The hit Netflix saga about the Royal Family is back, with Olivia Colman as the Queen. And the history it covers is more turbulent and fascinating than ever, writes Hugh Montgomery.

Queen Elizabeth II may not be known for her cheekiness, but the third series of Netflix’s mega-saga about her reign begins with quite the metaphorical wink to camera. We see Her Majesty, in 1964, scrutinising blown-up portraits of an updated postage stamp featuring a somewhat more mature-looking royal profile. “Just the tiniest changes,” a minion says, flattering her. “A great many changes,” she corrects him, in that immoderately prim voice. “But there we are … one just has to get on with it.”

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What this intro is not-so-slyly acknowledging, of course, is The Crown’s generational contrivance, whereby the central characters are recast with new, older actors every couple of series. So where before Claire Foy was Her Majesty, now Olivia Colman, herself newly-anointed acting royalty, has taken on the mantle, supported by everyone’s favourite British eccentric Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, Outlander’s villainous Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip and the still relatively unknown Josh O’Connor as the now-adult Prince Charles. But as it ages, The Crown, unlike its protagonist, can’t be said to be just ‘getting on with it’ – for, certainly, this latest season is the best yet.

It hardly needs saying that the overall portrait of a United Kingdom at war with itself has grimly fortuitous resonances with the country as it stands right now

Why is that? In part, creator Peter Morgan has history to thank. What is great about the show, after all, is that the Royal Family is really a framing device for exploring the changing state of the United Kingdom in the latter half of the 20th Century – and what tectonic social and political shifts we have here, through the years between 1964 and 1977 that this latest run of episodes covers. It is a period, as we see, when a paranoid Establishment felt unduly threatened by the ascension of a supposedly socialist, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson; and when, during the tenure of Conservative PM Edward Heath, sandwiched between Wilson’s two terms, the country was brought to its knees by the miners’ strikes and power cuts.

Within this general arc, meanwhile, creator Morgan selects some particularly charged flashpoints to focus on. The series kicks off with an episode devoted to the unmasking of the surveyor of the Queen’s pictures Anthony Blunt as a Soviet spy. Two of the most powerful instalments in the entire show so far zone in on the Aberfan disaster, when an avalanche of coal slurry ploughed into a Welsh village, killing 116 schoolchildren and 28 adults; and the planned military coup against Howard Wilson’s Government led by the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten.

Even for many Brits, including this reviewer, these incidents may be shamefully unfamiliar. So above and beyond the dramatic entertainment The Crown provides its presentation of the recent past to a huge global audience seems like an inherently valuable act of excavation. What’s more, it hardly needs saying that the overall portrait of a United Kingdom at war with itself, its democracy all-too-fragile, inevitably has grimly fortuitous resonances with the country as it stands right now, during its ongoing Brexit-related disarray.

A family in crisis

As for the monarchy itself, meanwhile, where the programme’s treatment of it felt blandly, even cringingly, deferential in the beginning, its ‘journey’, to use some very un-regal parlance, has darkened – and become more compelling as a result. Here we are presented with a family that increasingly finds itself in the throes of an existential crisis, due to both external and internal ruptures –and the new cast grapples with this angst superbly.

Olivia Colman doesn’t ‘humanise’ the Queen in any overly-sentimental fashion, but she does make the audience intimate with her, in a way that no other performer has 

As the Queen, Colman starts with a number of handicaps, in comparison to her predecessor. Much more of a known quantity than Foy was when she took on the role – thanks chiefly to her recent, incandescently charming awards season tour for The Favourite, which climaxed with her Best Actress Oscar win – it is harder for her to simply disappear into the role. On top of that, Foy maintained a certain inscrutability in the role that seemed regally fitting, whereas Coleman struggles to disguise her natural warmth and humour, and there are occasions, perhaps, when the performance seems a touch too arch or knowing for its own good.

Yet, if this is not such a naturalistic piece of mimicry, it is on its own terms a compelling turn. The best showcase for Colman’s abilities comes in the aforementioned Aberfan episode, that replays how the Queen initially refused to make a trip to the village in the aftermath of the accident, before finally relenting after pressure from the press. It crescendos with an extraordinary, if wholly unbelievable, scene, where we see her confide in Prime Minister Wilson, in their weekly meeting, that she couldn’t even shed real tears for the victims.

