The timing couldn’t be better. The Crown (season 3) returns to TV screens in a week when the Royal Family is back in the headlines and the role of its members is once again being questioned. And with Olivia Colman in the title role, playing a very different kind of queen from the one she gave us in The Favourite. Author and TV director James Burge has watched the entire season and reviews it for Historia.
One of the strengths of The Crown as a series is that it reminds us how weird it must be to be royal, to live in a world where your mother has to curtsey to you, where your childhood memories are of your father’s face on every coin and where somebody comes in to turn the television sound up for you.
In a succession of well chosen, stand-alone episodes, season 3 gives us a picture of the errors of judgement and failures of understanding that have resulted from the corollary that, if we find them hard to understand or empathise with, they will find the same of us.
To give just some examples, the Queen fails to see the importance of her presence at the site of a national tragedy and she believes for a while that Harold Wilson is a Russian spy. Likewise, Prince Philip tries to claim that the loss of a yacht is a material hardship and later comes to believe that the Apollo astronauts will show him the meaning of life.
The entire family conspires to make a mess of Charles’s romantic attachment and – in an event that is well attested and yet, extraordinarily, not much talked about – Lord Louis Mountbatten takes part in preparations for a military coup against the elected government of the United Kingdom.
An understanding of this inherent tendency to get it wrong may offer some insight into how a member of the Royal Family recently gave a television interview that was such a car cash that it may well represent an existential threat to the monarchy itself, and then walked off under the impression that it had all gone rather well.
In seasons one and two Clare Foy created an outstandingly credible version of the young Queen, dealing with problems of life and state with resolute calm. Olivia Colman shows herself a predictably worthy successor.
Even though she doesn’t really look like the Queen, the effort of a little disbelief suspension is well worth it. The scripts give her a largely reactive role. Leaving aside inconclusive excursions with ‛Porchie’, Her Majesty spends a lot of time looking worried while keeping quiet and advising others to do the same. Yet the cumulative effect of Colman’s performance a picture that mostly supports of the argument that a particular combination of innate reticence and sense of duty has uniquely equipped Elizabeth II to ensure the survival of the British monarchy into the twenty-first century.
By design, there has been a complete cast change for this series. Tobias Menzies gives us a new version of the Duke of Edinburgh, considerably less engaging than Matt Smith’s well-meaning buffoon. As nature and history have surely always intended, Princess Margaret is now portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter and it is a pleasure to watch her as she skilfully encapsulate her entire character in just one grumpy response to an early morning phone call.
Josh O’Connor presents an ultimately sympathetic Price Charles for whom we are invited to feel sorry and we do. Erin Doherty is a welcome addition as a surprisingly humorous and perceptive Princess Anne. A special prize, however, must go to Jane Lapotaire for her portrayal of the eccentric, damaged, but touchingly charitable Princess Alice, mother of Prince Philip. On this showing Alice definitely deserves her own series.
It has to be acknowledged that this elegantly paced, intelligent, and knowing series sometimes over-eggs its plot points to the extent that they feel clumsy.
It is also possible to quibble with its historicity. There are instances where dramatic considerations have plainly required one explicatory conversation too many and it has turned out to be a dud. It is impossible to believe, for example, the symbol-laced conversation on hidden meaning in art with Anthony Blunt in episode one. But the episode, like all of them, does come right in the end via a disquisition about the nature of truth and history which should, of course, be of interest to all HWA members. “We tell ourselves all sorts of things to make sense of the past,” says Sir Anthony. Ain’t that the truth.
Tristram Shandy fretted that he was writing his autobiography more slowly than he was living his life and therefore would never finish it. The Crown, on the other hand, is consuming history faster than it is happening. Since starting, in November 2016, it has covered 25 years of history in three years. If it maintains this rate, around Christmas 2024 it will be depicting November 2019 and the events we are now experiencing. Some time in March 2025 it will have moved on to become a live show, reporting things as they actually happen, before getting ahead of itself and striking out into speculation about the future. I can’t wait.
The Crown (season 3) is on Netflix from 17 November, 2019, in the UK.
He is a regular reviewer for Historia, most recently of Charles I: Downfall of a King.