S1, E3: ‘Windsor’
In which The Crown asks ‘What’s in a name?’
The Crown turns in its strongest episode yet in an hour-long meditation on names. Names as in titles, names as in reputations and names as in legacies. It’s an elegant reflection on continuity, whose only fault is that the current wearer of the Crown seems rather absent in the story.
“With this family, you’re never quite sure that you’re in. But when you’re out, there’s no doubt at all. You’re out.”
The episode opens with a young Elizabeth (Verity Russell, looking astonishingly like QEII) and a young Margaret cycling through a garden after dogs, shinning up trees and generally basking in a normality due to end in three..two…and the former Edward VIII, now the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), in the teeth of Queen Mary’s protests, is addressing ‘his people’ with the news of his abdication.
Let’s get this out of the way: David – the name Edward reverted to after his abdication – may be my favourite character so far after Philip. As played by Jennings, David is an entitled, self-pitying, selfish, bitchy cad, out for whatever he can squeeze out of his family and Parliament. But he is also, in his naked need for his family’s love and approval, an oddly sympathetic creature. His scenes with Queen Mary carry a curiously Oedipal charge, tense yet tender. When his mother tells him that it would be best for all concerned if he were to disappear silently, there is clear hurt (and not a little adolescent histrionics) in his challenge ‘Never to return…it’s what you were thinking. Admit it.’ When David arrives for George’s funeral, he presses a kiss to his mother’s unyielding cheek, and grits his teeth as she pointedly extols the perfections of her younger son. For her part, Queen Mary seems unforgiving of her first-born son’s derelictions of duty, and does not defend him to George’s drunk and furious widow. However, she suffers him to remain and hover hopefully about her, even though he is clearly angling for more money. There is affection there, however deeply buried.
The same cannot, however, be said of David and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (‘Cookie’ henceforth, for reasons that will become plain). Cookie loathes David, and makes no bones whatsoever about showing it. While her daughters seem more conciliatory towards their uncle, Cookie declares that she can never forgive David for shirking his burden – a burden she (and Queen Mary) believes killed her husband. The show, too, hints at long-prosecuted hostilities between David and Cookie, when she slurs the ‘nasty little nicknames’ that David has for all the family. And it cannot be denied that no small part of David’s charm is his way with a cutting nickname: Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother is ‘Cookie’, because of what David calls her dumpiness and ‘common’ ancestry, and Elizabeth is Shirley Temple, because of her curls and, as he hastily prevaricates, ‘stardom’.
Cookie insists that David is utterly duplicitous and out for what he can get, unless he can be stopped. And David’s letters to Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams) certainly betray more resentment, more calculation, and more brutality than suggested by David’s air of the wounded prodigal son. It’s left ambiguous which of the two Davids we see – if either – is the real David, or even which David he himself believes to be real. Perhaps they both are: for all his snideness, David seems genuinely moved by Elizabeth’s overtures to him, and – when she gently asks for one – makes her a sincere apology for forcing her new life upon her. He may believe he only wants ‘the whole wretched circus’ for what it can give him, but no small part of David is hungry for acceptance.
In the meantime, Cookie has taken steps to cut off David’s allowance, and David – seething at ‘Cookie’s’ presumption, takes his case to his (not entirely unsympathetic) mother and a definitely sympathetic Churchill, who clucks that no man ought to be punished for love, but doesn’t seem to offer anything more material – until, that is, the name of Windsor becomes embattled in a quite different way.
“Am I to be the only man in the kingdom who cannot give his name to his children?”
Elizabeth has her first meeting with Churchill, and is sent out into the trenches with two specific instructions from Philip: One, to see that the royal couple makes its home in Clarence House, renovated under Philip’s watchful eye at substantial expense, and two, that their children take his surname: that is, that the heirs to the throne will be the first in the House of Mountbatten.
Churchill swiftly wrongfoots Elizabeth with her deferential offering of a chair and refreshment (‘Oh dear. Did nobody tell you?’), and proceeds to collar the agenda, putting off Elizabeth’s coronation for a year and a half and oleaginously assuring her that it is for her own good. Elizabeth realises soon (and offscreen, a recurring theme for the episode) for precisely whose good this decision is being made, and gently suggests a bargain to her Prime Minister: she will accede to the delay, allowing Churchill to keep his would-be successors at bay, since nobody would seek to unseat him while he is busy with her coronation. In return, he will instruct Parliament that she and Philip remain in Clarence House, and that their children take his name. It’s a nice bit of strategy, and gives an intriguing glimpse of the sort of tactician – and manager – Elizabeth would make: quiet but effective, and with obvious steel behind her gentle manner. It’s a thrilling victory, and it’s a pity that we’re not allowed to enjoy it longer.
