Peter Morgan has spent so long trying to clamber inside the mind of Queen Elizabeth II that he has apparently contracted the prestige dramatist’s equivalent of Stockholm syndrome. Season three of Netflix’s The Crown, the epoch-spanning chronicling of her Madge’s reign that will probably go down as writer Morgan’s life’s work, is built in the image of its subject, and not always in a good way.
As with the real Elizabeth, it is grand yet a bit colourless, gilded but never quite glamorous. Everything it does is in lockstep, as if hidebound by conventions as inflexible as the ones which bind the monarch in real life.
The Crown is now several decades into the Queen’s incumbency. So it’s adieu to Claire Foy, who portrayed Elizabeth in her naive early years. The diamond-topped baton passes to Olivia Colman, by a great distance the best thing about the new 10-episode series.
Foy was compelling but with a pinch too much of a Hollywood aura. Colman, by contrast, brilliantly inhabits the Elizabeth we all know and take for granted. There’s something dazzlingly banal about her. This is the monarch who cuts ribbons at motorway openings and sends you to sleep mid-Christmas message.
Tobias Menzies is less convincing as he inherits the Prince Philip mantle from Matt Smith. The former Doctor Who star gave us glimpses of Philip’s tortured interior and excelled as a bounder with a conscience. Menzies’ Philip is a more straight-forward impersonation. He looks and sounds like the Duke of Edinburgh. Yet he’s never completely alive in the role.
The third marquee newcomer is Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen’s increasingly lost and lonely younger sister, Princess Margaret. It’s the closest Morgan has yet come to stunt casting, though there’ll be more in season four with Gillian Anderson entering stage right as Margaret Thatcher.
Helena Bonham Carter has always been fantastic at playing Helena Bonham Carter and she deploys all her tics and winks (and a magnificent singing voice). Her pinched, viper-tongued Margaret is a study in embittered middle age, but entirely unrecognisable from Vanessa Kirby in the part. They haven’t simply swapped out actresses. They’ve re-imagined the character from the ground up, jarringly so.
Overshadowing all of these bumps on the red carpet is the fact that Morgan initially seems at a loss as to what to do with his magnificent caricatures. The Crown rediscovers its pulse in the final few episodes as Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) begins his essentially forbidden relationship with Camilla Shand, Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) listens to David Bowie and cavorts with arch-cad Andrew Parker Bowles, and Margaret takes up with a green-fingered baronet. Suddenly we’re in right royal bonkbuster territory.
Yet this sunny upland of randy regents is reached only after a protracted slog. A predictable one, too. Three seasons in, the formula to which The Crown bends the knee is as plain as a huge gem-encrusted headpiece.
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A major world event from the period will be reframed as a crisis for Buckingham Palace. So Margaret’s state visit to America with gadabout husband Lord Snowdon (Ben Daniels) is presented as a crucial opportunity to win over the Anglophobic Lyndon B Johnson (Clancy Brown) and bag a bailout for bankrupt Blighty. Charles’s 1969 investiture as Prince of Wales doubles as a beginner’s guide to Welsh nationalism. And the rumoured involvement of Lord Mountbatten in a putative coup to oust Labour PM Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) is pitched as a retirement strop by the fading father figure to Charles and the Queen, rather than anything truly ominous.
Casting Charles Dance as Mountbatten is a wonderful touch. He gives it the full Tywin Lannister – his arch-baddie from Game of Thrones – as he variously schemes against Wilson and intervenes in the blooming love affair between Charles and Camilla (Emerald Fennell, who should know a thing or three about feuding aristos having attended the same school as Kate Middleton).
Elsewhere, it’s hard not to be struck by what the series leaves out as much as by what it includes. The Crown has now pitched up in the Seventies. Yet Northern Ireland isn’t mentioned. Morgan’s take on the decade is that industrial strife and power cuts in England apparently count for more than the shooting dead of civilians in Derry (the omission doubly inexplicable given Mountbatten’s ultimate fate, presumably to be covered in season four). There’s also a queasy moment as the Queen prepares to visit the families of the children who died in the 1966 Aberfan disaster near Merthyr Tydfil.
“This is Wales not England – a display of emotion would not just be considered appropriate... it’s expected,” she is told by an adviser. What a strange flex for Morgan to tap the 19th-century trope contrasting emotive and ungovernable Celts with the level-headed English – a caricature that will now be beamed around the world once again courtesy of Netflix. The portrayal of Ted Heath as a mad pianist with flapping hair who tinkles in Downing Street while the economy burns lands oddly, too.
These flubs never entirely rob The Crown of its lustre. It’s still one of the most beautiful dramas on television. You can practically hear Morgan’s binge-watch patrons signing the cheques as we swing by the moon landing (the trigger for a midlife crisis in Philip), accompany nag-mad Elizabeth on an equestrian research trip to America, and watch Charles vie with the dastardly Parker Bowles on the polo pitch. And with the Charles-Diana marriage and Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher to come in season four, there is still much to look forward to. But for now the jewel in Netflix’s tiara has lost its glow.
The Crown season three arrives on Netflix on 17 November
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