S1, E4: ‘Act of God’
In which a yellow fog rubs its back upon a constitutional crisis
The Crown turns in an ambitious, frustrating episode about the tunnel vision of the powerful, and making a virtue of inactivity.
“It is weather. It will pass.”
The Meteorological Department is in a flurry: visibility levels seem to be falling precipitously, and they decide to send out a warning to the Prime Minister. Not that he’ll read it, but at least they’ll cover their backs.
And they’re quite right not to trust Churchill. He’s ignored the results of previous fact-finding missions recommending clean air zones around London, after the poisonous smog of 1948 in Donora, Pennsylvania. He’s consistently ignored domestic policy issues in favour of obsessing about America and Russia. In fact, the only domestic issue in which he takes any interest at all is whether or not Philip can be allowed to take flying lessons. Lithgow plays Churchill’s horror and incredulity beautifully. He simply cannot understand why Philip might like to learn to fly, and sputters, jowls flying in every direction, in outrage that nobody else even cares. Up to and including his own increasingly mutinous Parliament.
I wanted to reach through the screen and shake the oblivious old fart as day after day goes by and life in the city comes to a screeching halt. It’s hard not to draw parallels to (ahem) the US Committee on Science and Technology with its members chuntering cheerfully about global wobbling and why scientists who warn about man-made climate change really can’t be trusted because, you know, they’re scientists and therefore have an interest in people, er, believing them. You hope that the forces being set in motion to unseat him will act in time. You even feel a grim satisfaction as the episode draws to a close and Churchill finds himself gazing into the dead face of his youthful secretary Venetia Scott (whose fate is blindingly obvious the instant I realise she has more than five lines in this episode). Venetia, you see, has taken her Ominously Coughing Flatmate to a packed and under-resourced hospital, and offered to drop a word in the ear of her hero Winston Churchill without specifying that she really is in a position to do such a thing. She is of course brusquely (and quite justifiably) rebuffed by the overworked physician on duty, storms off…and is run over by a bus navigating London’s streets in the appalling murk.
‘You see?’, I think, as I look at Churchill. ‘Your young protegee, who breathlessly quoted your own memoirs to you, has been slain by your negligence. Has she not performed her function – the function of so many youthful females? To die that you may Learn And Grow?’
And then the show impresses me. Churchill glances up, and you can see the cogs turning. He asks his dogsbody to get together the press, and then – with downcast eye and patriarchal unction – announces that the terrible things he has seen today have spurred him to action. He releases funds for first responders, the newspapers swoon, and the consummate populist has bought himself a stay of execution.
“To do nothing is the hardest job of all.”
Because an execution was in the offing. In the Opposition, Clement Attlee of the Labour Party (Simon Chandler) is patiently feeding Churchill enough rope to hang himself, and is just about to table a motion of No Confidence when Churchill pulls his eleventh-hour save. The Tories are so fed up with their leader that ‘Bobbety’, Lord Salisbury (Clive Francis) puts in a call to Lord Mountbatten to have a word with his niece-by-marriage. Mountbatten is still smarting at the Churchill-engineered snub that means that the Royal House will not, in fact, be Mountbatten, and makes no bones about reminding Elizabeth of precisely how little loyalty she need owe Churchill. Elizabeth, perplexed and torn, turns to Tommy Lascelles for advice. And here it is that Lascelles – may his tribe increase! – offers sane, cautious and genuinely well-intentioned advice. Elizabeth’s father George was a stickler for the rules, and refused to intervene earlier, when asked to do so by Eden. But that was George, as Lascelles reminds her, and the circumstances were different. The present circumstances – well, Lascelles reads the papers (And can draw the curtains to see the blanket of yellow and grey outside, might I add). And it is such a relief, in an episode so thick with ego, thwarted ambition, scheming and revenge, to meet a man who is doing his job, and offering a considered, disinterested opinion.
Elizabeth calls for a meeting with Churchill, to ask him to step aside and let another man do the job – but in the meantime the wily old goat has seduced the press, and Elizabeth has no cards to play. So instead she discusses seating plans with Churchill, wrong-footing/charming him enough to agree to let Philip take flying lessons after all. This is recounted in a cosy fireside chat by Churchill to his wife, but – for future reference, show – would have been nice to actually see on-screen.
In another fireside chat, Elizabeth talks to an ailing Queen Mary. Elizabeth worries that it doesn’t seem right to do nothing as Head of State, and her grandmother tells her that it is exactly right. Gravely, bleakly, she outlines in precise terms how terrifyingly totemic and yet paralysing it is to be sovereign in the Crown’s universe: a word, a gesture, indicates a position, and that is the one thing Elizabeth must never allow herself.
Which would ordinarily reinforce my plaintive refrain of ‘But then why-’, except that Elizabeth has had another chat with her grandmamma, which lays out why the Royals might submit to living mummification in this manner. Queen Mary believes that monarchy is God’s ‘sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth’. As such, it is neither a privilege nor merely a job, but a grave and sacred responsibility which it is unthinkable treason to shirk (as did David) or to fail. Which, on some level, I was expecting – Elizabeth has been taught to see herself as her nation’s steward and servant, albeit in a talismanic – though onerous – way. The Crown hasn’t sold what royalty means to the royals, so much as side-stepped the issue by saying it doesn’t have to: the Royals and the country are caught in an extended, intergenerational case of Stockholm Syndrome.
Queen Mary scoffs at Philip’s family as ‘carpetbaggers and parvenus’, whose claim to royalty goes back a measly ninety years. ‘What would they know of Alfred the Great…Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII?’ Which rather tempts one to ask ‘But…what would you know of Alfred the Sodding Great?’ The House of Hannover was imported from Germany in the eighteenth century. Their links to the Stuarts (from Elizabeth Stuart) would vanish if you spoke to them crossly, and there were any number of closer kin who would have acceded to the throne if it hadn’t been for anti-Catholic hysteria. It’s adorable that you feel so at home in your husband’s family’s borrowed heritage, Mary, but calm the fuck down.
Odds and sods
- Oh yeah, Philip’s taking flying lessons. This is notable only for gorgeous scenery – which, yes, does include Philip doing a slow-motion strut for 1000000000000000000000000000000 years in a flight suit and sunglasses. Yes, that is the header image. Yes, I am shameless.
- I haven’t mentioned the music in the show before. Suffice it to say ‘what if Hans Zimmer scored Downton Abbey?’ I sort of liked the balls-to-the-wall unsubtlety of the use of Mozart’s ‘Lacrimosa’, though. Go big or go home.
For more of my posts on The Crown, see here.