|Doctor Who, left, and Her Majesty The Queen|
in the Netflix/Lockets drama, The Crown
The Crown (Netflix), like the royal family, is a faith-based endeavour. Dramatically, it poses a challenge, because the story is known, so the appeal of the enterprise becomes a matter of style and costume. Beyond that, it is about impersonation, and the willingness of the cast to test the old actors’ cliche/excuse, about finding the truth of the character rather than doing an impersonation. But what is the truth of the Queen, of the Queen Mother, of Winston Churchill? And how can that be made vital?
Let’s start with the style, because it is obvious. The Crown is a beautifully constructed edifice. It is a past fashioned from the daydreams of Cecil Beaton. The lighting is subtle, the colours rich. The world looks looks fantastic, rather than real, and everything is in its proper place. The mist that envelopes London in 1952 is, as the wireless announces, a veritable peasouper. The flashbulbs of the nascent paparazzi are pure Weegee. The royal tricycles are a nostalgic delight. The pens are fountain, the dogs are corgis, except when they are the Duke of Windsor’s pugs, when they are dismissed in glassy RP by the Queen (Claire Foy) as being “awfully gassy”. The false notes are few, though the scene where Prince Philip (Matt Smith) hypnotises a stampeding elephant in Nairobi has a jerky quality to it which suggests that a computer, rather than a stunt pachyderm, did the tricks.
But aside from being a brochure for an upmarket Butlins in which the chalets are palaces and the everyday dramas are matters of constitutional importance, what is left? Well, there is a lot of coughing. “Spot of blood in my spittle,” says King George VI to his wrinkled retainer early in the first episode, and from that hack on, he scarcely appears without the drumroll of a phlegmy ejaculation. At one point, the outgoing monarch seems to be toking on medical marijuana, though it’s possible he just enjoyed a mangy gasper. The bloody spew is significant, of course, because it heralds the elevation of Elizabeth to the throne, where - like Victoria in ITV’s Victoria - she will graduate from being a girl overwhelmed, to a soft-feminist cipher in a world of scheming, idiot men.
How is it? Well, if we assume that being the Queen is a bit like being the drummer of the Rolling Stones, with 20 years of hanging around for every five years of activity, it’s true to life. The plot moves at a glacial pace, with half-defrosted royals bumbling carelessly through matters of historical significance while polite, undynamic onlookers mumble rhubarb. The early episodes are dominated by John Lithgow’s rambunctious turn as the failing Winston Churchill, who symbolises changing times from the comfort of his bath at Number 10, where he drinks and smokes and sleeps as London chokes in the smog. The Labour leader, Clement Attlee, is played as a less-decisive version of Captain Mainwearing. Foy, as Her Majesty, is just perky enough, and - though they’re disguised by the logic-defying rituals of the ruling class - there are enough seditious moments to make this velvety National Heritage wall-hanging feel quietly subversive. “They’re all married to Nazis,” says Churchill. “What a bunch of ice-lipped monsters my family are,” sneers the permafrosty Duke of Windsor.
Like the monarchy, it shouldn’t work, but it does.
Meanwhile, in the migrant labour robo-satire Humans (All4) the androids are revolting with greater confidence than they did in the first series.
“As I understand it,” says one, “I feel.”
“I am also oddly attracted to the word ‘radiator’,” says another.
Presumably, in The Missing (BBC iPlayer), there will be a moment when the plot knits together to reveal - rough guess - an army cover-up of a paedophile abuse ring, and - another guess - a case of fake dementia from a suspected abuser. Till then, we’re left with David Morrissey’s pained murmur and the endless mysteries of Keeley Hawes’ face. More annoyingly, the limping French detective Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) has been tested to the point of destruction. Baptiste is the only fully-developed character, everyone else being emotional responses to half-disguised tabloid horrors. He could have been the new Morse, but surviving this cryptic apocalypse, in which he bumbles to the front line in the fight against Isis while dying of cancer, may be a case too far.