'The Crown' And The Problem Of Historical Narrative

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, February 19, 2018
This has been a pretty good season for the Windsor family.  To general acclaim, Prince Harry announced his engagement to the American TV actress Meghan (“Suits”) Markle.  Then Queen Elizabeth herself participated in a much-heralded televised conversation about her coronation, which was shown in the U.S. on The Smithsonian Channel.  

But the real TV action for the British Monarchy has been “The Crown,” the sumptuous Netflix soap opera for viewers who think “Downton Abbey” is too downmarket.  

The series, which purports to depict the behind-the-scenes lives of the Queen and her family, is based on material from three sources: 1) the public record; 2) unofficial and sometimes gossipy backstage accounts published in books and articles over the years; and 3) the best guesses and inferences of showrunner Peter Morgan about what happened among the royals in private.

For example, it is a known fact that Prince Philip went on a months-long royal tour in the 1950s, during which the hijinks of his private secretary burst into view and created a scandal for the prince.  It is also known that before Philip returned to the U.K., the Queen flew to Portugal and the two of them had a long private tete-a-tete on the yacht Britannia.  Also on the record is that soon thereafter, Philip got a title upgrade to prince.



But what actually happened during that private time on the ship?  Did they do what many long separated couples would do under those circumstances vis-à-vis marital relations? Or did they, as Morgan depicts, have a major row about Philip’s escapades with the ladies, during which he agreed to turn over a new leaf in return for being anointed Duke of Edinburgh?  Only two people know what happened in that stateroom, and neither of them is talking.

Here’s the problem with the genre of historical drama.  In real life, people have multiple motivations and complex feelings.  Moreover, larger-than-life figures who attract TV bio-series are infinitely more interesting than the simplified characters you see on even the most subtle TV show. Inevitably TV prunes away complexity in order to get to a story that has a point, a theme, and a lesson.

Claire Foy gives a very good performance as the young monarch but is handicapped by our long exposure to the real Elizabeth.  Perhaps no person in history has been as publicly gawked at by as many people as the Queen, and after sixty years we all know how she talks, walks and generally presents herself.

We can, for example, compare the Queen’s actual televised Christmas message in 1957 with the show’s, version, which shows how Claire Foy fails to capture the essence of the Queen.  The real Elizabeth has an extravagantly flutey upper-crust accent and looks nervous throughout the broadcast; all this is smoothed over and softened in “The Crown,” presumably to make her more approachable to us in 2018.  

The same thing happens when you compare the recreated and real coronations, royal weddings and other events captured on newsreel footage.  Foy is an attractive and talented actress — but in her mid-20s, the real Queen was somehow both more beautiful and charismatic than a mere Hollywood movie star.

But Foy’s performance is Emmy-worthy compared to how the Americans are played.   An entire episode revolves around a visit by Jack and Jackie Kennedy, and Michael C. Hall’s presentation of JFK as a nasty jealous husband is so not-credible that it calls into question the verisimilitude of the whole series.

The issue of whether dramas based on “real events” can begin to depict the “truth” becomes more pressing as the number of historically based limited series increases.  “Waco,” “Versace,” “The Feud,” and “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” for example, have all mined the recent past to critical acclaim and big audiences.

You’re asking for trouble when you try to impersonate the Queen and O.J. Simpson — or, as in “The Feud,” Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, whose faces, voices and mannerisms are already better-known to us than our own family’s.  Second-string famous people like David Koresh and Gianni Versace are more believably portrayed in highly fictionalized historical dramas that the uber-famous.

In truth, if you want to dramatize history, the distant past is much easier to exploit.  Claire Foy was completely believable as another Queen – Anne Boleyn –  in “Wolf Hall.” And I’m more than happy to accept that the youthful Victoria was exactly as played by Jenna Coleman in “Victoria.” And let’s not forget the gold standard for Queenly portrayals: Glenda Jackson as the first Elizabeth 40 years ago in “Elizabeth R.”   

This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed “The Crown.”  Generally I consider each episode a perfect hour of TV.  It’s great to look at, it makes me feel smart because I already know a lot of the history, and it’s just complicated enough to stimulate my brain.

But after every episode, I rush to Wikipedia to see how much of it is “true” – that is, objectively true, not just a jumble of concocted scenes to get at an “essential truth.”  And that’s when I decide how much I like the episode: when I confirm how much it sticks to the facts.  This is not the way art is supposed to work, but that’s what happens when a TV show claims to be based on the historical record.

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