TV Review: The Crown: Hyde Park Corner

The Crown

S1, E2: ‘Hyde Park Corner’

In which a woman climbs up a tree a Princess and comes down a Queen, and I’m still not quite sure why it matters

Grade: B

The Crown has set itself two jobs: to show the sacrifices that the Crown exacts of the wearer, and the reason the wearer would make the sacrifice. It continues to do a fine job this episode filling in the first part, while basically ignoring the second.

“What else have you got in mind for our little holiday?”

First up, we have Philip and Elizabeth’s adventures in ‘Keen-yah’. Elizabeth’s been pushed into the major leagues of the Commonwealth Tour while her father convalesces (as she believes). They don’t have the kids with them – not that I really see Pip and Lilibet as harried young parents keeping two a.m. colic vigils. But more to the point, their escort is young and sympathetic, and there’s nary another Royal in sight. Which gives them the freedom to uncurl in the sun like two giddy young honeymooners, gambolling and eye-fucking and exuding lush dreamy afterglow. I was seduced – I couldn’t help myself – but it’s….yeah, it’s a lot. Philip exults in his masculinity while saving Elizabeth from a rogue elephant, the couple melt into each other as they watch giraffes at night in a hotel nestled in the treetops, and Elizabeth tiptoes around her bedroom in Philip’s shirt, letting a camera pan down his naked form as he sleeps. She even shyly suggests to a delighted Philip that if her father’s health continues to improve, they might move back to Malta for a while so that Philip can resume his naval career. Which, for anyone who has ever watched TV or read a book, is when one’s eyes should turn instinctively towards Britain…

“Enjoy every minute while you can.”

King George is trying, with pathetic hopefulness, to get his doctor to give him good news. He says eagerly that he is feeling wonderful, and his doctor tells him with crushing gentleness to enjoy it while it lasts. Face falling for only an instant, the King assures him that he intends to. He heads out to Sandringham to shoot (again, some more). He has a lovely, strange, sad duet of ‘Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered’ with Margaret at the piano. It is tender and intimate, even when the camera pans out and you see that they are performing for approximately fifty of the family’s closest friends. Harris continues to break your heart with every twitch of his beautiful, crumpled face. George watches a TV broadcast of his daughter in Kenya, and goes to bed that night, never to wake up again. And now the shit – in the gentlest, most decorous, best-intentioned way – begins to make its way towards the fan.

“I thought we’d have longer.”

Parliament and the Royal household (spurred by the code words ‘Hyde Park Corner’) get into a race against time to get the news of George’s passing to Elizabeth before she hears it from reporters. Martin Charteris (Harry Hadden-Paton), Elizabeth’s secretary on the Tour, races to the hotel and blanches as he sees Elizabeth serenely writing a note – the note, we assume, requesting her father’s permission for her and Philip to retire to Malta. Charteris finds Philip instead, who breaks the news to her without a word. Foy does a fine job here, letting life and the hope of normalcy leach from her eyes without moving a muscle. Both of them know that their idyll is over, and the show loses no time in the death of a thousand cuts that will be the new status quo. The couple’s secretary will no longer be the sympathetic Charteris, but the hidebound Tommy Lascelles (Pip Torrens). Philip can no longer walk beside his wife, since she – or rather, the Crown – takes precedence. This news sets up some nicely-judged bits of physicality from both Smith and Foy, as Philip tries to nudge as close as he can to Elizabeth without explicitly flouting protocol, and she – overwhelmed by her new burden – is barely able to acknowledge him (shout-out, too, to the convulsive little jerk of one shoulder from Philip as she leaves him behind. Trying, and failing, to shake it off). And it does not, of course, end with Philip. A kiss on the cheek from her heartbroken mother and sister, and as they set off, a sharp ‘Wait!’ from the Queen Mother to Margaret reminds her – and us – that Elizabeth walks alone from now on. And the episode ends with Eileen Atkins’s Queen Mary, veiled and swathed in black like a harbinger of doom, sinking painfully into a curtsey to her grand-daughter, the Queen.

“The Crown must win. Must always win.”

Before Elizabeth steps out to face her subjects for the first time as Queen, she reads a letter from her grandmother. As Eileen Atkins’s grand, steely voiceover begins, the show’s thesis statement drops onto your head like a pendulum made of anvils. Again. And again. And again.

“I have seen three great monarchies brought down by their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty. You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes.” [THUNK!].

“And while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else: Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person: Elizabeth Regina.” [SLAM!]

“The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, the Crown must win. Must. Always. Win.”[THUNK!]

The last phrases – while making great trailer voiceover material – bring me back to a question I will likely be asking again and again: why must the Crown win? The show has, so far, taken some pains to show that royalty is a gilded cage. Even when Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam, looking like a daguerreotype of himself) asks the King to exert personal influence to urge an increasingly out-of-touch Churchill to step aside – and even though there’s a good case that such influence may really be for the good of the country – the King says regretfully that his office stands in his way. He even uses the same metaphor his mother uses in her letter to Elizabeth, saying that the person who could have interceded was murdered when his brother abdicated. There is some ambiguity here about whether the King is making a pretext of his position because of a personal affection for Churchill, but if we believe George is being sincere, he’s just listed another way that the Crown constrains him. At some point the Crown’s going to have to have something to offer its bearer (besides unimaginable material privilege), and it better do so soon.

Historical notes

  • George VI was indeed apparently very fond of Churchill, although initially he would have preferred Neville Chamberlain’s replacement to be Lord Halifax.
  • At one point Elizabeth instructs her Kenyan guides on how to deal with an overheated engine, saying she was a mechanic in “the War”. Elizabeth was indeed a truck mechanic in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during WWII, which I hope is going to be in a flashback episode some day.

Odds and sods

  • The show’s treatment of race in this episode is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, we get a refreshingly candid depiction of Philip and Elizabeth’s racial attitudes. Elizabeth kicks us off by praising Nairobi’s evolution from ‘a savage place’. We’re barely done cringing at that, before Philip is cheerfully pawing at a tribesman’s medals and saying ‘Where did you steal that?’ Elizabeth doesn’t intervene until Philip is gazing admiringly at the ‘nice hat’ of a tribal king, at which point she doubles back and hisses ‘It’s not a hat. It’s a crown.’ The king gazes impassively and wordlessly at the screen – and indeed no people of colour will get to say more than two or three words this episode. I’m pretty sure I’m expected to be deeply uncomfortable at the sight of the Kenyan who kisses Elizabeth’s (shod!) feet as she comes out of her hotel a new queen. But my palm was accelerating towards my face as the tribal king and the queen gazed at each other as she sped by in her car. I’m sure it was meant to be a ‘one sovereign to another’ moment, but don’t. Just don’t.
  • Margaret and Peter Townsend’s affair has attracted the attention of the royal household – as well it might, given that they’re snogging in the open. Tommy Lascelles issues Peter an exquisitely discreet warning to distance himself from the Royal Family now that the King is dead – surely the only member of the Family with whom Peter could have had an ‘uncommonly close understanding’. Instead, Peter defiantly accepts an offer from the Queen Mother (via Margaret?) to remain with the Royal household. And I fully accept that Lascelles is going to be a major antagonist, as evinced by a wonderfully sinister overhead shot, not to mention a permanently arched eyebrow and magnificent Resting Villain Face. But Lascelles is speaking nothing but the truth when he reminds Peter that he has a wife.
  • Lithgow continues to have great fun as Churchill, waddling and glumping and being plummily grotesque. In this episode he gets his Ingenue Underling Venetia Scott to read him briefings as he bathes, and – with one ponderous movement – soaks her with the overrun from his bathtub. Venetia Scott continues to be a prop with no purpose but to be appalled/delighted by Churchill, and thus will not move into the main review for the foreseeable future.
  • The sequence where Charteris asks Elizabeth to choose her regnal name is a particularly flagrant ‘As You Know, Lilibet’. There is no way Elizabeth wouldn’t know about the practice, let alone that her father’s regnal name was different from his Christian name.

 

For more of my posts on The Crown, see here.

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