S1, E1: ‘Wolferton Splash’
In which a man loses a lung, gains a son-in-law, and is happy about neither.
The Crown is a show about purpose: losing it, holding on to it, being defined by it or limited by it. It may also, right now, be a show in search of a purpose. If Downton Abbey fanfic is just not cutting it for you, The Crown may help a little. It is restrained where Downton was sudsy, but it is even more beautiful to look on, its cast just as overqualified, and it has just the same hushed reverence for an obvious anachronism. If you need more heft from your historical dramas, though, The Crown is in no hurry to provide it.
“Spot of blood in my spittle. Ought I be concerned?”
The show begins with an ominous cough: a man in a bathroom hacks and spits into a chamber pot, and the camera shows us what we feared we’d find: specks of red on the porcelain. The man is Albert Frederick Arthur George (King George VI), and the cough kicks off the ascension of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary (Claire Foy), our protagonist. The cough also signals an occasional but persistent theme through the episode: unusually, it’s a male character coughing blood rather than a wraith-like and youthful female. The episode will later assign another stereotypically feminine activity to a man, and his reaction is….less than fully gracious.
King George (Jared Harris) has cancer, and – even after surgery removing one affected lung – will likely only have months to live. Harris plays his journey heartbreakingly. I suspect the scene where he nearly breaks down at Sandringham while joining a group of carollers will be singled out for favour. Correctly – Harris’s face conveys within seconds the weight of his grief and loneliness, as well as the need to stiffen his upper lip. But I am more interested in the way the show uses the cancer diagnosis to play with the mechanics of information transmission, and the hoarding of secrets – sometimes destructively. The King and his family, it seems, may have been the last ones to know of the seriousness of his condition. His doctors know but – possibly with Parliament’s collusion – elect not to tell him, hoping that he will heal if he doesn’t know what ails him. Churchill (John Lithgow, enjoying himself) – after probing from his own physician – finds out the truth, and has to pretend he doesn’t know when confronted with George’s own wincingly ludicrous attempt to fake rude health with rouge and bonhomie. George is allowed to think he got away with the deception but then finds out what his real chances are, how long he has, and – by extension – how long his daughter has in (relative) obscurity and normality.
“Like a great many other things, I’m going to give it all up for you.”
And what would normality look like for ‘Lilibet’, as she is called? We meet the young Queen-to-be pacing anxiously as her fiancé (Matt Smith) gives up his hereditary title of Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark and becomes plain old Lt. Philip Mountbatten…for all of five seconds before being made the Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich. You quickly get the sense that he is stepping into a family overtly hostile to him, which predisposes me to sympathise with him right up until he pouts to his fiancée over his last cigarette that ‘like a great many other things, I’m going to give it all up for you.’
And this is where, I think, the show succeeds better than anywhere else – while also drawing my eye painfully to the problem at its heart. The dynamics of gender and power in Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship are deftly drawn and well-acted. Philip will be playing second fiddle to his wife, and he telegraphs his displeasure plainly and repeatedly. You narrow your eyes at Philip’s petulance at performing a function that women are expected to enact silently and without complaint. On the other hand, context matters. As the show will illustrate, Philip is doing well in an active, stereotypically masculine (not to mention distinctly homoerotic) domain, and he is being asked to abandon it with little more than a cavalier ‘you’ll miss your…career…of course’ from his Papa-in-law. Whereas it’s not clear that Elizabeth’s options, or her freedoms, outside marriage would have been substantially greater than within it. And in the context of the story, this means that it’s not so simple to bark at Philip ‘Well, she’d have been expected to do the same for you! Suck it up!’ Because she likely wouldn’t. To sacrifice her career or personal ambitions, she’d have had to have the option of a career or personal ambitions first. And – given that she essentially grew up as the presumptive heir – that doesn’t seem to ever have been the case.
And the lack of options brings me to what I think is going to be my biggest issue with the show. Going forward, the show is clearly going to reflect on the toll that being the Queen will take on Elizabeth – her life, her loves, her personhood – the conflict between Duty and Self, as it were. And the show does a good job of sketching the attractions – and complications – of Self. Am I a little irritated that Self is not Self so much as Marriage To Callipygian Naval Officer? Perhaps, in the abstract. But it is also refreshing to be reminded that stories about feminism can and should be found in women with such traditionally bourgeois feminine desires and aspirations. And certainly I think The Crown deftly shows Philip’s appeal for Elizabeth. He’s quicksilver, lightly caddish and seems to be the only one around her remotely able to surprise her or make her laugh. And someone, somewhere, is surely starting a graduate thesis about the confusing beauty of Matt Smith’s lavishly-cheekboned, eyebrowless, arrestingly alien face.
