The Dawn of the Second Elizabethan Age, The Twilight of the British Empire: Netflix’s The Crown, Reviewed by Liam

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One hundred gowns made of organza, Crêpe de Chine, and Shantung silk, each adorned with sprigs of native wild flowers from across the British Empire. Fifty pairs of shoes, thirty-six hats, and a young Queen overwhelmed by the burden of the Crown. It is November 1953, and Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) is getting ready to embark on her first Commonwealth tour as sovereign. “Isn’t this all a bit much? Couldn’t we try to economize?” the modest Elizabeth asks her stylist. He responds that the tour’s clothing budget was a directive from the top of the government. For Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), the tour is an opportunity to reinforce the Empire, and so the Queen will embody the glory of Great Britain at any expense.

The scene shifts to a grumpy Prince Philip (Matt Smith), Elizabeth’s husband, who is reluctantly in a uniform fitting of his own. He views the 23-week trip as a futile pantomime. “The Commonwealth roadshow,” remarks Philip, “is like giving a lick of paint to a rusty old banger to make everyone think it’s all still fine…Look at where we are now in India, Pakistan, South Africa, Iraq…The rust has eaten away at the engine and structure. The banger is falling apart. But no one wants to see it.”[1]

So begins the eighth episode of The Crown—Netflix’s sumptuous, £100 million historical drama—which charts the ascent and early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The Crown’s driving narrative is Elizabeth’s personal struggle to adapt to the role of sovereign, and reviewers have rightly praised the show for its engrossing portrayal of the royal family and the pageantry of the British monarchy. But where The Crown excels as a work of popular history is by setting this plotline against the backdrop of Britain’s postwar decline. Peter Morgan, the show’s creator and screenwriter, brilliantly contrasts the pomp and circumstance of the court with the erosion of British power in the late 1940s and 1950s. Most Britons, including Churchill, believed that Elizabeth’s 1952 ascension promised a renewed global role for Britain because she was young and popular; The Crown proves that this thinking was folly. While many contemporary works of British popular culture cultivate nostalgia for the Empire, The Crown offers a refreshingly honest depiction of its gradual, inglorious collapse.

Morgan is a renowned film writer and playwright, not a trained historian, but he is an authoritative voice on modern British history. Morgan wrote The Deal (2003), a film which covers the 1994 Labour leadership election; The Queen (2006), an Oscar-winning drama about Princess Diana’s death; and The Audience (2013), a play about Elizabeth’s relationships with her prime ministers. Through these projects, he has compiled substantial knowledge about the royal family and postwar British politics. Morgan has never met Elizabeth, but she praised Helen Mirren’s performance in The Queen (we are awaiting Her Majesty’s verdict on The Crown, but it is unknown whether she and Philip subscribe to Netflix). While writing The Crown, Morgan and his team spent over two years conducting extensive research alongside professional historians. They studied news reels, newspaper clippings, documentaries, and biographies of the major characters.[2] Morgan sought authenticity in the smallest of details, from the midcentury lexicon of the British elite to the medals that decorated their uniforms. The Crown magnificently captures the complexity of historical figures and the nuance of events—the casting and production value are superb—and only certain elements of the past are dramatized. For example, no written record exists of the weekly audiences between Elizabeth and Churchill. Morgan had to imagine the nature of these conversations based on their personalities and the historical context. But overall, The Crown is true to the historical record.

