S1, E6: ‘Gelignite’
In which Elizabeth once again lets down someone she loves.
The Crown returns to domestic drama in an episode notionally about the relationship between Elizabeth and Margaret. However, it seems much more interested in the relationship between the monarchy and the press.
“This is gelignite.”
A journalist has spotted Margaret picking fluff off Peter’s jacket, and sniffs a scandal in the offing. His initially unimpressed editor is bored of yet another story about the Royals, but is reminded that divorce and the Royal Family have traditionally made for explosive bedfellows. He is sent to write his story, and to make it ‘peppery’. He gleefully obeys, and oh it’s on.
“As your sister, I’m never going to oppose it.”
Margaret asks Elizabeth for her permission to marry Peter, and Elizabeth –alarmed and flustered – gives it. Right from the off the show signals the tension between Elizabeth as sister and Elizabeth as sovereign. Margaret may have confided her interest in Peter to Elizabeth as a sister, but she asks permission of Elizabeth as sovereign. As sister, Elizabeth may be determined to give Margaret what she wants (for example, scheming up ways for Margaret to marry Peter in Scotland, where Elizabeth is not head of the church). But as sovereign, she is once again paradoxically powerful and impotent – powerful enough to withhold permission for the match until Margaret is 25, but constrained by public opinion and the shadow of Edward’s abdication. The Queen Mother and Tommy Laselles tell her that her position is more precarious than she realises, and the scandal of Margaret and Peter may topple her reign.
Elizabeth is horrified at the thought of breaking her word, but the ‘gelignite’ story breaks, and she agrees to separate Margaret and Peter. Margaret will head off to ‘Rhodesia’ on her duties and Peter will leave for Brussels on a posting – not a ‘benishment’, as Margaret puts it. (It is a benishment, of course). Margaret throws an enormous hissy about this, and I find myself wondering whether Elizabeth just has a thing for charismatic, self-absorbed brats (see also: Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh). I sympathise with Margaret’s position, and Vanessa Kirby conveys her hurt and fury beautifully, but when she whines ‘Why did you dangle Scotland under my nose?’, I’m torn between sympathy and the strong desire to give her a ding upside the head. It doesn’t help that Peter’s Brussels posting does not seem like an insuperable obstacle – although I get that from Margaret’s perspective, it might as well be Timbuktu, since she’s not going to see him.
Still, I can’t deny that Margaret has a point when she says that for all Elizabeth’s concern about her position as Sovereign, she dug her heels in and held out for the (thoroughly unsuitable) man she wanted for herself. And Margaret and Peter’s passionate leave-taking kiss is the first time I’ve ever thought they had chemistry. Especially since- dun dun DUNNNNN! – it may well be their last ever kiss.
“I cared for him as long as he did his job and knew his place.”
As a sop to possibly her own conscience, Elizabeth takes Peter along for a goodwill embassage to Northern Ireland. And here something rather interesting happens: Elizabeth goes from being a weirdly malleable puppet of Lascelles and her mother, to an actor with her own desires and motivations. And guess what? Those motivations are kind of juicily petty. The photographers are more interested in Peter than in Elizabeth, and Elizabeth does not like it. Foy does a fine job letting Elizabeth’s fury simmer behind her eyes and peep out in pettish remarks like ‘I couldn’t hear myself speak!’. Peter for his part is initially bemused, though gratified, at the attention. But it soon goes to his head. He waves to the cameras, and I go ‘Oh dear’. And when he says to Elizabeth ‘Do you have a moment, Lilibet?’, I say out loud ‘OH NO YOU DI’INT!’
“Take care of it, Tommy.”
Elizabeth’s eyes go black for a split-second, and you know in that moment that Peter’s fate is sealed. She says to Lascelles ‘Take care of it, Tommy. In whatever manner you see fit.’, and if that’s not a .gif by now, the Internet has let me down. If you didn’t think it was possible for a prim, pearl-and-kid-glove-wearing toff to look and sound like the Godfather, you were mistaken.
Tommy – being the magnificent consigliere he is – takes care of it, in a fantastic showdown with a politely furious Peter. He explains that Peter’s Brussels post has fallen vacant suddenly and Peter has to leave immediately to fill it, stopping only to pack ‘quickly and unsentimentally’. This was not what was agreed, as Peter points out: he and Margaret were supposed to have some time together after she got back from Rhodesia. Peter tries to filibuster (with his own meed of biting sarcasm), but he has to know he’s brought a knife to a gun fight. ‘Car, Townsend. Waiting. Tick. Tick. TICK.’ I love Tommy so much. I want a Tommy Lascelles of my very own.
