Peter Morgan’s The Crown achieves verisimilitude through several means. First, and most obviously, there’s its budget. Netflix coughed up £5m for each of the ten episodes that comprise the first series, and it looks luxuriantly correct, to the degree that I sometimes find myself wondering how the producers persuaded Buckingham Palace, Sandringham, Broadlands and the rest to allow cameras inside their gates.
Then there’s the casting, which is immaculate, from the surprise of Matt Smith as the Duke of Edinburgh (deliciously precise) to the more predictable delights of Claire Foy as Elizabeth II, Alex Jennings as the Duke of Windsor, John Lithgow as Churchill and, above all, as George VI, Jared Harris (who turns in one of the most subtle and weirdly moving performances I’ve seen this year, perhaps this decade).
Most of all, the show’s outward veracity is thanks to Morgan. To inhabit one character with such imagination would be achievement enough. To do it with more than a dozen is nothing short of miraculous. Arise Sir Peter, say I, the queen of this column. Or might I just go the whole hog and give you a dukedom?
Like a waiter at the Savoy extracting the bone from a Dover sole, Morgan fillets the past, placing emphasis not necessarily on the most important events but on those moments that are likeliest to illuminate the personalities involved. He knows a lot, but so do we all. It is, for instance, a matter of record that the Duke of Windsor called his niece Elizabeth “Shirley Temple” behind her back and her mother, whose pudginess he despised, “Cookie”.
Of more interest to me are Morgan’s embellishments. These interventions are never gratuitous. Did Elizabeth visit the body of her father while the embalmers were still doing their horrifying work, with rubber tubes sucking out the tarry, cancer-ravaged royal guts? I can’t imagine that this is information you will find in the biographies. Yet the scene speaks volumes, the grim mechanics involved in preparing a body for public display suggesting the ghoulishness that is a corollary of royal life.
People will say, even as they marvel at Foy’s mastery of the Queen’s voice (“men” for “man”, “hice” for “house”), that this is merely classy gossip and that those who swoon at it are boobies at best and deluded Brexit types at worst. They’re wrong. It is invigorating, if that’s the word, to see the dying Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) smoking in bed, her wayward son the Duke of Windsor lying on the counterpane beside her, two statues on a tomb. It’s comical in its way, too (“Mummy,” he whispers, in the absence of his true love object, the ghastly Wallis). Yet in their self-conscious companionship resides a family’s compacted pain. Here is the abdicator, whose refusal to serve as Edward VIII killed, in effect, the stuttering brother who was forced to take over. If this is a plot worthy of Shakespeare, it is also a knot that remains unpicked. Look at Charles, kept from the throne, still, by this man, our Queen’s favourite uncle, and the traumatic memory of his departure for the Bahamas.
Morgan explains us to ourselves. We’re all Russian dolls, products of our parents’ times as well as our own. Think of what your grandmother might have felt in 1952 on seeing three generations of queens – Mary, and two Elizabeths – in their mourning veils. The eldest of these three was born in 1867, and the youngest is on the throne still. Morgan understands that this is mind-bending and potentially revelatory, and if you don’t, that is your loss.
By way of contrast, let us turn to Stephen Poliakoff’s Close to the Enemy (Thursdays, 9pm), another postwar drama, set mostly in a crumbling London hotel. In any week, it would have been an embarrassment for the BBC, but as The Crown glitters, this is a humiliation. Jim Sturgess plays an army captain trying to convince a captured German scientist to help Britain develop a jet engine. Why Poliakoff continues to win commissions when so many who are more talented struggle to persuade the BBC to back their projects, I’ll never know. Sturgess’s performance, all up-speak and Crossroads-style facial expressions, is dire. Avoid.