Our collective obsession with watching members of the British royal family in dramatic form spans centuries and every age. Since the time of Queen Elizabeth I, when history plays held significant sway over the London stage, audiences have been drawn to the lives of those at the top of the social structure, played out for the mixture of pain and empathy that highlights, sometimes surprisingly, the strange parallels to our ordinary lives.
Netflix’s successful series The Crown, in which the professional and private life of Great Britain’s longest-serving monarch is to be told over six seasons, premiered in the winter of 2016. It was a year that shook many in the UK and around the world, from the Brexit vote to our American cousins consciously selecting an abusive, racist, ill-mannered sociopath to lead their country. In creating the series, writer Peter Morgan continued his exploration into the personal and private history of Queen Elizabeth II, following his Olivier and Tony-nominated drama The Audience, which traced the unique relationship between the monarch and her prime ministers. Arriving barely six months after Britain slipped into one of its most divided states in modern history, The Crown‘s first season was met with a nearly audible sigh. Amid the UK’s lingering sense of leaderlessness and political limbo, we grew reacquainted with the sense of stability afforded by the House of Windsor. With a cast led by a pitch-perfect, suitably buttoned-up Claire Foy, the show succeeds in contextualizing our explosive political moment within a wider sense of national self. We can “keep calm and carry on” knowing that our Queen has seen it all.
Still, as the fallout from Brexit continues into 2018, the UK will continue to feel politically lost in many ways. Indeed, Morgan’s drama offers an anchor to a British society that has felt rudderless for months, with a weak government secured by a paper-thin, minority coalition. Following Prime Minister Theresa May’s colossal failure last spring to establish a Conservative mandate through a snap election, our political landscape couldn’t look more brittle. But then we watch The Crown and we see a monarch whose life spans the political breadth from Winston Churchill to Harold Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, all while providing a calm, steady view of a unified Britain. If unpacking the life of the royals is not a new phenomenon, it’s one that feels increasingly crucial amid intense unease.
There are no records of the weekly audiences between the Queen and her prime ministers; where Morgan excelled in The Audience was how he imagined and depicted character traits from these most private and secret of moments. Morgan allowed his drama to be fueled by character, not plot, with each successive prime minister displaying a shade of caricature beside the impressively evolving Queen, deftly played by Helen Mirren.
Where Morgan excels in The Crown, meanwhile, is by blending history with speculation and conjecture. For anti-Royalists, it offers a documented history of modern Britain, even if it conflates such events as the 1956 Suez Crisis and the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. For other audiences, the remnants of British Imperialism will feel uncomfortable. For still other audiences — perhaps most of them — the series encourages us to reflect on the life of a monarch who has presided over so much social, political and economic change. It is this latter aspect that I find most affecting. Growing up only knowing the Queen as a stoic, Grandmother-like figure watching us from on high, famously keeping her opinions to herself and going along with whatever is thrown at her — even singing “Auld Lang Syne” with Cherie Blair — I take comfort in a lineage that had to change, develop and evolve in order to survive.
Is it surprising, the acclaim and interest in The Crown, from around the world — particularly from the US? After all, it is a country in which less than 35% of the people own a passport; a majority of Americans couldn’t name the UK’s current PM, let alone a past one. Perhaps it’s a tribute to an institution that manages, from generation to generation, to filter beyond the reaches of the National Enquirer and into the ordinary realm of drama. It’s also well-timed: American interest in the royals is peaking, following the engagement of Prince Harry to American actress Meghan Markle, even as the “special relationship” between the the UK and the US fractures under Donald Trump. As documented during The Crown‘s first season, the last time an American married into the royal family, a constitutional crisis followed; the prospects can only get better from here.
Then there is the debate, apparently resolved for the moment, over the appropriateness of an official state visit to the UK by Trump; the thought of Queen Elizabeth having to meet him is a bridge too far for many. Protests will be guaranteed if it ever happens.
The Crown reminds us that, at the most basic level, underneath the capes, crowns and sceptres lies a family both distant to us and relatable. The mystique of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip is perhaps most alluring of all: it isn’t only Foy’s performance but that of Matt Smith as the Duke of Edinburgh that draws us to them as characters, imperfections and all.
Countless writers will continue to explore the lives of the British royals in the public sphere and behind closed doors. Mike Bartlett’s incredible “future history play,” King Charles III, even imagined Britain’s future after the death of the Queen. Such intrigue we cannot resist. Coupled with our search for stability in an uneasy world, however, The Crown is more than fact and fiction. It’s a faithful source of catharsis.