“The Crown”: A Not So Crowning Achievement

“The Crown”: A Not So Crowning Achievement

The Crown, 2016. Pro­duced for Net­flix by Left Bank Pic­tures, cre­at­ed and writ­ten by Peter Mor­gan. Ten episodes released 4 Novem­ber 2016. A sec­ond and third sea­son fol­lowed.
 N.B. Since writ­ing this, more false trails emerged. Con­sult­ing 1952 doc­u­ments at the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project and Churchill Archives Cen­tre, we found no evi­dence for the film’s impli­ca­tion that the Duke of Wind­sor bar­gained with Churchill to per­suade the Roy­al cou­ple to move from Clarence House to the Palace, in exchange for restora­tion of his allowance. Nor is there any­thing to sug­gest Churchill post­poned the Coro­na­tion 18 months for his own polit­i­cal pur­pos­es. 

No soon­er had I admired the fair, most­ly bal­anced and accu­rate PBS docu­d­ra­ma Churchill’s Secret (on the Prime Minister’s June 1953 stroke) than I was grum­bling through Netflix’s The Crown, which is, sad­ly, as often mis­lead­ing as Churchill’s Secret was hon­est.

Claire Foy admirably plays HM Queen Eliz­a­beth II.

Starts off well

The pro­duc­tion, said to be Netflix’s most cost­ly to date, starts off well enough. Jared Har­ris is a con­vinc­ing King George VI, cap­tur­ing his estab­lished man­ner­isms and atti­tudes, his des­per­ate ill­ness. Alex Jen­nings is painful­ly accu­rate as his spoiled broth­er, the Duke of Wind­sor: pet­ty, self­ish, con­vinced he is vic­tim of a fam­i­ly plot.

Claire Foy is an hon­est Eliz­a­beth II, inher­ent­ly intel­li­gent but abysmal­ly schooled, except in the Constitution—as indeed her biog­ra­phers sug­gest. (Like the young Churchill, she engaged in a deter­mined self-edu­ca­tion.) Matt Smith is a less accu­rate Prince Philip, giv­en to act­ing the fool­ish play­boy, lament­ing his emas­cu­la­tion as Queen Con­sort and mak­ing racist jibes at native war­riors in Kenya. Vanes­sa Kir­by is a believ­able Princess Mar­garet, though hard­ly, per the Radio Times, “The Princess Diana of her day.” Dame Har­ri­et Wal­ter is a grace­ful Clemen­tine Churchill, though she gives the impres­sion at times of a house­hold staffer.

John Lithgow’s Churchill: a good act­ing per­for­mance, but the script is unfor­tu­nate.

John Lith­gow is a pass­able Churchill. He is good on the voice and man­ner­isms, min­i­miz­ing his 6’4” stature with a body suit that gives him a stoop, and by sit­ting most of the time. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the words put in his mouth by the screen­play con­tribute to a car­toon­ish image far from real­i­ty.

Red Herrings

We were soon sim­mer­ing over Churchill’s fic­ti­tious jibes at Prime Min­is­ter Attlee—the old “emp­ty taxi” and “sheep in sheep’s cloth­ing” canards—and the impli­ca­tion that Churchill was drunk at the Coro­na­tion. Lithgow’s Churchill is invari­ably a wheez­ing old gaffer, cling­ing stub­born­ly to pow­er, which may have been true at times after his 1953 stroke, but not ear­li­er.

About that stroke. An episode tells of the Queen’s shock, long after the fact, learn­ing that Churchill and his deputy, Antho­ny Eden, were simul­ta­ne­ous­ly out of com­mis­sion, and the coun­try lead­er­less, in late June 1953. She sum­mons Lord Sal­is­bury (Clive Fran­cis) and the PM him­self, for a dress­ing-down. She scolds them like an upper-class nan­ny, a bystander says.

Good line! Except that it nev­er hap­pened.

The truth

Three days after Churchill’s stroke, the Queen inquired about his ill­ness: “I am so sor­ry to hear from [pri­vate sec­re­tary] Tom­my Las­celles that you have not been feel­ing too well these last few days. I do hope it is not seri­ous and that you will be quite recov­ered in a very short time.” (Mar­tin Gilbert, Nev­er Despair 1946-1965, 852.)

Thrilled by her let­ter, Churchill told all. He wrote her “a remark­able doc­u­ment with its poise, pro­por­tion and sense of detach­ment…. he recalled the cir­cum­stances in which he had been strick­en down; spoke of his plight as he lay in bed as if it had hap­pened to some­one else; told Her Majesty that he was not with­out hope that he might soon be about and able to dis­charge his duties until the Autumn when he thought that Antho­ny would be able to take over.” (Lord Moran, Churchill: The Strug­gle for Sur­vival, 440-41.)

Churchill’s pri­vate sec­re­tary Jock Colville adds that on August 2nd, “I went with W. to Roy­al Lodge where he had an audi­ence of the Queen. He said that he had told her his deci­sion whether or not to retire would be made in a month when he saw clear­ly whether he was fit to face Par­lia­ment and to make a major speech to the Con­ser­v­a­tive Annu­al Con­fer­ence in Octo­ber.” (John Colville, Fringes of Pow­er, Down­ing Street Diaries 1939-1955, 673)

No Crown for Accuracy

Episode 9, on the infa­mous Gra­ham Suther­land 80th birth­day paint­ing (dubbed “a lost mas­ter­piece”) goes off the rails again. The inac­cu­ra­cies would be bor­ing to cat­a­logue. Churchill’s sit­tings with the artist include fic­ti­tious con­ver­sa­tions that may or may not be accurate—one rec­og­nizes the need for dia­logue. But weird impres­sions dom­inte. Churchill paints his Chartwell fish­pond “again and again.” Appar­ent­ly this sym­bol­izes his severe despon­den­cy and depres­sion. If he paint­ed the fish­pond more than once or twice, we have yet to see the evi­dence.

Is it real­ly so big a deal? Not in itself. But as a result we will soon read on the web how Churchill’s stroke was kept from the Queen. How he “forced” the Roy­al Cou­ple to move from Clarence House. And how he paint­ed a scene repeat­ed­ly in his Black Dog of despair.

Why do pro­duc­ers alter the truth and expect peo­ple to believe it? Because most will? Per­haps the screen­writer will appear at a Churchill event, praised for his achieve­ment in sell­ing a mil­lion copies.

Une­d­u­cat­ed cheers are already start­ing.  The Crown, writes Van­i­ty Fair, fea­tures a “two-han­der sequence between Lithgow’s enfee­bled Churchill and [Stephen] Dillane’s prob­ing Suther­land. That riv­et­ing scene starts with a sim­ple gold­fish pond and ends in man­ly, restrained tears. It is exact­ly the kind of thing that makes The Crown such refresh­ing­ly restrained-yet-irre­sistible tele­vi­sion.”

More and more I real­ize that truth and accu­ra­cy mat­ter less and less. Style and per­cep­tion are every­thing. Real­i­ty bends to fit the creator’s mind­set.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks