Given the praise for The Crown, I signed up for Netflix to watch it. It is too early to weigh in after only a few episodes, but I can already see why Stuart Varney of Fox Business News confessed to binge watching the series. As an Anglophiliac (I fear sometimes I am in love with a beautiful corpse, though Brexit may revive her) and a great admirer of The Queen, I can readily see the appeal of The Crown. As a trained historian, I do have some reservations, not so much about enjoying the series, but because I wonder if it can rise historically only to the level of a glossy biopic.
First of all, I have a problem with making movies about living people who have otherwise committed no crime. I am inconsistent in this. I enjoyed The King’s Speech, though I might argue the movie was more about the speech therapist than George V, and not even I object to “cameo” appearances of former Royals in good movies (with all due respect to Colin Firth, who was certainly more than a carved shell in The King’s Speech!). I enjoyed Dame Helen Mirren’s The Queen, which was a splendidly regal approximation, but I could argue that the movie was less about The Queen than it was about modern crowd hysteria and the mass dementia after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. (I believe it was Dr. Dalrumple, in his witty Our Culture, What’s Left of It characterized Diana as “The Goddess of Domestic Tribulation.” I must admit I was horrified when she went on television to talk about her affairs when her eldest son was still in school. That is Not Good even for princely pupils.) Dame Helen may not have become a Royalist when making the movie, but she certainly became more sympathetic to her monarch during its filming; she even raised her Oscar in salute to Her Majesty. (I also very much liked the portrayal of that blighter Tony Blair, a great “American” and a rotten Brit, as I see it. I think many of the problems now facing Great Britain his fault, including the botched ejection of heredity peers sitting in the House of Lords. It was such a disaster he had to recall some hereditary peers just to get things done.)
The problem for me is that The Crown purports to be a quasi-historical view of the Royal Family, and yet it simply cannot claim anything more than a sort of popular verisimilitude. It cannot be considered genuinely historical. Is this a problem? Perhaps not. I have always liked A Man for All Seasons. It borrowed freely from Roper’s biography of his father-in-law to make a humane, loving, and lovable existentialist of Sir Thomas More. Bolt’s reason for writing the play was really to extol existentialism; his take was that Sir Thomas was a true existentialist because he knew his limits, even unto martyrdom. Bolt sets this view forward in his introduction to the play; it would have astonished and appalled the canonized Chancellor of that rotter Henry VIII. When in the play, Sir Thomas tells the Duke of Norfolk “It is not that I believe it [the Faith], but that I believe it,” Bolt makes More a modern man, not a sixteenth century martyr. Paul Scofield was splendid as Sir Thomas, but his character was not entirely that of a sixteenth century Roman Catholic saint. The more of an existentialist Bolt made him, the less he is Sir Thomas. It therefore could be considered dubious history, but first-rate dubious history. (Robert Shaw’s Henry VIII, with his jovial menace, is for me the best portrayal of the king.)
When I studied “modern history” (at the “Ancient Universities” this means after the Fall of Rome), I had to read some R. G. Collingwood for background. His Idea of History argues that historians can rethink the past, and their technique ought to be like that of a forensic detective. This is clearly impossible for the authors of The Crown. In one sense, I can know Elizabeth I better than I can her namesake; I have access to the Virgin Queen’s extant papers (though I rather imagine she burned any putative correspondence with the rebels during her half-sister’s reign). I also have access to the papers of those about her, and a long historiography of interpretation. While I may have learned from The Crown that George V and his daughter slept in pajamas while Prince Philip sleeps raw, I am just not sure I can get much of any real insight into the Royal Family itself. I think it will be a century after her death before Elizabeth II’s private papers will be generally available, and one probably can assume, given the extensive program planned for The Crown, that nothing in The Crown will seriously bean-spill too much that may displease the Royal Family. (I should be a bit surprised if the rumors of Prince Philip’s putative philandering gets extensive treatment in The Crown, though I may be wrong. A good many people these days seem to have reclassified sexual infidelity as a mere peccadillo.)
None of this will keep me from enjoying The Crown, though given that these days “movies maketh man,” I remain not sure how much insight I will get into the domestic tribulations of the Windsors. I fear cinematic fiction, however plausible, may be taken for reality. At least I will not stop watching after two episodes, as I did with Versailles, which had the effrontery to give the Queen of France an illegitimate child. This was rather hard to take, not because Queen Maria Theresa’s child was Black, but because I simply do not believe she had any by-blows at all, quite unlike her husband. There ought to be a Society for the Protection of the Reputations of Defamed Spanish Infantas; were I the present King of Spain, I might well consider founding it.