For decades it’s been received wisdom among the smart set of Guardian-reading Londoners that the monarchy is a bit silly, wasteful, embarrassing, and outdated. Private Eye, the fortnightly mix of muckraking and satire that epitomizes left-wing cynicism, styles Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles as “Brenda” and “Brian” to reduce them to comical tabloid figures. The snobbery arrow has been reversed, with the actors and journalists and intellectuals considering the royal family a bit dim and regrettable.
Yet a traitor has emerged from the chattering class. The writer Peter Morgan, previously a small-r republican, is now producing one of the most robust defenses of the monarchy popular culture has seen in the last half-century, on one of the English-speaking world’s greatest television shows.
The second season of The Crown, Morgan’s inordinately expensive, lavishly realized serial, was released on Netflix yesterday. After a hugely successful first season, it has, like Downton Abbey, taken a soapy idea and filled it out with complex characters, crisp dialogue, sudden unexpected insights, and emotional potency. Unlike the many slightly threadbare public-television shows that revisit history on the cheap, it’s also gorgeous to watch, resplendent with period costumes and richly detailed sets. (Its cost is reported to be about $10 million per episode, which would put it among the ranks of the most expensive shows ever made.)
Morgan’s approach is neither to grovel before the throne nor to sneer at it but simply to imagine what it might be like to sit on it. As we pick up the saga in 1957, the power of the monarchy is long gone. How does one find purpose in being a national ornament? In the previously little-known Claire Foy, Morgan has found an extraordinarily sympathetic actress to play Her Majesty with more shadings than we’ve ever seen before.
And what of those who surround the Queen, the accoutrements to the figurehead? Elizabeth’s husband Philip (Matt Smith) and her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) lead lives that are both magnificent and empty, glamorous and vapid. Looking at it from their point of view, you can understand how spending life on vacation could get old very quickly. It makes sense that both hunger for some relief from the monotony.
In season one, Margaret, a born party girl with a mischievous streak, lost the great love of her life when Elizabeth broke up her love affair with the handsome but divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend. Early in the second season, she turns increasingly to drink and suffers another romantic setback. Meanwhile, the laddish, sporting Philip, on a tour of Commonwealth countries, can’t resist the lovely ladies he meets along the way. His wife — adorably, he calls her “Lillibet” — is hurt by his straying habits, and he is bored with his life. But they’re stuck with one another. They agree simply to get on with it as best they can, on the understanding that their personal interests come second to ancient duties which, if mostly ridiculous — posing for photos, holding boring state dinners, following protocol — are still important to national pride. Seemingly meaningless traditions matter, Morgan is arguing; the royals are not fools in finery but committed patriots who carry a burden. Far from being selfish layabouts, they are in a real sense the servants of the people, obliged to spend their lifetimes in character to fuel an inspiring ideal.
Episode four from the second season, “Beryl,” makes this point vividly, during a scene when Margaret, bored as usual, is posing for a birthday photograph by Cecil Beaton. A lady-in-waiting wants to see some character in the picture: “Birthday portraits should evolve and change like aging,” she says. Nonsense, replies Margaret’s mother: “No one wants complexity and reality from us. People have enough of that in their own lives. One has to help them escape.” Margaret angles for an escape from the escape: When she’s invited to a dinner party of London professionals, her excited response is, “What, normal people?” At the party she meets an arty, self-possessed photographer (Matthew Goode) who specializes in stripping off artifice in his portraits. She’d like to pose for him, to have him strip off her artifice, and maybe not just that. But he can’t give her a way out either.
Morgan said in a recent interview that he has changed his mind, and now considers himself a “royalist.” Putting the Windsors under the microscope, imagining their lives since the 1950s, Morgan frames what they do as an endurance test, an involuntary performance-art piece. “It’s quite clear, now, that they have no power at all,” Morgan added in the same interview. “In fact their powerlessness is the torch. We torment these people. But we’re the villains, because we don’t know what we want from them.” Spare a thought for the queen and her kin. A gilded cage is still a cage.