“The Crown”: A Not So Crowning Achievement

“The Crown”: A Not So Crowning Achievement

The Crown, 2016-23. Pro­duced for Net­flix by Left Bank Pic­tures, cre­at­ed and writ­ten by Peter Mor­gan. First ten episodes released 4 Novem­ber 2016. Many sea­sons fol­lowed which I stead­fast­ly avoid­ed. For a ripe old ver­dict on the lot, see Petronel­la Wyatt: “Thank Good­ness the Woe­ful Crown Has Come to an End” (Dai­ly Tele­graph, 26 Decem­ber 2023)
 N.B. Over the yers since, 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 real­is­tic, 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 was, sad­ly, as often mis­lead­ing as Churchill’s Secret was truth­ful. Thank heav­en it’s over (2023).

Claire Foy admirably plays HM Queen Eliz­a­beth II.

Started well

The first sea­son, said to be Netflix’s most cost­ly to date, start­ed 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, mak­ing racist jibes at native war­riors in Kenya and lewd pro­pos­als to his spouse. 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 housekeeper.

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 asser­tion that Churchill was drunk at the Coro­na­tion. Lithgow’s Churchill is not like the real per­son. He 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 and dis­torts real­i­ty and the characters.

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 added 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 Realism

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—of course there is a need for dia­logue. But weird impres­sions dom­i­nate. Churchill paints his Chartwell fish­pond “again and again.” Appar­ent­ly this sym­bol­izes his severe despon­den­cy and depres­sion. If he paint­ed the fish­pond more than twice, we have yet to see the evidence.

Is it real­ly so big a deal? Not in itself. The trou­ble is, it advances igno­rance. It’s only dra­ma, peo­ple will say. 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 dis­tort the past and expect peo­ple to believe it? Because most will? Because the screen­writer will appear at some 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.


2 thoughts on ““The Crown”: A Not So Crowning Achievement

  1. Yes it cross­es more red lines than the musi­cal Camelot.

    But wasn’t Camelot uplift­ing? This is just depress­ing. RML

  2. Do you realise that this is a dra­ma show, not a doc­u­men­tary? Not once has it ever claimed to be what you expect it to be – an entire­ly accu­rate retelling of his­to­ry. It would be bor­ing and nobody would watch it. It’s up to the view­er to find out for them­selves what is / isn’t fic­tion, if they choose to. Just as you would with any oth­er film / TV show that’s based on real events.
    Yes, I do real­ize it’s dra­ma, thanks very much. Every­body under­stands dra­ma requires fic­ti­tious dia­logue to fill out a script. An exam­ple of the right way to write this is in the “Dark­est Hour” under­ground scene, which every­one knows didn’t hap­pen but accu­rate­ly reflects the spir­it of Lon­don­ers at that time.
    That kind of dra­mat­ic license doesn’t dis­tort real­i­ty, it ampli­fies it. “The Crown” does the oppo­site, vest­ing char­ac­ters with words and atti­tudes they’d nev­er adopt in real life, appar­ent­ly in the name of skew­ing his­to­ry. Yes, I’m sure “The Crown” aims not to “bore” us with its ahis­toric dia­logue, but if that’s what it takes, it’s just anoth­er exam­ple of the onward march of invin­ci­ble igno­rance. His­to­ry is not bor­ing. You should try it. RML

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