We’ve been talking about Westworld, Stranger Things and Game of Thrones a lot this past year, but all three shows failed to nail the ‘Best Drama’ award at the Golden Globes this week. That honour went to The Crown, and it’s hard to argue with the decision.
The 10-part series debuted on Netflix last November, a huge departure from the comedy and genre efforts that have made up the bulk of the channel’s original offerings to date.
Instead The Crown is a period drama that covers the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II, kicking off with her marriage to Philip Mountbatten in 1947 and ending around the time of Winston Churchill’s resignation in 1955.
It’s also a huge gamble, the show costing a reported £100m, with Netflix committed to a second series before the first one had even aired. But on the evidence of these first 10 episodes, it was worth every penny. The show is a fascinating examination of the relationship between crown and government, and a spellbinding character study of a young woman thrust into the most incredible circumstances.
It really was the best TV show of 2016, and as good as anything currently streaming on Netflix, with the following three reasons why…
The Remarkable Writing
I’m not a fan of the royals so had little interest in The Crown, until I realised that Peter Morgan was the writer. Over the last 10 years, Morgan has carved out a niche for himself taking real-life people and events and dramatizing them on stage, on film, and now on television.
From The Last King of Scotland and Frost/Nixon to The Damned United and Rush, Morgan has a knack for breathing life into historical events. His ear for dialogue manages to be both witty and profound.
But the royal family is a subject he comes back to time-and-time again. He’s written Henry VIII for the small screen, The Queen and The Other Boleyn Girl for the big screen, and The Audience for the stage. The latter is a dramatization of the weekly meetings that Elizabeth II has with her Prime Ministers.
The conversations between the Queen and Winston Churchill in that play inspired The Crown, and provide the series with some of its best moments. As their meetings progress, it’s thrilling to watch Elizabeth transform from a shy, innocent, nervous 25-year-old into a smart, confident monarch who knows her mind. The transformation mirrors her metamorphosis from Elizabeth Windsor into Elizabeth Regina.
Ultimately however, the show is a soap opera, revolving around typical family drama. It’s just that these arguments and disagreements play out on a world stage, where saying the wrong thing or falling in love with the wrong person can have serious consequences. Not just within the family, but also for the future of a nation.
Yet Morgan never lets the show slip into melodrama. His dialogue is so filled with conviction and truth that the royal family feel like real people rather than faces in newsreels or on stamps.
The Sublime Performances
Claire Foy took home the acting Golden Globe for her work as Elizabeth, and deservedly so. The aforementioned transformation is subtle, yet striking. The Queen’s job is to remain neutral – both in public, and oftentimes behind closed doors – so Foy has little to work with, frequently emoting with just her eyes. And yet throughout the series you are left in little doubt about what she’s thinking and feeling as the crown slowly starts to weigh her down.
Matt Smith is clearly having a blast as Philip, the playboy Prince whose Naval career grinds to a halt when Elizabeth ascends the throne. Philip’s public persona is somewhat ridiculous these days, but Smith actually has you feeling sorry for this alpha male. He portrays him as a man struggling to come to terms with spending the rest of his life walking several paces behind his wife.
John Lithgow was an unexpected choice to play Churchill, being both American and more than a foot taller than the aging Winston. But he certainly throws himself into the role with gusto. While we rarely get a glimpse at Churchill’s wicked sense of humour, however, we do get a sense of the man’s brilliance as well as his fragility as he approaches the end of his life.
Those are the three big-hitters, but there are grandstanding performances wherever you look. Stand-outs include Jared Harris’s regal George VI, Vanessa Kirby’s charismatic Princess Margaret, and Alex Jennings rakish Duke of Windsor.
The Outstanding Craftsmanship
£100m is the budget that’s been doing the rounds, which means that each episode of The Crown cost £100k. But in sparing no expense to recreate the royals’ lavish lifestyle, the show is a feast for the eyes.
There’s Elizabeth’s wedding, for starters, with the dress that Claire Foy wears an exact replica of the original. Though where the Queen purchased hers with ration coupons, this one cost £35k.
Then the happy couple go on safari, just one of the many Commonwealth countries brought to life in great detail. The cars, trains, boats and planes the royals travel on are all accurate to the period.
There are parties and hunts, and trips to huge manors and halls. Episode 4 even recreates the great smog of London, featuring chilling scenes of a city choking its own citizens to death.
And the show features a whopping 7,000 extras, wearing 7,000 costumes. All of this lends proceedings a size and scale hitherto unseen in period drama, and makes The Crown one of the best looking shows on TV.
The result is television that’s filled with drama, emotion, humour and depth, pulling off the incredible feat of actually making you feel sympathy for the Royals. It’s brilliant stuff, and with Season 2 currently in production, fans shouldn’t have long to wait for a follow-up fix.
The Crown is currently streaming on Netflix.