Morgan’s masterful scriptwriting is reflected in his portrayal of the British Empire’s decline. Morgan weaves this theme into his royal drama in several ways. First, over the course of the series, the royals frequently travel across the Empire. The primary narrative purpose of these trips is to advance the drama of the Palace. Elizabeth and Philip are in Kenya when they learn that King George VI has unexpectedly died; Princess Margaret must endure time away from her lover, Group Captain Peter Townsend, while on official business in Rhodesia. However, Morgan makes a concerted effort to deconstruct imperial mythology during these scenes. Upon arriving in Kenya, Elizabeth delivers a speech in which she describes pre-colonial Nairobi as a “savage place.” Then, as a British general introduces Elizabeth and Philip to native leaders, and informs the royal couple that independence movements are sweeping the continent, Philip is exceptionally rude to one of the chiefs, mistaking his crown for a hat.[3] While speaking in Rhodesia, Princess Margaret refers to the “primitive Africans” that surround the tiny settler community. She then leads the crowd in the royal courtesy, but as the white folks in the room chant “God Save the Queen,” the Africans in the room stand awkwardly silent.[4] Overall, the royals are presented in a sympathetic light. But these instances of paternalism and racism, which are jarring for most modern viewers, are extraneous to the main plotline and only invite questions about the moral standing of the Empire. Thus, Morgan provides an honest portrayal of the Empire’s flaws: it was politically unstable and imbued with racism.

Of course, Morgan makes only a muted criticism of the Empire. For example, The Crown makes no mention of the Mau Mau Rebellion that erupted in Kenya in the 1950s. Such “silences,” as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues, can distort the popular understanding of history.[5] However, The Crown’s chief focus is the Queen; the Empire provides only a backdrop to her early reign. It would be impractical, and probably boring, if Morgan gave screen-time to every midcentury anti-colonial movement in the expansive British Empire. Instead, he makes the wise editorial choice to emphasize one chapter in the retreat of the Empire: the 1952 Free Officers coup in Egypt and the subsequent rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser, a devout anti-imperialist and Arab nationalist. Historical narratives can be more effective if certain events are prioritized at the expense of others.[6] Egypt is mentioned in nearly every episode, and according to Morgan, season two will focus on the 1956 Suez Crisis, a watershed for the collapse of British power. Thus, even if The Crown’s narrative excludes certain chapters in the history of decolonization, it effectively uses Egypt—and the aforementioned racist comments—to show that the Empire was not that glorious. Morgan goes further to expose the disdainful elements of the Empire than most popular works, like Downton Abbey or even the James Bond series.

Morgan also personifies Britain’s decline through Churchill, who is a prominent character in The Crown and a figure associated with British glory in the popular consciousness. We are introduced to Churchill in the first episode at the 1947 wedding between Elizabeth and Philip. Churchill points out Lord Mountbatten in the crowd and growls to his wife, “That’s the man who gave away India!”[7] As portrayed later in that episode, Churchill was re-elected to the premiership in 1951 at the old age of 77; over the course of the series, he is shown to hold a conservative, imperial worldview and be overly fixated on restoring Britain’s international standing. He frustrates his cabinet colleagues and the Queen by relegating domestic problems to the backburner; instead, he is primarily concerned with the Cold War, the state of the Empire, and the Egyptian revolution. However, it becomes increasingly clear that the slow-moving “British Bulldog” is past his glory days—and that he cannot restore Britain to great-power status. After the Soviet Union successfully tests an H-Bomb in 1953, Churchill scrambles to organize a summit meeting with U.S. President Eisenhower. In Churchill’s mind, only he could engineer peace between the Americans and the Soviets. “In the matter of world governance, [the Americans] are not yet ready,” Churchill tells Elizabeth. “They need an experienced and elder power to guide them, school them.” Churchill dispatches to Washington Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, to plan the summit, but Eden, who suffered from a myriad of health problems, feints in the waiting area of the U.S. State Department. Upon discovering Eden, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles remarks: “That gentleman is not just a sleeping man, it’s a sad metaphor. The second most powerful man in what was once the most powerful country on Earth.” The summit is ultimately cancelled because Churchill is hit with his own health problems and suffers two strokes; he has become a shadow of his former self.[8] In the ninth episode, Churchill turns 80, and resigns after reflection about his old age (Eden takes over as Prime Minister). The episode is a magnificent character analysis, and a rare portrayal of the father of the nation in an aging, weakened state, as he ponders the decline of the Empire that he cherishes deeply.[9]

