The Crown raises questions about British monarchy

crownIf you go by an article published in the UK’s Independent last year, the anti-monarchist movement in that country isn’t very healthy. The story begins with five men handing out pamphlets in Leeds city centre on a rainy Saturday. (The canvasser who has their folding table is late, apparently.) They remain polite in the face of hostility from weekend shoppers with royalist sympathies, and one of the die-hard republicans asks that his last name not be used “for work reasons.”

He says that he thinks that while only 20 per cent of Britons have republican sympathies, there might only be another 20 per cent that are committed monarchists. That leaves 60 per cent undeclared and unbiased in the centre, who might be swayed to jettison the royal family and the last vestiges of constitutional monarchy at the point when Queen Elizabeth gives way to King Charles, the uninspiring heir apparent that an academic interviewed for the Independent story calls republicanism’s “greatest recruiting sergeant.”

A future republican Britain is predicated on a lot of maybes, and an unexpected new factor was introduced into the public debate last year, when The Crown, a miniseries based on the reign of the current Queen of England debuted on Netflix and became a huge hit, just as Downton Abbey viewers were looking for something new to watch.

The Crown is a saga, its six seasons projected to follow Elizabeth II’s monarchy to its twilight. A recent Sunday Times story on the show did the math, and noted that the last series would air around 2025, “by which time the Queen will be 99 and Prince Philip 104. In other words, it is highly likely to coincide with the deaths of one, if not both, of them. Millions around the world will undoubtedly be glued to this as if it were the definitive story of the Queen’s life.”

The success of the first season has given creator Peter Morgan license to be more ambitious with his show’s significance. In a telling scene in the new season that debuted just before Christmas, Morgan lets his characters wonder aloud about the public image of the royals. A lady in waiting to Princess Margaret opines that a royal portrait “should evolve and change like aging,” but gets shot down immediately by the Queen Mother.

“No one wants complexity and reality from us,” she says curtly. “People have enough of that in their own lives. One has to help them escape.”

It remains to be seen just how much reality is in The Crown, but Morgan has certainly allowed us to imagine a lot of complexity behind the hats and pearls and handbags and tight smiles that define the public image of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor. And that humanizing complexity, projected on the blank face of the monarch by talented actors, has done a lot to make the royal family seem far more interesting than ever.

Morgan has done his homework on the monarch. He wrote the 2006 hit film The Queen, about the royal crisis after the death of Lady Diana Spencer, and the play The Audience, based on the weekly meetings the Queen held with her prime ministers over the decades. When the second season of The Crown was being filmed, Morgan identified as a republican, and told the Sunday Times that “the approval of rabid republicans or anti-monarchists is important to me.” In the same story, he controversially described the Queen as a “countryside woman of limited intelligence.”

But at some point between then and a recent interview with the Radio Times, Morgan began calling himself a royalist, explaining that Britons “believe in the Queen, now, at a time when it’s so hard to find people that you really believe in.”

It’s tempting to see this as a kind of Stockholm syndrome, where Morgan has spent too much time as a hostage to Elizabeth and her family, striving as a dramatist to discern their motivations and shape their story to his – and our – emotional satisfaction. They have elicited his sympathy, so much so that he blames the Queen’s subjects for adding to the burden of their roles. “We torment these people,” Morgan said. “But we’re the villains, because we don’t know what we want from them.”

While I would describe myself as a republican, it’s hardly a hill that I’m willing to die on – a lukewarm position that might be the greatest obstacle facing the Commonwealth’s anti-monarchists. As Morgan portrays Elizabeth, the crown is something that she didn’t want, much like her father, George VI, who had it forced upon him after the abdication of his brother. That family betrayal resonates through most of the first season of The Crown, slowly overwhelmed by the gradual loss of deference for the monarchy in Britain as a social revolution prepares to burst in the early ‘60s.

But as much as anything else, it’s the story of a family, and a very dysfunctional one at that. Morgan has a lot to work with explaining Elizabeth’s coldness, her husband Philip’s harshness as a father and resentment of his subordinate role, and her sister Margaret’s petulance and rage at being trapped in protocol. And more than any documentary TV series or fawning royal biography, he and his cast have worked wonders imagining their motivations and giving a tragic spin to these prisoners of duty.

The second series begins and ends with the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip in crisis, and in a climactic scene the Queen tells her husband that she would be willing to ignore his infidelities – something other upper class couples we see in the show do almost as a mark of rank – provided he doesn’t try to deceive her or shirk his duties. Knowing they’re yoked together in an indissoluble union – a queen forbidden to divorce, while ironically head of a church founded on a king’s need to divorce – Morgan imagines Philip nobly asking her not to look away, and pledges her his love and support, the royal pair folded in an embrace just as the ‘60s and their own family are about to descend into rebellion and chaos.

While the aging Winston Churchill politically dominates the first season, Elizabeth’s prime ministers in the second season are far less impressive, starting with Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis, and ending with Harold MacMillan and the Profumo Scandal. Rightfully dismayed by the poor quality of the political class, Morgan finds himself contrasting it with the selfless devotion to duty embodied in the Queen.

“Downing Street is full of sick people,” he told the Sunday Times. “It is clearly a deranged institution and a completely insane system, but perhaps it’s the insanity that makes it work. Belief in God is so deranged that it makes absolutely no sense, but it holds people together somehow.”

Peter Morgan was both an atheist and a republican when he talked to the Times reporter. If he was able to convert to the royalist side within the months leading up to the premiere of The Crown’s second season, perhaps he might eventually be able to overcome the sophomoric notion that faith is “so deranged” and imagine how religion might do more than just hold people together “somehow.”

With four more seasons and eight more years spent pondering the Queen, her family, and the social, political and economic trials of her subjects over a subsequent half century, he might come to see that it’s not insanity but a vision of constancy and duty that have been the key to Elizabeth Windsor’s serene persistence in the storm of history.

Even a republican like myself can acknowledge the peculiar genius that has powered Queen Elizabeth II through her unprecedented reign. In a secularizing world, she has been a substitute deity, able to appear divine by simply abiding, above the fray and – as Claire Foy’s Elizabeth says, mouthing Peter Morgan’s words – “doing nothing.”

I can’t imagine anyone else pulling off the same trick – not her earnest son, tediously proclaiming his opinions while waiting in the wings for too long, nor her affable but very ordinary grandson. Peter Morgan might be a real kingmaker over the next four seasons of The Crown, imagining nobility and wisdom for Charles or hidden authority within William, much as he has made Philip’s stuffiness complex and Margaret’s petulance tragic.

But as a republican (and a Christian) I long for the royal family to be relieved of the burden that compels them to thankless duty, to become an ordinary family with merely ordinary problems, to be confronted along with the cost of their estates and their tax bill. Their former subjects, long out of the habit of deference and free of an ersatz deity as head of state, might finally demand politicians who serve them alone, and not a powerless monarch deprived for centuries of truly insane and deranged concepts like divine right.

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