), for example, is portrayed as a handsome but thoughtless, egotistical and arrogant man without even the charm of the charming psychopath. He makes tactless and offensive remarks and is unpleasant to his wife, his only excuse being that, as someone with a very adventurous past and an active mind, the role of ornamental consort to a queen is not enough for him.
The acting is excellent and whether or not the characterizations are just, they are mostly believable. To be sure, script does commit the occasional anachronism. No one would have used the phrases “numerically dyslexic,” “one-on-one,” “ticked all boxes,” “the Commonwealth road show,” or “How may I direct your call?” in the early 1950s; much less would anyone have spoken of the Queen’s “age and gender.” This last gaffe is revealing of how unreflectingly and unswervingly politically correct we have become, unable to even imagine a time when the word for gender was sex, though it was not very long ago. Nor would we attempt anymore to justify the use of now-offensive words with the argument that we were portraying a different age.
The series implies (or at any rate the viewer will deduce) that the quid pro quo for the privileges of the royal existence are psychological deformity and a stunting of normal human emotions. Queen Mary, the Queen’s grandmother (Eileen Atkins), is a chain-smoking battle axe. The Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), the former Edward VIII, who was obliged to abdicate because he wanted to marry the twice-divorced American Wallace Simpson, is a resentful, hedonistic parasite who has occasional attacks of sensitivity. Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), the Queen’s sister, as an embittered and frustrated seeker of the limelight, envious and disparaging of her sister but with fun-loving tastes of a fundamentally common kind.
Whether the royal family is more emotionally crippled than other families is not easy to determine, though. Who would be the control group against whom to measure their psychological difficulties? Certainly I have known many other families—not least my own—that have seemed just as peculiar. One could look down the other end of the telescope and remark that, so bizarre is the life of the British royals, it is astonishing that any of them retain any human characteristics whatever. And, of course, the burden falls heaviest on the Queen herself.
Here the series is convincing. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, who has reigned since 1953 as Elizabeth II, was thrust into the role of heir to the throne at the age of 10, and that of monarch at age 26, all without choice, consultation, or personal inclination. She was reared to be a function incarnate. Her wishes counted for nothing, except in the most trivial matters. Supremely unfree, bound to obey dictates of the government that acted in her name, Elizabeth was nonetheless grovelled to as if she were the most fearsome dictator.
Imbued with an iron sense of duty by an adored father who died at a comparatively early age, and whose portrait she still wears on her bosom at official functions, she was obliged repeatedly to make emollient speeches and appear always to be deeply interested in the dullest of dignitaries. The highest standard of living in the world was probably insufficient recompense for the sacrifice—that of herself as an individual human being—that she had to make.
Aware of her own limitations, educated in the arcana of her constitutional role but little else, interested mainly in thoroughbred horses, Elizabeth had constantly to juggle several, often conflicting imperatives: the need to preserve her throne, the need to do her duty by her country, the need to act morally (for she was clearly a highly-moral person) and her need to please her family. These were not things always easy to reconcile, and sometimes they were irreconcilable. Significantly, though not necessarily with accuracy, she is never shown evincing any concern or affection for her own children. Assuming that The Crown means to progress to the next generation, this appears to be a laying of the ground for the supposed explanation of the children’s difficulties in life.
Prince Philip did not want to live in Buckingham Palace, whose grandeur is cold and forbidding, nor did she; but as it was customary for the reigning monarch to live there, she overruled both her husband’s and her own inclinations. This was a decision typical of many others. In the struggle between what she wanted and what she thought was her duty, the latter is portrayed as always having won—and this seems to align with the historical record. It is curious how, in a democracy such as the British, the unelected head of state should have been so much more wedded to duty than any popularly-elected politician.
One of the strengths of the series is that it will serve as a reminder of how much and how quickly our moral sensibilities have changed. There is, as the poet said, a provinciality of time as well as of place; and those who are provincial in time forget that our forebears thought and felt differently from us. Indeed, we sometimes forget how we ourselves have changed. When the Queen agonizes in The Crown over her sister’s desire to marry a divorcee, we are astonished that divorce was then still a matter of monumental significance—theological, legal, and, in the case of the royal family, constitutional. I remember when divorce was spoken of in hushed tones, and a divorcee was almost an outcast. So ordinary and everyday has divorce since become that I often forget that I remember, and think of divorce as a kind of immemorial custom.
The monarchy in Britain is odd at many levels, as The Crown demonstrates. It has no justification in philosophical first principles; its flummery is often ridiculous; it exacts a toll on those caught up in it. The enthusiasm of the population for what is, after all, a group of self-confessedly ordinary people who are obviously acting a part, is mysterious. Yet the monarchy costs much less than the Italian presidency and is of a fascination to millions (myself not included), as this series attests.