The closing scene of season one, set in 1955, drives home Morgan’s point that Elizabeth’s ascension, despite the hopes of Britons, could not rectify Britain’s international standing. It juxtaposes Elizabeth posing for a formal photograph with Eden viewing a film. The Queen is dressed in full regalia; the ridiculously-oversized St. Edward’s Crown sits atop her head. “Not moving, not breathing. Our very own goddess,” muses the photographer as he prepares for the shot. But Elizabeth’s lip is quivering, and she looks unnerved; she has just been in an argument with Philip, their marriage is unstable, and the burden of the Crown wears heavy. “Glorious Gloriana,” the saviour of the British Empire, an ordinary young woman who loves horses and never wanted to be Queen. Eden is nervous, too. He sits in the dark film room alone, watching Nasser give a vitriolic speech that calls for war with the imperialists and lambasts Eden personally. Eden is not strong like Winston. He shoots up Benzedrine—he was an addict—and passes out on the table as the film reel disintegrates.[10] One year later, Eden oversaw the disastrous campaign to retake control of the Suez Canal from Nasser. It marked the death knell for British power, and came just four years into Elizabeth’s reign. A sad metaphor, indeed.


[1] The Crown, “Pride and Joy,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[2] Kate Samuelson, “How The Crown Uses Real History to Make Drama,” Time.

[3] The Crown, “Hyde Park Corner,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[4] The Crown, “Gelignite,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[5] Michel Rolph-Trouillot, Silencing the Past: The Power and Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 20-22.

[6] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary Review 4 (2) (1973): 282.

[7] The Crown, “Wolferton Splash,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[8] The Crown, “Scientia Potentia Est,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[9] The Crown, “Assassins,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[10] The Crown, “Gloriana,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

8 responses to “The Dawn of the Second Elizabethan Age, The Twilight of the British Empire: Netflix’s The Crown, Reviewed by Liam”

  1. Jonathan Hou says:

    Your review has made me become very interested in this Netflix series and it is quite unfortunate that I am not a subscriber. I really appreciate how you pay attention to the small details of the Royal family’s speeches to explain British imperialism and highlight the continued existence of the “white man’s burden” even after the Second World War. Even though you might view it as a “muted” criticism of the empire, the conscious choice of the series to highlight these prejudiced words may be seen as an attempt to break the silencing of the past and to note that the changes in British (or even Western) values did not happen overnight.

    You state that the series makes a wise choice to use Egypt as an example that highlighted the decline of the empire (due to the fact that it is unrealistic for the series to cover all anti-colonial movements in Africa). The problem with Egypt as an example was that the rise of Nasser and the Suez Crisis were issues that had been extensively studied by British Empire and Cold War historians. The crisis was ingrained in popular memory and symbolically represented the collapse of the old imperial order. By choosing to focus on this well-known issue, the writers of the plot are still effectively silencing the past by denying the viewers a chance to learn about other anti-colonial movements that are not well known. Egypt’s crisis alone could not cover the entire extent of the British Empire’s collapse or the instability within the regime.

    I find it interesting that the series uses Churchill’s old age as a metaphor for the British Empire. Too old, too weak, and too delusional, Churchill and the British Empire are juxtaposed with the rise of the United States. Such comparisons explain historical trends in a manner that is easy for the viewer to absorb and reflect on. However, I argue that this popular history series is reinforcing the ideas that people may already have in their minds. The series still portrays the British Empire in a favorable manner as the writers lament its downfall while limiting their criticism to events that their viewers are already aware of.

  2. Alanna Grogan says:

    One of the most noteworthy things about this television series is just how many people have seen it. Its potential to create and perpetuate a certain image of the British monarchy is just incredible, and calls to question why the historian chose to depict events the way they did. The image that The Crown presents of Queen Elizabeth and the British monarchy is one which appeals to people. It calls attention to the faults that make them human, but also glorifies them, reinforcing their power and rationalizing their existence. As I read your review, I reflected on whether there were any differences between popular histories in books and on television, and I think that the immersive aspect of television leads to a much greater focus on narrative, and also has a much greater influence on its audience. Being as television presents a certain image, the audience is not often required to process the information they receive in the same way that one might in a book. Only a certain level of complexity can be achieved through television, particularly television developed for such a widespread audience as was The Crown.

