Being Philip: The Crown’s Tobias Menzies on the ‘forces warring within the duke’

Actor says he grew to admire how the royal managed his uncomfortable role with ‘dignity and patience’

It was Prince Philip’s “contradictory nature” – an alpha male in the shadow of his wife, a distant father yet sympathetic father-in-law, a private but hopelessly indiscreet senior royal – that fascinated Tobias Menzies when playing him in the last two series of The Crown.

“There’s a lot of different forces at play within him,” Menzies told the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast. “He was someone who was very wary to show his feelings, and yet, atmospherically, he’s not a cool presence, he’s quite hot … He’s abrasive. He’s challenging. He’s funny. But there’s an energy about it: it’s not calm, it’s not gentle. And those things seem to be kind of warring inside him. And so, actually, for someone who doesn’t want to give much away, he often feels like he is giving quite a lot of way.”

Menzies, who took over the role from Matt Smith in 2019, watched many hours of interviews in preparation for the part, and while acknowledging the controversies that dogged the life of a man he spent two years portraying on the Netflix show, he spoke of his admiration of the duke: “For someone who clearly was not comfortable with [the role], he managed to do it with quite a high degree of dignity and patience.”

Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies as the Queen and Prince Philip in The Crown
Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies as the Queen and Prince Philip in The Crown. Photograph: Sophie Mutevelian/AP

Speaking ahead of Prince Philip’s funeral on Saturday, Menzies said that he saw him as an innovator, both technologically – “he put computers in the palace early on” – and also socially as he dragged the monarchy into the modern era.

Despite growing up in a house that eschewed the royals, believing that an elected head of state would be more suited to a modern democracy, and being more familiar with the Spitting Image puppet than the actual Prince Philip, Menzies couldn’t help but be impressed by the success the Duke of Edinburgh made of a role that couldn’t have been “less suited to the man”.

“The idea of this alpha male spending his life walking two or three steps behind his wife … to be in an almost entirely ceremonial position, it’s fascinating,” Menzies says. “It’s the stuff of Greek drama. [It] is to his credit the effect he’s had on that institution, on that family. He took that completely non-role incredibly seriously, applied a huge amount of energy and inventiveness and created a life for himself with great ingenuity and great energy. And I think the institution itself benefited from that … He was partly involved in the transition from an aristocratic family to one that was marked by largely middle-class values. He helped to open it up and, to a certain degree, demystify a lot of the stuff that was going on, and modernise it.”

Prince Philip also often found himself at the centre of controversy, whether it be unsubstantiated rumours of affairs, as depicted in the first two seasons of The Crown, or accusations of racism that Peter Morgan’s scripts have so far scrupulously avoided. “The show is not a political critique on these people,” explains Menzies. “It is a measured and thoughtful appraisal of that institution and the family that sits inside it. It never seeks to trip them up or to satirise or ridicule.

“You could definitely criticise that and say that we have added to propaganda about the family. It’s essentially quite a benign representation. It gives them depth, it gives them profundities that maybe they don’t have – I don’t know, I’ve never met them – [but] it’s not all positive.

“It was my job as an actor to show as much complexity as I can, while fundamentally, being on Philip’s side, to try to empathise with why he might say some of those remarks rather than to critique that.”

Prince Charles, Diana and Prince Philip on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the couple's wedding
Tobias Menzies thinks Prince Philip’s own experience as an ‘outsider’ in the royal family helped him sympathise with the challenges faced by Diana, Princess of Wales. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

The Crown is after all fiction – as Menzies is keen to point out “you’re trying to get close through an artifice” – but much of what future generations think of Prince Philip and the royals will inevitably be shaped by the stories we tell.

“The essential nature of monarchy is that it has to have mystery,” says Menzies. “No one knows what they speak about over breakfast. I’m given a version of Philip, through Peter [Morgan’s] writing and then I am adding decisions about the atmosphere of how I play certain scenes.

One scene in the most recent series stands out for Menzies – where Philip and Charles talk ahead of Lord Mountbatten’s funeral. “We have this scene where I tell Charles that Mountbatten wants him to speak at his funeral, rather than me. It’s really the only scene that Charles and I have in the two seasons that I did, which is itself quite revealing, to show that relationship through absence. But I chose to play that scene [as if] I had been drinking. He’s not a drinker [in real life]. And the reason I did that was that, in that scene, he is much more emotionally revealing than he is at any other time. And, again, that feels very out of character. And so I thought maybe a way to allow myself to speak like this would be that he has been drinking and that something has loosened inside.”

Menzies found himself sympathising with the duke – whether it be the “extraordinary” story of his childhood, with his mother put in an asylum and his father absent, or the complete lack of privacy that comes with being part of the royal family. And he believes that feeling is shared by much of the country – despite Britain’s “complex” relationship with the monarchy. “Even within this last few weeks, we’ve gone from the furore around Harry and Megan’s interview,” says Menzies, “and then we’ve seen the response to the death of Philip.

“It seems that the Queen and Philip are held with a great deal of affection by a lot of people in the country.”


Toby Moses and Anushka Asthana

The GuardianTramp

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