Friday, May 1, 2020

“The Crown”: It’s (Not So) Good to Be the Queen

If you have to commit to social isolation, Buckingham Palace might be the place to do it. After all, it’s very well decorated, there are plenty of loyal retainers on hand to attend to your every need, and if you are inclined to mope, you have many comfy corners to choose from. Running out of toilet paper is doubtless not a problem.  I trust Queen Elizabeth II, now  94 years old, is being duly cautious, sheltering herself from threats of COVID-19 either at Buck House or at one of her several other homes in England and Scotland. But she did emerge on April 5 (see below) to speak to the  people of the British commonwealth from Windsor Castle, urging Britons to stay strong in the face of global pandemic. Her warm, calm, sympathetic tone—far different from the bombast of various politicians familiar to us all—was widely praised. It seemed that in her sixty-seven years on the throne she has learned to bridge the gap between her royal self and her subjects., at least when the chips are down.

As I suffer through my own isolation right now, I’m binge-watching all three seasons of The Crown, the Netflix series that is astoundingly frank about the comings and goings of the British royal family. I have no way of knowing if all the scandalous details of this regal soap opera are portrayed accurately, if the love affairs, emotional kinks, and threatened coup d’états really happened in the ways they show up on screen. Still, I’m old enough to remember some of this from contemporary news reports,, like the Profumo scandal and all the sturm und drang involving Princess Margaret falling more than once for exactly the wrong guy.

The series also allows us to see the queen (Claire Foy in the early years, Olivia Colman later) slowly and sometimes painfully learning the tricks of her very particular trade.  If Queen Elizabeth has now mastered how to speak to her subjects, we’ve seen her (particularly in a long-ago address to striking Welsh miners) so detached from the lives of the working class that she rouses their hostility against her. And slightly later, when there’s an unspeakable tragedy involving children in another Welsh village, we’ve watched her struggling to appear sympathetic when her eyes are dry. As TV drama, it’s absolutely irresistible.

One detail that fascinates me about The Crown is the fact that in some ways it’s a TV drama about the impact of television on British royalty. It seems that when Elizabeth, then age 26, was crowned Queen in Westminster Abbey, she appointed her husband, Prince Philip, to the head of the committee working out the details of the coronation. For her this selection was mostly made to appease a restless spouse whose ego was suffering from all the veneration surrounding his wife. But Philip, bucking centuries of tradition, came up with some useful modern ideas. Prime among them was the concept of including Elizabeth’s subjects in the ceremony by putting the whole event on live television. This attempt at slightly democratizing the royal pomp and circumstance turned out to be a major p.r.. success story. But Philip’s later insistence (inspired in part by Jacqueline Kennedy’s televised White House tour) on a day-in-the-life documentary look at the royals at work would became a major embarrassment for all concerned. In any case, it’s clear that the whole royal family relies heavily on TV for their view of the outside world. Amid Buckingham Palace’s elegant sofas and tapestries, they gather around the box to watch Parliamentary election results and astronauts walking on the moon.