As Her Majesty confesses to what she seems to believe is her pathological emotionlessness, Colman, paradoxically, manages to make the scene a piercingly emotional one, with but a flicker of agony disturbing that impassive exterior. She doesn’t ‘humanise’ the Queen – in any overly-sentimental fashion at least – but she does make the audience intimate with her, in a way that no other performer, not even an Oscar-winning Dame Helen Mirren, has quite managed before.

As for the supporting Royals, Helena Bonham Carter faces similar problems of recognition to Colman. Her zany star persona perhaps makes Princess Margaret, now sinking into alcoholism and with her marriage to Lord Snowdon on the rocks, far more likeably daffy than either the more brittle Vanessa Kirby before her, or the outrageously unpleasant figure portrayed in Craig Brown’s brilliant recent quasi-biography Ma’am Darling; it is nevertheless a hugely enjoyable, campily ripe turn. Meanwhile Tobias Menzies perhaps gives the most virtuosically studied performance as Prince Philip: harder-edged than Matt Smith, he eerily captures the faintly sinister sibilance of Philip’s voice, among other things.

Of the younger generation, Josh O’Connor is convincingly gawky as a twentysomething Prince Charles, who takes centre stage during the second half of the series as his affair with a certain Camilla Shand sets the cat among the pigeons. It’s not his fault that he is somewhat overshadowed by Erin Doherty as Princess Anne; a previous unknown, and another feather in the cap of genius casting director Nina Gold, she makes one of the more overlooked Royals into a drily charismatic, whip-smart young woman, who also seems impossibly down-to-earth and well-adjusted when compared to the rest of the clan. 

Fact vs fiction

Inevitably, perhaps, for a show so ambitious in its reach, it is not without its faults. It goes without saying that, as with all historical dramas, the history should be taken with more than a pinch of salt, and as usual, expect a flood of articles in the wake of its launch to helpfully drill down into the detail and separate truth from fiction. (In fact, what the show could really benefit from is a complementary podcast analysing the adaptation decisions, like the one that accompanied this year’s hit HBO factual drama Chernobyl.)

But, that aside, the writing feels increasingly on the nose. In the Anthony Blunt episode, for example, did Morgan really need to have Blunt arrested while giving a lecture about a Renaissance painting featuring symbols of ‘truth and deceit’? And did the episode dealing with Princess Margaret’s tour of America really require her to have a conversation with President Lyndon Johnson, where she compares his previous vice-presidency under JFK to her frustrated vice-queenship’, in order to hammer home her predicament? However, the sheer richness of the themes it grapples with means you can readily forgive it its more schematic moments.

Ultimately, The Crown is that much more flattering to the Windsors because of the illusion it gives of providing the unvarnished truth.

Above and beyond its dramatic effectiveness, however, there is the ongoing question of whether The Crown serves as royal propaganda – something which has concerned those of a republican bent since its inception. The answer, in truth, is a complicated one. Increasingly, there is enough questioning of both the royals’ characters and their very existence – a moment near the end of this series has Her Majesty wondering “what have I actually achieved?” – that the portrait it offers of them doesn’t feel rose-tinted, exactly.

Then again, the very fact of creating an epic historical series around them accentuates their function, and exaggerates their importance. And ultimately, perhaps, The Crown is that much more flattering to the Windsors because of the illusion it gives of providing the unvarnished truth. In one episode, we see how a notorious 1969 proto-reality TV documentary about them, engineered as a PR exercise, backfired in its attempt to portray them as ‘normal people’ who sat around watching TV together and having barbecues: no one, simply, could believe it. By contrast, The Crown portrays them as characters who are difficult and rarefied enough to be believable – and therefore perversely engages our sympathies with them much more effectively.

And whether it’s the Queen’s single, belated tear rolling down her cheek at the end of the Aberfan episode, or Prince Philip’s rousing declaration of faith to a bunch of vicars, redemptive moments are judiciously scattered: it’s a show that bares some teeth, but makes sure never to bite too hard. Should the Queen ever deign to watch the series, she surely wouldn’t like what she saw – but nevertheless she should be jolly thankful it exists. 

The Crown launches on Netflix on Sunday 17 November

★★★★☆

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