Netflix’s The Crown manages to pull off a tricky feat – here is a royal drama full of likeable characters, without an overly reverential tone. Claire Foy trembles with a sweet nervous energy as Queen Elizabeth II, Matt Smith generously lends genuine charm to Prince Phillip. Written by Peter Morgan (of The Queen fame), it reportedly cost over £100m to make, and it shows: the first episode even contains a reconstruction of Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding day, with Ely Cathedral standing in for Westminster Abbey.
But how does it compare to royal dramas past? We round up our favourite regal films and TV shows.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)
Anyone growing up in the 1980s will remember Keith Michell for his surprise top ten hit “Captain Beaky”, but Michell was a respected actor having worked with the Old Vic and RSC. In 1970 he played the King in the TV series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, banishing forever the memory of Charles Laughton’s ridiculous but entertaining version in The Private Life of Henry VII. The series was a cut above much TV drama, as in the days of BBC’s Play for Today and ITV Playhouse, with each episode (one per wife) scripted by a different screenwriter. The wives included Annette Crosbie (now most famous for One Foot in the Grave) as Catherine of Aragon and Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn. It led on to Glenda Jackson’s famous tour de force as Elizabeth in Elizabeth R. Stephen Brasher
If the film Braveheart was a thirteenth century noble, then historians would have had it hung for inaccuracy before you could say William Wallace. And yet… it is among my favourite films about royalty (specifically about the rebellion against King Edward I of England by a Scottish warrior). Not least since, if royalty’s divine right teaches us mere mortals anything, it’s that the power of writing yourself a good story can go a long way. Watch it if you‘re a fan of hopelessly idealistic political mythmaking, soundtracks to Nineties weddings, and Mel Gibson before he met with his own personal dethroning. India Bourke
Perhaps the sexiest film about the ol’ Virgin Queen, Elizabeth basically just follows a young Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) and her wildly unsuitable suitor Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) lightly frolicking and hotly stewing in opulent surroundings. There is also some stuff to do with the Reformation and general plotting going on that gets in the way of all the sexual tension, but it is mainly just loads of courtiers making eyes at each other, and occasionally being discovered having orgies. A haunted Elizabeth, probably desperate for some time out from all the humping and killing going on around her, ends the film by saying: “I have become a virgin.” (But this is an old shirt.) Anoosh Chakelian
The Tudors (2007)
In my head, this TV series went on longer than the actual Tudor period. With four seasons and about ten episodes per season, they really dragged it out. And that was still only covering Henry VIII’s reign. No sickly children here. Just a weirdly attractive gaunt coach from Bend It Like Beckham. But I’m not complaining, because I love The Tudors. Mainly because “Departures from History” is the longest section on its Wikipedia page. Sex everywhere! Basic historical exposition crammed between the sex everywhere! Beardy men in bespoke jerkins! Controversially eschewed fat suits! Joss Stone for no reason! Oh, it’s so good, I miss it. I wish they’d added some extra wives. Anoosh Chakelian
The Three Musketeers (2014)
Where to start with the BBC’s interpretation, some might say ruination, of Alexandre Dumas’s classic tale of friendship, femme fatales and La France? While it was unlikely to reach the lofty animated heights of the cartoon classic Dogtanian and the Three Muskahounds, there was something irresistible about this dramatisation of the lives and loves of King Louis XIII’s personal bodyguards — not least the sight of pretty boys in tights running around with swords and perfectly coiffed beards.
But there was a freshness to the first season which elevated it above the rest of the BBC’s more staid period output. It struck the right balance of being faithful to the Dumas original, with a star turn by Peter Capaldi as the treacherous Cardinal Richelieu (think Malcolm Tucker stranded in seventeenth-century Paris, wearing a dress), while adding modern flourishes including the colourful costumes and a more diverse cast. The only real flaw was the lack of effort on behalf of any of the actors to sound even a little bit French. Badly executed accents can be jarring but without it, for me, the series lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Serena Kutchinsky
Look, I admit there are problems with Versailles. The dialogue can be petulantly am-dram, the wigs sometimes threaten to overshadow the acting, and one of the characters has inexplicably been styled to look like Lord Flashheart from Blackadder. (Woof!) But here’s the case for the defence. It looks AMAZING. Being able to film inside and outside Versailles – and making the construction of the palace part of the plot – turns this drama into a spectacle. And that’s what Louis XIV was all about: big hair, great calves and illuminated fountains. It’s true to the spirit of what it’s trying to portray.
Also, if you need to calibrate your scale for just how bad a historical drama about the French royal family can be, head over to Netflix and watch Reign. It manages to turn the turbulent Mary Queen of Scots into a bad YA drama, with acting that wouldn’t get past a soap opera director and costumes apparently picked up at the bridesmaids section of Coast. If you want stylised, restrained drama, stick to Wolf Hall. If you want gorgeous, overblown skulduggery, though, try Versailles. Seriously, look at those wigs. They’re beautiful. Helen Lewis