I know that, like me, you will have been worrying how the third season of The Crown would fare once Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth was replaced by Olivia Colman. Especially considering how the Telegraph columnist Charles Moore highlighted the apparently insuperable difficulty posed by Colman’s “distinctly leftwing face”.
I am happy to report that Colman has somehow – I presume through some kind of high-offal diet and exercise regime involving chasing arrivistes off the land – managed to overcome her facial tendencies and channel Top Windsor most effectively. The rest of the new cast (Netflix has always been clear on its intention to replace actors every two series, which covers about two decades of real time) is equally fine. Tobias Menzies, whose own face distinctly suggests a man on the verge of either delighting you or slashing you with a concealed blade, is a perfect Duke of Edinburgh, a man I am pretty sure was hunting peasants in the concealed reaches of Balmoral with a bowie knife until age finally stopped him. Helena Bonham Carter is the ideal Princess Margaret, ever more consumed by inner misery and embracing of outward excess as her marriage to Lord Snowdon crumbles. If there is a touch of the Julie Walters/Mrs Overall creeping in towards the end of the 10-hour run, well, that is just the icing on the cake as far as I am concerned.
But what of the new blue blood? Well, hold on to your hats because, in episode six, Chucky-egg arrives! Young, gauche and with ears for days, The Crown’s Prince Charles is a picture of … well, everything we thought we knew about the Queen’s son and heir. He is a painful disappointment to his father, an unappealing mix of self-pity and privilege, but shot through with idealism and a genuine sense of duty.
And, as with the rest, you find yourself increasingly sympathetic to his plight – leading a strange, stifled half-life, forever horse-trading for tiny shifts in protocol and chances to make long-established roles his own. Things perk up for Charlie-boy, and indeed for us all, when a very game girl called Camilla Shand turns up. But she’s not quite the thing so – terribly unforch – she marries someone called Andrew Parker-Bowles instead. Oh well. I’m sure he will find someone else in time and they will be very happy together.
This series covers the years 1964 to 1977. Harold Wilson is elected; Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) dies after a very touching deathbed scene with QEII; the Queen’s surveyor of pictures, Anthony Blunt, proves a bad hire but a wonderful opportunity for coded exchanges and thematic resonances with The Crown’s central preoccupation – the gulf between the image of an individual, a monarch, an institution and its reality. The series also devotes an entire episode to the 1966 Aberfan disaster, the Queen’s delayed public response to which, we are told, remains her deepest regret as sovereign.
Like the bumblebee, which the laws of physics dictate should not be able to fly, The Crown continues to defy the laws of dramatic narrative and include more exposition than is theoretically possible for a series to survive. The state of Britain’s economy as we slalom towards the three-day week, the sociopolitical ramifications of every decision taken by anyone from the undergardener to Lord Mountbatten (now Charles Dance, as it has surely been writ since the dawn of time) are all crammed in, the great clunking parts somehow fully lubricated by soapy antics from the family itself. Margaret wants a bigger role after she secures a bailout from the Americans, but Liz and her advisers reckon that successfully charming the president (Lyndon B Johnson) by slagging off his predecessor (JFK) comes very much under the heading of “beginner’s luck”, and so decline. Philip’s mother, Princess Alice (a brilliant, brilliant Jane Lapotaire), returns home after years in asylums and then as a nun in Greece and triggers a midlife crisis in Philip that fair breaks your heart. The new dean sorts him out by starting a counselling service for priests suffering crises of faith and bringing the duke into their fold.
It is all beautifully done and tastefully told. Every penny spent is up on screen. It is immaculate. It will leave you either longing for the monarchy to be decapitated for its endless, parasitical privilege (great scenes arise from Philip complaining about being asked to cut back on his yacht consumption, for example) or abolished for the Windsors’ own good. It all depends how leftwing a face you have, I suppose.