Because the Royal Family is so incensed at Mountbatten’s vaulting ambition – and his incredibly tasteless premature toast to the Royal House of Mountbatten, days after George’s funeral – that they press David into service to talk Elizabeth into issuing a Royal (writ? Decree?) to the effect that her children will bear the name of Windsor, rather than Mountbatten. Oh, and also the Royal couple moves into Buckingham Palace – a place detested by Elizabeth, David, and apparently all the Royals.
Once again, David’s representations to Elizabeth take place almost entirely offscreen, so it’s not clear what arguments he made in favour of Buckingham Palace and Windsor, and how much she actually believes them – in other words, how much of her decision is truly her decision, rather than a listless surrendering of her own spine to Duty. So when a sombre Elizabeth presents Philip with a fait accompli, it’s hard not to sympathise with his frustration, in all its unreconstructed chauvinism. Of course he’s being a ridiculous entitled brat about the sacrifices he has made in his social climbing marriage, but when he says ‘I thought we were in this together’, there is a palpable hurt in his tone. From his perspective, his wife – the only person on his side in his new circumstances – has abandoned something he thinks they both wanted. Once again, it’s a situation that many women (especially entering a large, tightly-knit family) have likely encountered. It’s a neat reversal to see it visited on an unbelievably privileged white man, and to recognise the contours of the betrayal.
Dramatically speaking, there’s plenty of conflict to be mined here, if the show were interested. There are sound political reasons to stress continuity: it was only in 1917 that the name of the Royal House was changed to Windsor from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and the family could argue that it is important to preserve stability while the country is still reeling from the second World War and the loss of India (with which, however unfairly, Mountbatten is indelibly associated). Mountbatten’s naked ambition is genuinely unappealing enough that I don’t much mind him being thwarted – and Philip lets slip quite a bit in this episode that suggests that he’s as much of a pawn for his adoptive family as Elizabeth is of her position. Listen to Mountbatten (Greg Wise) purring to Philip ‘Having your first-born son, Charles, as the first Mountbatten king… that would be some achievement, wouldn’t it?’, and your impulse is to foil him. And clearly Churchill agrees, strongly. In fact, the strongest impression I’m left with is that Mountbatten overreaches, the family reverses historical precedent to spite him, and the royal couple is caught in the crossfire. Which is a bit dispiriting, frankly. Show me that Elizabeth isn’t sold on being the last of the House of Windsor. Or that she is sold on continuity for political reasons. Or even that she makes a decision to keep Winston Churchill on side by throwing Mountbatten under the bus. Something – anything – suggesting an active decision. Because otherwise I am left with a recognisable – if regressive – human desire for a personal legacy, set against the machinations of a faceless system. And that is rather stacking the decks in favour of the petulant chauvinist.
Nobody seems to know, or care, that David and Wallis Simpson were notorious Nazi sympathisers. Forget the royal family, who – ahem – probably wouldn’t mind. But Churchill?
Flashback episodes the show needs
I hesitate to include this, since I think the show already spends a lot of time on Philip’s feelings, perhaps to the detriment of Elizabeth’s. But this episode was rife with hints of a fairly traumatic youth, from Philip looking around at Clarence House and saying it’s the first ‘proper home’ he’s ever had, to a melancholy reflection on a favourite sister who died (with her unborn child) in an aeroplane crash. Not to mention saying wistfully that he wanted to be a pilot but was made to join the Navy because Mountbatten felt the social connections would be better. I must assume that we are meant to draw the ‘clipped wings’ metaphor ourselves.
Odds and sods
- Peter Townsend’s wife has left him. Margaret and Peter continue to engage in public displays of affection where anyone can see them. Never mind, though, they make up for their lack of discretion with an equal lack of chemistry.
- While rebuking Mountbatten’s visitor for drinking champagne days after her son’s funeral, Queen Mary takes a break to rhapsodise over the Prussian delicacies Mountbatten serves.
- Cookie continues to be a spiteful, mimsy little watering-pot, rather than the doughty, mischievous figure Hitler once called ‘the most dangerous woman in Europe’.
For more of my posts on The Crown, see here.