“She’ll forgive you. She has to. We all do.”
Margaret is, of course, furious when she finds out what has happened, and puts across a call to Elizabeth dripping with menace. ‘You fail to protect me. I will fail to protect you in turn.’, she says and hangs up.
And at this point I have to air my biggest problem with this plotline to date: I don’t really have a strong sense of its stakes. Intellectually, I understand that it’s terrible for Elizabeth to deal out betrayal upon betrayal to Margaret, but the show has given us so little of Elizabeth and Margaret’s relationship that I don’t have a clear idea of what the two are losing. In general, the show has been cavalier about the relationships between the whole of its female cast, with the possible exception of Elizabeth and Queen Mary. So as the episode progresses, I’m not mourning the loss of Elizabeth and Margaret’s bond as sisters, so much as I’m cursing Elizabeth for apparently going with the wishes of whoever was the last person to talk to her.
So when Philip reminds her that it’s not the first time Elizabeth’s thrown someone under the bus for the sake of the Crown, and leaves Elizabeth gazing forlornly after him as he swans off for a boozing-and-wenching weekend with his friend, I find myself hoping that the solitary ruler will find her own agency somewhere in the wreck of her relationships.
“Those rules changed the moment they invited television into the coronation.”
More interesting to me is the running theme through the episode of the changing relationship between the press and the Royals. The episode begins with fawning coverage of the ‘dashing’ royal couple, made world-famous because of the televised coronation. But it is the coronation – and the greater intimacy it suggests – that invites more aggressive and less respectful scrutiny. After all, if that’s not what the royals wanted, why let TVs into the Abbey?
The owner of the newspaper is initially horrified at the thought of printing a story that would distress the royals. He is unswayed by the ‘moralism’ of the plea of journalistic independence, but capitulates when his editor tells him that if they don’t go to press, someone else will. As a courtesy, the owner goes to Tommy, whose contempt for his lack of control over his employees is delicious, withering- and ultimately futile. What would once have been a request for permission, is now only a heads-up. Tommy spits ‘I’m on my knees with gratitude’ at the courtesy, but he can tell that the balance of power has shifted. There are even visual harbingers of the increasing intrusion: Margaret and Peter’s kiss is shot with the camera placed remotely. A reminder of how small they are compared to the forces masses against them, or reminiscent of a long-lens paparazzi shot?
The royals also miscall the way the wind is blowing. They’re initially terrified of the scandal of Margaret and Peter’s marriage, but the press is actually sympathetic to the match – and indignant at what they perceive to be the royal family’s cruelty at separating the photogenic and sympathetic lovers. ‘The treatment of her sister’, squawk the papers, ‘has now jeopardised the monarchy in Britain.’ The family’s attempt to manage perceptions has wound up damaging them most of all.
- I don’t want to get into the Royal Marriages Act, not least because I suspect it will come back into play very soon. But I did love Tommy’s summary of George III’s brothers’ marriages ‘one to an illegitimate shrew, the other to a disreputable jade’. I want to watch, like, Eastenders with Tommy Lascelles.
- Philip’s luncheon club discusses the 1952 Egyptian revolution and Nasser. Philip also name-checks uprisings in Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Italy. There’s another theme running through the episode generally about the insecurity of monarchy at this time.
- Philip checks out a pretty waitress and a flight attendant. Apparently there are rumours of the historical Philip having had affairs, so I wonder if we’ll get anything more concrete in the show.
Odds and sods
- When he first finds out about Margaret and Peter, Philip is unimpressed and weirdly judgemental about the terrible position Margaret’s putting Elizabeth in. Which – Pipkin, you wanted to basically take a jackhammer to the coronation ceremony, so lose the tone. The Fug Girls rather entertainingly spit that Philip is a ‘rat-faced vortex of slouchy self-pity’, which I think is harsh but marvellous.
- Margaret praises the ‘small white community’ flourishing thanks to Cecil Rhodes’ vision. I love that the show does not whitewash (ahem) the royals’ racial attitudes, but wow.
- Gotta love David and Wallis Simpson’s Mean Girls glee at the newspapers’ condemnation of the Royal Family’s cruelty.
For more of my posts on The Crown, see here.