The problem is Duty. And I know this may seem like a no-brainer: isn’t Duty always supposed to be less attractive than Pleasure? Certainly it is. But for a conflict to be remotely interesting, both sides have to be compelling. You may not want to perform your Duty, but narratively it’s crucial to understand why it is important that Duty be performed. And this is where I think the show falls short.
“She is the job.”
You see, the show – at least in this episode – gives very little idea of precisely why the Crown matters to Britain, or to the head that bears it. Let’s take Britain first. For me to believe that the Royal Family matters to Britain, I need to get a sense of what they contribute. Broadly, this means that we have to quickly get an idea of the kind of concrete power or authority the Crown wields, or, failing that, its symbolic value to the people of Britain. The show addresses neither, but – as a quick historical aside – the first option can basically be ruled out. Britain had been a constitutional monarchy for two hundred and fifty years at the time that the story begins. Which leaves the power of symbols. I’ll admit to being a small-r republican, but I can imagine that the Crown suggests something archetypal and outside of time to the people of Britain. It must do, at least to enough people. But all the show manages to suggest in this episode is that the royals are celebrities, without any sense of what distinguishes their celebrity, or makes it better worth protecting than others.
Which leaves the importance of the Crown to the royals themselves – and this is an even higher level of difficulty for The Crown to show. The Royals seem to believe that greater exposure, greater scrutiny, limiting personal expression and liberty are the prices to be paid for the endurance of the Crown. And it is unthinkable that the Crown not endure. In the final moments of the episode, the dying King takes his sulky son-in-law duck-shooting in the titular Wolferton Splash, and tells him that devoting himself to Elizabeth is a higher act of love – and of patriotism – than any career would have been. But why? The Royals are hedged about and circumscribed jealously by Parliament, and are expressly forbidden from anything but the most decorative of roles except in very unusual circumstances. There is no sense, either, that these well-meaning but unambitious folk want anything more active for themselves. Equally, I don’t think we’re meant to believe that the Royals made the ignominious Faustian bargain of their personhoods for unimaginable luxury, and are hell-bent on protecting their sinecures. Neither do I think that we are being invited to contemplate the futility of the Royals’ sacrifice or the completeness of their dynastic delusions of relevance. So why do the Royals think they matter? It’s hard to parse, because nobody on screen seems much given to introspection, or even to self-awareness. Which is realistic, but makes it difficult to answer existential questions. Especially if – as I suspect – it hasn’t occurred to the makers of The Crown to ask the questions in the first place.
- It’s true that there was universal opposition to Philip as a marriage prospect for Elizabeth, and that quite a few of his close relatives were, or were married to, ‘prominent Nazis’, as Churchill puts it. However, there is an actual prominent Nazi sympathiser somewhat closer to home in Edward VIII, and George VI himself was a long-time supporter of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement to Hitler.
- Queen Elizabeth, our protagonist’s mother (Victoria Hamilton) sniffs at Philip’s ‘Hun nun’ mother. Now, at this point in time the House of Windsor may have considered themselves as English as English could be. But it is worth pointing out that the family was somewhat panickedly rebranded ‘the House of Windsor’ only in 1917. Their previous name was the somewhat more Teutonic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (itself an update of the no less Germanic House of Hanover). Moreover, she is sniffing to the then Queen Mother (Eileen Atkins), who, while born in England herself, had a father of German extraction, a German-born mother, and was herself the princess of Teck in Wurttemberg. All in all, an observation in bafflingly poor taste – albeit one the historical Queen Elizabeth might well have made.
Odds and Sods
- We see Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby, flighty and charismatic) sharing sultry glances with Peter Townsend (Ben Miles). She prevails upon her mamma to have him at the family’s disposal – and away from his wife – over Christmas. This can only end well, surely.
- A young woman named Venetia Scott (Kate Phillips) is a new member of Winston Churchill’s staff. He takes a shine to her, and I assume that she will be our Wide-Eyed Audience Surrogate.
For more of my posts on The Crown, see here.