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8 November 2016

Shame of thrones: The Crown needs dragons, and a decent plot

Netflix's lavish royal drama is pointless pomp designed to help take our minds off our Brexit circumstances.

By Laurie Penny

The Crown is a pointless show about pointless people. The multi-million dollar Netflix snorefest about the royal family in the 1950s has been greeted with groans of delight by a public weary of real-world politics, ready to be distracted by trembling aristocrats having marital problems in stately homes. Give us chintz and flag-waggery; let us wallow in the dubious doings of minor royal swains to relieve the horror of it all. Give us pomp, to take our minds off our circumstances. By coincidence, this has also been the political function of the actual House of Windsor for several centuries.

The show is no good, of course, because it doesn’t need to be any good. I’d describe the plot, but there isn’t one. What there is instead is a succession of dull events in exquisite rooms punctuated by conversations between indistinguishable men in suits who walk and speak as if they’re doing sphincter exercises for England and St George. Every shot is cast in sepia tones, nostalgic for a bygone, better time before Twitter and feminism and finance capitalism. A time when people knew their place and tea was taken in the morning room. The story is as follows: Netflix was keen to chow down in the bottomless trough of monarchical nostalgia, and so paid top-dollar for ten interminable episodes of Wolf Hall star Claire Foy quivering like a pedigree hamster in vintage gowns, while the rest of the cast try not to sound as if they have swallowed a bee when speaking.

People are lapping it up, of course. The dratted thing has already been recommissioned for at least one follow-up series. Everything the House of Windsor does is catnip for Americans, who like to indulge their fantasies of deference and class hierarchy at one remove, preferably with some pretty costumes and the occasional cheeky grope below-stairs.

Ordinary people appear only as an opera chorus of jolly-faced peasants, rushing out like the half-civilised horde they are to wave and cheer at the car as it goes by. The only non-white individuals in this show are the laughing Kenyan subjects who chase the royal pompmobile with little flags, smiling silently when the young queen reminds them what a “savage place” their country was before the British came along to civilise it.

This is why we’ve seen so many hit movies and shows about the royals in recent years, and why every single one, from The Queen to The King’s Speech, has approached its subject with such slavering adoration for the institution of monarchy and the concept of hereditary power. This is also the chief reason for the show’s failure: it is unable to show anything but oily respect for any of its characters. Even Prince Philip, everyone’s least favourite hoary old racist, who in real life is best known for fatuous comments about strippers and Indians, gets invested with far more nobility than he deserves or, in fact, has, by Matt Smith.

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We are treated to a brief backlit glimpse of the royal buttocks which manages to be as dignified as you please, firstly because Matt Smith has a very impressive arse, and secondly because nobody at all, whatever their politics or predilections, wants to allow thoughts about bare arses and thoughts about the Duke of Edinburgh to occupy their brain at the same time. The director was, apparently, concerned that the show would veer into the treasonably salacious. They needn’t have worried. The Crown is about as erotic as a constitutional crisis on a cold day, which is incidentally what Britain is going through right now. Roll another episode. God Save The Queen.

Now, I am generally on board with people making television shows that I don’t care for. Netflix has given me a lot of shows I deeply appreciate, and under normal circumstances I’d be alright with the occasional expensive turkey. However, I’m already subsidising monarchist propaganda directly through my taxes; I resent that the Old Firm has now cornered my Netflix subscription as well. Most of all, I resent that it isn’t better propaganda. The  Oscar-Winning epic The Queen, by the same director, was at least entertaining. The Crown is not entertaining. It was originally envisioned as a film, and you can tell, because the material is padded out with a suspicious number of meaningful pauses and drawn-out shots of people looking nobly out of windows. The pacing is about as lively as a royal guardsman with superhuman bladder control.

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If I must watch another show about bumbling blue-bloods having conniptions over the royal succession, I insist that there be swordfights and preferably also dragons. There is no drama so dire that it could not be rendered interesting with the addition of at least one dragon, with the possible exception of Downton Abbey, whose dragons would have had to be written out after the second series so they could move on to bigger things in Hollywood. Dragons would liven up The Crown no end.

Dramatic tension must come from somewhere, of course, and so we have the Queen complaining about how very hard it is to be Queen. The idea is that we are supposed to feel sorry for Her Maj because, what with all the waving and ribbon-slicing and being consulted on issues of national importance, she never got time to be a real person. “You don’t think I would have preferred to grow up out of the spotlight, away from court?” asks an exquisitely trembly Claire Foy. “Away from the scrutiny and the visibility — a simpler life — a happier life, as a wife and mother. An ordinary English countrywoman.” This is one of a number of scenes in which you definitely feel the lack of dragons.

It was at this point that I realised that I am sick of being asked to feel sorry for kings and queens. I’m sick of being asked to feel anything about them at all. Since I was weaned off the Eighties pre-school television programme, Playdays, it feels as if every other book or film has invited me to understand just how hard it is to be a member of the aristocracy, how onerous a job it is to set one’s human desires against the role one is forced to play. How one has to smile and wave even when one feels like screaming. The same, of course, is true for waitresses, office workers, checkout assistants and indeed almost every job of work that does not also come with a lifelong pension of millions and your choice of free mansions.

I understand that the edited show-home version of way-back Britain full of pretty heiresses and jolly servants who are ever so happy with their lot is a comforting fantasy. It’s certainly a lot more comforting than actual Britain right now, which is a proto-fascist nightmare of populism gone wrong with an unelected leader struggling to mitigate the financial calamity caused by, what now feels like, a referendum on racism. Bigots getting brave in the streets, a teetering stack of constitutional crises, cultural meltdown over the rising price of Marmite, and “killer clowns” stalking the M25. No American wants to warm their Trump-weary cockles by this trashfire.

The Crown isn’t any good because it doesn’t have to be any good. They could have commissioned ten episodes of Churchill wanking into a commemorative coronation teapot while “Land of Hope and Glory” played on the wireless and it would served the same function: to remind us, against all the evidence, that the right sort of dignified chumps are still in charge and all is well with the world. I really, really hope that season two has dragons.