    I think that your focus on the interaction between this television series and the colonial aspects of Empire is particularly interesting in this regard, as it is a topic touched upon yet not truly explored in any way that would really uncover a silence. It takes a discerning audience to recognize the slight allusions that the director and screenwriter make to the colonialism and racism of the monarchy, and I think that the glamour and the drama that juxtaposes it (e.g. Margaret’s visit to Rhodesia, her father’s death while Elizabeth is in Kenya) makes it easy to ignore, or skip over in favour of the greater narrative.

  3. David Medcalfe says:

    Liam, you have provided us with a wonderful review of a series that attempts to present the complexities that the Queen had to face early on in her reign and I must commend you for an objective analysis.

    Your reference to Trouillot and how the series purposefully omits the Mau Mau Rebellion of 1952 is a fantastic example of how narratives are being created as well as “silencing” the fact that not all of Britain’s possessions decolonized peacefully. The British tend to be quite proud in demonstrating how their empire, unlike the French, did not have to violently suppress colonial uprisings, but merely had peaceful transitions of power as in British Raj. However, your reference to the omission of the Mau Mau rebellion is a clear contradiction of this narrative that Crown attempts to present, that the British were not as willing as they claim to give up their colonial possessions.

    As Trouillot would agree (as well as Jonathan above me), the series’ portrayal of the Queen and her entourage in a positive light, but including the racism that the monarchy propagated is quite interesting. Despite the whole series being dedicated towards the Queen, the producers did not shy away from the historical narrative that yes, the Queen and her consort too, held prejudices towards their own subjects. Though I more than agree with Jonathan regarding how the exclusion of other colonial uprisings could have better educated the audience about other historical narratives instead of merely silencing them, I believe using Egypt as the prime example to portray the decline of the British Empire suffices. One must take into account that the series is produced in a storytelling fashion so that novices in British history can understand the complexities the Queen had to face as a monarch. Thus, I believe focusing too much on other colonial uprisings could somewhat undermine other potentially interesting narratives to explore (e.g. the Queen’s view on the practice of sexism in the United Kingdom would be very interesting to see for instance).

  4. Henri Barbeau says:

    I remember giving this series a try a few months ago when it first came out and finding it bit too soapy for my taste. Your excellent review has made me consider returning to it.

    I am not sure if I completely agree with you, however, when you say that it would be “impractical” and “probably boring” if the show were to focus on every episode of anti-colonial agitation during Elizabeth’s reign. It is true that as a show about the burdens of the Crown such “details” might clutter the narrative. Still, why is it that Netflix lavished 100 million pounds on a series dealing with the lives of the royals during this tumultuous period of imperial decline rather than the lives of those who resisted the racist paternalism of the British Empire, as you say? The choice of the stories we tell each other about the past (this is after all a work of fiction) seems to me a far more important act of silencing than the choices we make about points of detail in those stories. To put it another way, why is it that there is such a large audience for these stories of White power broking? On some level, I think this has to with familiarity with a certain kind of history, one that is Eurocentric, and one that, intentionally or not, strips agency away from individuals at the peripheries. I don’t think stories of anti-colonial activism are by any objective standard “boring.” Rather, I think that we have decided that they are boring, because characters whose experiences and outlook seem so different from ours are at their centre. I realize, though, that this is a bit nit-picky and a distortion of what you argued in your review. But I think that the reasons Netflix would offer for not doing a 100 million pound series on a Mau Mau rebel would be along the lines of what I have just described: the audience simply would not connect with such a show, it would, in a sense, be “boring.”

