How do you feel about royalty? Do you think the Jacobins didn’t go far enough and Robespierre was a toothless wimp? Do you think that all would be better today if Elizabeth the Second were in charge of Britain and America? Neither? Both, somehow? And if you’re not a believer, does that mean you really shouldn’t be watching shows about any present monarchies?
One of Netflix’s recent crop of shows is The Crown. It is an ambitious series, taking us through the whole of Elizabeth the Second’s reign, from accession to present day. Six series (of ten one-hour episodes each) are planned and, with a budget of £100 million, it is reportedly Netflix’s most expensive yet. It is beautiful to look on, its cast is superb and I like it very much…..although the show I like may not be the one the showrunners had in mind.
You see, one of the central conflicts of the show is between Elizabeth (Claire Foy)’s private desires and her public duty. Almost every episode has Elizabeth expressing a wish – and almost every time, the wish is shot down because desire or individuality are verboten to the Crown. Which would get very tedious, very fast – unless desire and duty were equally compelling.
Now, the show nails Elizabeth’s desires. They seem perfectly reasonable, most of the time. She’d like some time to bang her hot husband (Philip, played by Matt Smith). She’d like to help her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) marry the man she wants. She’d like to choose her own damn private secretary. All those things seem all right. They are all right, because Elizabeth is a conscientious plodder, and even her wildest dreams are likely to be beige-coloured and achievable without undue muscular exertion.
It’s with Duty that the show basically doesn’t even bother. At least in the beginning, the show pretty much takes Duty as a given. If a desire imperils the Crown, then the desire must be stifled. ‘The Crown’, as Elizabeth’s grandmother (Dame Eileen Atkins) informs her, in a grand, plummy voice-over, ‘must win. Must. Always. Win.’ DUH. Mic drop. QED. And so on.
And this is where genre comes in. When I was kvetching about how one-sided the conflict seems to be, two of my friends asked why I thought the show even cared about making a case for the Crown. As one of them put it: ‘It’s like with sci-fi. If you don’t get the concept of fiction set in fantastic worlds, then it’s just not for you. Whereas we would get puzzled if the Martians explained why they were green.’
So is that the stumbling block? I might think I like historical fiction – I necked Wolf Hall and the Flashman books. I not only mainline Georgette Heyer, but one rainy afternoon I searched for Georgette Heyer fanfiction online – but is monarchist fiction its own genre? One with which I have ontological problems?
Maybe? I came to the Lord of the Rings books relatively late (I was eighteen, and Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring had just released) and I remember being surrounded by my ecstatic friends and feeling like an atheist confronted with the Shroud of Turin. My friends were starry-eyed about the books’ grand archetypal battle between Good and Evil. And I thought I had soldiered through pompous travelogues with non-existent characterisation and an omnipresent confusion of detail with depth. Like some sort of weird racist Lonely Planet with a hard-on for mediaeval re-enactments.
And The Crown and the Lord of the Rings do share heroes who combine stolid worthiness with unquestioning devotion to kind of parasitic and shitty systems of governance. And it’s that combination that sticks in my craw, because it gives me cognitive dissonance. If that nice Samwise Gamgee’s boyfriend Frodo believes that Sauron must be defeated, then surely I must too? Even though I think that the super-race of the elves are apartheid-pushing arseholes and it’s not clear why the untouchable orcs shouldn’t follow the entity who promises them a seat at the table?
Similarly, my primary question to The Crown’s insistent refrain of ‘The Crown must win’ is ‘……Why?’ Not least since the monarchy here is constitutional and has been for more than two centuries. Elizabeth wields very little concrete power – and is constipated with anxiety about exercising what little she has even at moments of crisis. She is kept on the trot performing onerous symbolic functions, and her real job seems to be to act as visual opium for Britain and its increasingly disgruntled soon-to-be-former colonies. And if I don’t like monarchy, you can imagine how I feel about empire. But the plodding, dutiful Elizabeth succumbs every time – once going so far as to inject her cheek with paralytics so that she can keep vaguely beaming at New Zealanders. Whereas her dickish, sexist, racist husband thinks the whole thing is a degrading circus. Oh, dear. Am I on Sauron’s side again?
Maybe, maybe not. Because The Crown does at some point make a case for the Crown. And the case is this: Elizabeth is God’s anointed representative on earth. She must preserve her function for her heir, because he will be God’s anointed representative when she finally passes. And so on. Elizabeth believes it, implicitly. She believes that she is a servant to her people (and, bless her, she certainly is to those of her people on Downing Street) and the eye-popping luxury in which she is clad is naught but the uniform of her office. Her heavy, choking office. Her office that she barely understands but must perform because it is her mission to ‘grace and dignify the earth’.
If you think this is about right, or if you don’t care, then you’ll likely look at Elizabeth’s marriage as the eternal tale of a woman learning not to pander to the fragile ego of a man. If – like me – you think the royals’ beliefs are delusional and mildly terrifying, then you’ll see the royals as a cult suffering from intergenerational Stockholm Syndrome, with a deeply flawed outsider trying to shriek some truth into the ears of the glassy-eyed mascot. And sullenly lapsing into the cult-sponsored opiates of hedonism.
I mean, Philip’s still a dick, don’t get me wrong. But hey – The Crown allows me a version of the Lord of the Rings where an orc calls the elves on their shit, even if the elves don’t listen. Allow me that fantasy.