The Dawn of the Second Elizabethan Age, The Twilight of the British Empire: Netflix’s The Crown, Reviewed by Liam
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.”
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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!” 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. 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.
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. 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.
 The Crown, “Pride and Joy,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).
 Kate Samuelson, “How The Crown Uses Real History to Make Drama,” Time.
 The Crown, “Hyde Park Corner,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).
 The Crown, “Gelignite,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).
 Michel Rolph-Trouillot, Silencing the Past: The Power and Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 20-22.
 Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary Review 4 (2) (1973): 282.
 The Crown, “Wolferton Splash,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).
 The Crown, “Scientia Potentia Est,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).
 The Crown, “Assassins,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).
 The Crown, “Gloriana,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).