I’m not a regular television watcher. When I have down time, my first choice is to get comfy with a good book (okay, chocolate might also be involved, but no snide remarks on Pavlov, if you please.) However, at the urging of numerous friends to tune into the extravagant production of The Crown, I broke down and got a subscription to Netflix (yes, I’m one of the few people in this digital world who didn’t yet have one.)
And oh, am I glad I did!
Making history come alive is something I feel is vitally important on so many levels. Understanding the past, of course, is fundamental to seeing the challenges of the present and the future more clearly. I think most of us would agree with the old adage “those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it.”
But beyond the grand scale of events over time—wars, revolutions, social change, economic stresses, artistic developments, to name just a few—a nuanced view of the human factor—the people who shaped the course of history and the very real and personal challenges they faced in doing so—resonates on such a personal level.
On the whole, I usually think books are better at capturing the essence of an historical event or person. My feeling is the liberties taken to cram all the subtleties into an hour broadcast usually mean that reality is altered, characters become one-dimensional and the whole production becomes more entertainment than an accurate portrayal of history. (Though as we all know, there is never one “truth”—different perspectives will always offer different accounts.)
So it was with modest expectations that I tuned in the first episode of The Crown. I was ready to enjoy the costumes, the settings, the whole vicarious peek at “royalty.” Well, was I surprised! It changed my opinion of what good television can do to both entertain AND educate—and by that I mean showing a viewing audience that history isn’t a dull, dry subject that has no relevance to their lives. Rather, it’s a powerful reminder than humanity shapes history, and the lessons of how individuals deal with difficult decisions that have consequences on so many levels should resonate with all of us.
Now, where to begin with my fan-girl gushing . . . let’s start with the creator/screenwriter, Peter Morgan (who also created the movies The Queen, with Helen Mirren and Frost-Nixon) and the production designer Martin Childs (who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love) The dialogue in Season One (the first decade in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, with flashbacks to earlier, formative years), the characterizations and the settings are superb. Just as a visual spectacle, it’s well worth seeing, but I loved that the people became so real and weren’t simply mannequins in a period drama.
Which brings me to the actors. Not only do they bear an uncanny resemblance to their real life characters, but they all play their roles beautifully, with heart and emotion that adheres pretty accurately to the “true” story of Elizabeth and Philip as they begin to navigate life on the throne. (Yes, I’ve gone back and checked on some of the historical facts shown. just because I was so curious. ) The supporting cast is also great. Princess Margaret is excellent, and John Lithgow’s performance of Churchill is a tour de force.
I’ve always thought of Elizabeth as rather colorless—perfectly pleasant but not overly interesting or engaging. And Prince Philip has always struck me as a fairly pompous, cold fish. The Crown certainly changed my view. Most people, of course, are usually more complex than cardboard characterizations, but the royal couple as portrayed in the series took on such humanity. The simple black and white of my previous perceptions became an infinite range of grays. (In a very good way!) That range of emotion applies to the secondary cast as well. Everyone, from the Queen Mother and King George down to the household staff come off as people with all the complexities and contradictions that all of us possess.
The project’s ambitious plan is to ultimately run six seasons, with ten episodes in each. Season One has garnered enough raves that Season Two is in the works —huzzah, huzzah! Word is, the production cost over $100 million dollars, but for me it’s worth every penny! (I’ve also noted that Taschen Publishers has released Her Majesty, a coffee table book on the queen, lavishly illustrated with family photos. Hmm, did someone say Christmas present?)
So what about you? Have you watched The Crown, and if so what did you think? Or do you have some other favorite movie or television show that you felt really brought history to life? Please share!