We open with some angry marmalading. The 38-year-old queen (Olivia Colman, replacing Claire Foy) has seen the updated profile pictures for the stamps’n’money, reflecting her transition from novice monarch to “settled sovereign”, as her private secretary delicately puts it, and is taking her feelings out on the toast. It’s as expressive as the top Windsor is allowed to get.
The Crown is back for its third season, starting in 1964 and ending 13 years later with the silver jubilee. There’s a lot to get through and it wastes no time doing so, while somehow never going at more than a very stately pace indeed. A royal’s trick if ever there was one.
It is not the only conundrum presented by The Crown. The main one is: what is it? A soap? With all the personal dramas, behind-the-scenes machinations and a natural Joan Collins figure in Princess Margaret (now played, with magnificently casual disdain, by Helena Bonham Carter), it certainly lathers well. Is it prestige television? The money up on screen, the attention to detail, the hewing to British constitutional history and the dragooning of every respected member of British Equity suggest so.
How much artistic licence has been taken? Impossible to tell, unless the royals have been your jam for a long time (though I doubt the coup supposedly planned against Harold Wilson’s government ever got beyond a few Carlton Club types’ masturbatory fantasies). Is it good or bad? Yes. On the one hand, it’s tremendous. You’re riveted. By the relentlessly top-notch performances (Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip gets and relishes all the best lines, but also deserves special mention for his portrait of a charming, brutal, wounded man), the cracking story and frisson of forbidden knowledge. And on the other, it has the action stop every 12 minutes or so – usually for a new prime minister to come for his first audience with the Queen, or a state dinner at which somebody under-informed sits next to someone fully informed – for a chunk of exposition so we all know who everybody is, what ramifications of the next bit of monarcho-political chicanery are being considered and whether it’s anything we remember from real life yet.
But like the royals themselves, it is so confident and so precision-engineered that you don’t notice the defects – which include lines such as: “Economically the UK’s right up against it. We’re seeing a terrifying run on sterling and our credit with the IMF is about to expire!” – that it gets away with everything. And with two series already behind us, we now have the additional pleasure of being reunited with old friends. It’s nice to see the Queen more settled into her role. Good to have Princess Margaret back causing havoc, aided by Snowdon’s (Ben Daniels) evolution from cad to full rotter since we last met.
Lord Mountbatten is now Charles Dance. The Duke of Windsor is now Derek Jacobi, but still persona non grata. A brief hello and sad goodbye to Winston Churchill (John Lithgow still), and the influx of new characters begins. There’s the surveyor of the Queen’s pictures – a guy called Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), and just wait until you see what he’s been up to! – and the Labour PM Wilson (whose straightforward manner comes to be increasingly appreciated by his sovereign), Princess Alice (the Duke of Edinburgh’s estranged mother, exquisitely played with spirit and sadness by Jane Lapotaire), Lyndon B Johnson, Edward Heath, Arthur Scargill and many others join the ensemble over the 10-hour stretch.
Princess Anne (Erin Doherty, bringing the kind of comic relief The Crown could benefit from more of – the endless repressiveness under which they all labour eventually takes a toll on the viewer, too) slides into place from episode four, and in episode six Prince Charles appears. He is occasionally portrayed as uncannily close to an actual simpleton, but again, whether this is slavish adherence to under-acknowledged fact or creative licence there is no way of telling, unless you happen across a suitably drunk and loquacious Fergie in a nightclub of an evening. Give us a call if you do. I seek clarity on many issues.
Camilla and Andrew Parker Bowles perk up the final few episodes, but every one of them is a masterpiece of a kind – not least the third, which concentrates on the Aberfan tragedy and ends with a caption noting that the Queen’s delayed response to the tragedy remains her biggest regret as sovereign.
For royalists, The Crown will do little to shake faith in the monarchy. It is not a puff piece, but is far from forensically critical enough to put any cracks in believers’ certainties. For republicans, the sight of so many birds in gilded cages will surely inspire greater sympathy for the individuals so constrained, their instincts ever thwarted by the bars of duty and tradition, while at the same time expanding their own belief that the whole carceral network is better torn down for the good of not just the many but also the gamely chirping few.
The amount of cake The Crown successfully has and eats deserves an award all of its own.
The Crown returns to Netflix on 17 November.