“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 sea­son is commissioned.
 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.

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, but by sit­ting most of the time. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the words put in his mouth by the screen­play con­tribute to a car­toon­ish image far from reality.

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.

Red Herrings

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. After all, an advis­er says, they’re upper­class Eng­lish school­boys, used to a good hid­ing by their nanny.

Good line! Except that it nev­er happened.

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 we are left with weird impres­sions. 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.


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