  5. Jennifer Yoon says:

    I thought your review was really interesting- I never considered the series through the lens of the fall of the British empire. I really appreciate that you pointed out the poignant juxtaposition between the magnificence of the British monarchy counter to its decline in the international stage. I also appreciate how you pointed out Churchill and Eden as symbols of the decline of the Empire.

    When I watched the Crown, however, I had a completely different interpretation. My gaze was focused on an altogether different aspect of the show: I was most intrigued by the way the show dealt with female leadership and women in power. I found the show to be a masterful exposition of how a young woman, armed only with a heavy crown precariously placed on her head, sparred with the likes of Churchill. I was also mesmerized by how the show depicted Liz I as ironically reliant on institutions and tradition hold her own in a deeply patriarchal world – some of these traditions being the very same ones which, in many ways, kept other women down during the 1950s. I also was fascinated by how the show treated the personal life of Elizabeth – her relationship vis a vis her little sister, Princess Margaret, and her marriage with Prince Phillip. Watching those interactions, I couldn’t help but think about whether a biography of a male monarch would have as heavy a focus on the personal life of the protagonist.

    My interpretation of the show, which was so heavily centred on female empowerment and so distinct from your prescient analysis, admittedly probably has to do with the fact that I binge-watched the show right after the outcome of the US election. This anecdote points to the importance for historians to consider themselves as consumers of popular history. Perhaps popular histories become popular because of the time period which surround its release. The political climate contextualizing the release of the show was definitely noted and taken advantage of by the showmakers themselves, too: they inconspicuously sponsored the production of an (amazing!) video series called “Women and Leadership” with The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/video/series/women-and-leadership/). This, in turn, points to a normative question: what is the responsibility of popular histories in context with the time that it is consumed?

  6. Ilya Gromovikov says:

    Liam, you have written an excellent review that puts an emphasis on humanizing Elizabeth and her husband and demonstrating the collapse of British Empire by Nasser’s actions in Egypt. However, I would agree with the commentators above me that the Egyptian affair is well-known and its accentuation in the series effectively silences the independence movements in other colonies.

    Moreover, during Elizabeth’s stay in Kenya, the Black people in the crowds and in the Queen’s service behave like not being subordinate to a White person for the rest of their lives is unthinkable, providing the template of happy Blacks in service comparable to the American cultural stereotypes of the plantation nostalgia.

    Also, humanization of Elizabeth and her father, King George VI, happens at the expense of the former King Edward VIII. Poor Edward, who, unlike Elizabeth, did not agree to an arranged marriage, is represented as a “killer” of George VI who wasn’t ready for the burden of the crown. In addition, Elizabeth’s marriage, despite its cynical character, is represented as true love, while Edward’s is no more than a ridiculous caprice. Edward is also very jealous during Elizabeth’s coronation, and during the whole show he is trying to destabilize the delicate balance in the relationships between the Royal Family members.

    Certainly, the story that Netflix presents to us is interesting, but I would not necessarily conclude its truthfulness to the historical events, especially considering the soap opera storytelling used for the Royal Family. Surely, there is other ways to depict royal family than to follow an overused template of a strong and loving woman, prone to the mistakes that only humanize her and contested by her super-evil uncle and her husband who feels cuckolded.

  7. Jeremy Lieberman says:

    Liam. As someone who has binged The Crown, I can tell you spend a good amount of time writing this well researched, informative review. Your understanding of the broader historical themes of the narrative, particularly the Empire’s inglorious decline, is well established with cogent examples. Your analysis of Churchill as a symbol of a declining Britain was particularly insightful. Morgan’s ability to portray the decline in a meaningful way is truly masterful. I also appreciated your point about the honesty of Morgan’s portrayal of the Empire. It is true that most popular histories tend to glorify British influence even when it was crumbling into insignificance. Furthermore, the incorporation of Western ethnocentrism into the narrative importantly reminds the audience of the prevalent racism that still plagued colonial relations well into the 50s.

