The third series of ‘The Crown’ brings with it an almost wholesale change of cast and new problems to pile on old as we meet the British royal family in 1964. The challenges of the newly permissive 1960s are met almost entirely by a largely drunk Princess Margaret (an entertaining, if unfocused Helena Bonham Carter) dealing with her philandering husband Lord Snowdon (Ben Daniels). Elsewhere in the royal household it might as well be the 1860s when it comes to moral matters – not counting the high cut of the skirt worn by Princess Anne (a deliciously dry Erin Doherty). Prince Charles makes his first appearance in the series as an adult, with Josh O’Connor playing him as a gentle but haughty idiot, and he suffers the full weight of The Firm when his desire to marry Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell) is well and truly nixed by the joint efforts of the Queen Mother (a near-silent performance by Marion Bailey) and Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance, of course).
Yet there is one very twentieth-century phenomenon lurking in this series: the midlife crisis. As Olivia Colman takes over from Claire Foy, her Queen is more settled and forthright, but also prone to paranoia and anxiety, especially when it comes to Cold War threats, and to the distraction of racehorses. Meanwhile, her husband, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), enters a full-on crisis of purpose, brilliantly expressed in an episode when Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts visit the Palace and the Queen’s consort finds himself tongue-tied as a desperate super-fan. A question lurks behind the eyes of both the monarch and her husband, and quietly echoes through the whole series: where exactly is this all heading? Certainty no longer rules the day. The game isn’t up – but the rules are changing and no one knows exactly what they are anymore.
Yes, ‘The Crown’ continues to work as royal soap opera with its seductive design and costumes and the sheer frisson of its behind-the-scenes boldness. But it also works as a national drama about Britain and the world changing – or not – in the post-war period. How better to address the country’s reluctance to accept that times are evolving than by telling the story of those same times through the prism of the country’s most conservative institution? It was 1964 when Labour MP Harold Wilson – played brilliantly by Jason Watkins – took over as prime minister, the year before Winston Churchill died (we get a brief final glimpse of John Lithgow), and two years before a slurry pit collapsed on the village of Aberfan in Wales, killing 144 people, most of them schoolchildren. ‘The Crown’ creator and chief writer Peter Morgan draws on all these events, and others, to throw a spotlight on the push and pull of consistency and change.
With the benefit of hindsight, old problems now echo more recent ones: Charles and his misguided desire to let his voice and thoughts be heard; the Queen misjudging whether or not to display her emotions in public at a time of national crisis; the royals embracing the media – most notably television – and getting stung by it. The boldest episodes have a ruthless focus: one is built entirely around the disaster at Aberfan; another focuses on Charles as he learns Welsh at the University of Aberystwyth in the lead-up to his 1969 investiture as Prince of Wales. There’s a trip to Greece to meet Prince Philip’s ageing mother and a return to Paris to catch up with the Duke of Windsor (Derek Jacobi), now approaching death and still living in exile with his wife, the Duchess of Windsor (Geraldine Chaplin).
The spine of the series remains the private meetings between the monarch and the prime minister, in this case Wilson, then Edward Heath, then Wilson again. Of course, we’ve no idea what was ever really discussed by the Queen and those men at those weeklies. But that’s the thrill of the series – research, facts and history colliding with imagination, hearsay and gossip, all flavoured with a dash of just enough respect and served with an enlivening accompanying shot of impertinence. Long may it reign.
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