    However, I did have one issue with the review. You state early on that “The Crown’s driving narrative is Elizabeth’s personal struggle to adapt to the role of sovereign”. While acknowledging the significance of her personal experiences and Morgan’s lack of access to what occurred behind closed doors, you downplay the prominence of dramatization and fiction in the show.

    While Morgan makes a valiant attempt to remain true to the historical record, the private conversations that make up at least half of the show are fictional. Without the collaboration of the royal family, Morgan used the available evidence to create likely conversations, essentially historically guided fiction. As John Lithgow, who plays Winston Churchill stated, the series is “a piece of speculative history, which means it’s virtually fiction. These are not exactly the words they spoke behind closed doors in the palace or in Parliament.” It unfair to brush these fictions off by claiming “only certain elements of the past are dramatized”. Instead of dismissing these fictions, you should have acknowledged their central role in the show and expanded upon them.

    I apologize for the above criticism. Besides my one reservation, the review was truly well done.

  8. Amanda Krett says:

    Liam,

    As someone who hasn’t yet watched The Crown, after reading your review, I’m very much interested in watching it.

    I really appreciated how you delved into how Peter Morgan, while not a respected historians, has become somewhat of a respected “popular” historian, acquiring substantial cultural capital or authority over the 20th century Royal Family through the various films he’s made. I find this very fascinating how popular histories produced in the 21st century are now creating figure-heads on subjects who might not have the traditional training or knowledge of an academic, but are expected to be knowledgeable on the subject-whether this is the case or not-nevertheless. Perhaps I’m being influenced by the current political climate in the US where we bestow more “credibility” to certain people (whether they earn that connection or not), but I’m curious how Morgan has been given the responsibility of providing facts even when his expertise is in more artistic pursuits (not be dismissive of the success or quality of these artistic pursuits). This makes me question, just like how some historical narratives are seen as more “credible” (just as Trouillot mentions many Western historical narratives are seen as “inherently” credible), whether certain creators of historical narratives are inherently seen as more “credible,” as well? I wonder if Netflix would have “trusted” another creator with this $100 million project, such as the black, British director Amma Asante (who directed historical films, such as Belle)? Or whether Morgan’s white, British, and male attributes account for much of the paternal “respect” and “credibility” he is bestowed as someone who has now acquired this cultural authority?

    Furthermore, without repeating my fellow commenters, I really appreciated how you pointed out that the series does attempt to grapple with the potential “silences” of the British’s imperial pursuits. While disagreeing with your point about it possibly being “boring” to explore too many decolonization efforts, I do think it’s refreshing for this popular history to depict some of its “heroes” racism and imperialism. However, as someone yet to see the show, I am curious about whether they exclusively show the Royal Family saying these racist things only in “colonized” spaces, such as Kenya, or whether they also show how this racism and imperialism persists domestically, in England, as well? If the show does just depict this colonialism in the short time these characters are abroad and not within the lavish sets you mention, I think this mitigates some of the shows attempts to fill in these imperialist “silences” as it doesn’t show how this racism and colonialism were imbued in the everyday psyches and spaces of the British- they weren’t just deviant occurrences. However, I do agree with you that it’s still definitely a step-forward for a popular history to try and not just depict its characters as ethically “perfect” heroes, but I also question whether this willingness to show more of the “dark side” of the royal family and its politicians is also because of its female lead or whether that’s too much of a stretch? I’m also interested to know whether or not the show delved into some of Britain’s possible domestic prejudices (a site of possible “silences”), as well, e.g. racism and sexism in both Royal spaces, but in Britain, overall?

    I really appreciate how you mentioned the show was on Netflix, where “binge-watching” is possible. I wonder if watching this TV series like a long, un-interrupted film, effected how Morgan crafted the show and how the historical narrative was received by audiences? It’s also interesting how the show’s protagonist, the Queen, is still alive, blurring some of the lines between history and the present. I wonder if this also influenced how Morgan went about creating this historical narrative, knowing that the Queen and her family could potentially watch this and either like or dislike the narrative?

    That being said, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the show and I’m excited to watch it!

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