If you’d told me even two years ago that I’d be gripped by a TV show focussing on the Royal Family I wouldn’t have believed it possible as, while I’m maybe not a full on republican, my general view of the Windsors of Buckingham Palace (and the rest) had been at best that they were a curious anachronism good for nothing but tourism (at a stretch) and at worst a drain on public resources.
The first two seasons of The Crown though, starting with the final days of King George V and spanning up to the early 1960s, with judicious flashbacks to cover events around Edward VIII and the childhood of both The Queen (Claire Foy) and Duke Of Edinburgh (Matt Smith), felt suitably historical to my just about Millennial eyes to be suitably distancing and like watching any well made and elaborate historical drama but with moments touching on things somewhat closer to home.
Combined with that the performances of the main cast were flawless and the history seemed as accurate as you were ever likely to get in a TV drama with the obvious extrapolations of life ‘behind closed doors’ having a real ring of truth.
Going in to season three, by necessity, a lot of that changed.
Most obviously the entire cast was replaced as we took the story up in the mid-1960s and going through (further than I expected) to the Silver Jubilee in 1977, so all the ‘characters’ were of course that bit older.
Along with this the time frame was instantly less historical and becoming ever more contemporary in feel.
Thankfully the new cast is, as with the first two seasons, pitch perfect.
Led by Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth, her introduction is handled expertly as we see her in silhouette and not in detail as she approves a new set of postage stamps and we see that well known profile which, from the off, embeds Colman as this almost Doctor Who-like character regeneration.
As the first episode, and then the series, goes on the rest of the cast is filled out in equally impressive fashion from the obvious like Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret (who gets to go full crazy Bonham Carter as the series heads towards it climax) and Charles Dance as Lord Mountbatten with the less well known (to me at least) with Tobias Menzies’ Prince Phillip and Josh O’Connor as a Prince Charles particularly standing out.
Where this season really differs though, and it took me a while to get my head around it and I’m not sure how successful it is, comes with it’s pacing.
Obviously covering around fifteen years in ten rather than twenty episodes means the level of depth of detail is different, and in this regard it suddenly feels a lot more like a TV drama than a historical one with more narrative corner cutting and a lot more televisual cliche creeping in.
With this the episodes feel somewhat more disjointed and, while there are a few over arching threads, notably around Princess Margaret’s marriage and Prince Charles coming of age, as a whole it all feels a little more disjointed with the obvious things becoming far more the focus and a few of the dramatised sequences not having quite the same realness to them as in the past.
That said there are a few highlights.
Episode three, which looks at the Aberfan Disaster and both the Royal and governmental reaction to it is (mostly) terrific and I suspect will act as a reminder, or maybe even introduction, to many of this horrific event and there’s no doubting that the reactions to it shown, while historical, also show a reflection of class divisions seen today.
Another is Tywysog Cymru that looks at Prince Charles investiture as Prince Of Wales and his time in Aberystwyth learning Welsh.
As well as being of particular interest to me as an alumnus of the same university, the inclusion of elements of the Welsh nationalist movement and linking it with Charles own personal views is both historically interesting and a clever narrative device — though has proved controversial to some.
While, across the other eight episodes, there are historically interesting sections it’s hard to avoid that, as it reaches its conclusion, the subject matter becomes a little more ‘tabloid’ and soap opera in its interests focusing on the stories that have dominated newspaper front pages for as long as I can remember around the marriages and relationships of the Royal Family rather than the, to me, more interesting aspects like how the Royal Family were supposedly used in genuine diplomatic ways.
Also it feels like it wants to comment on modern politics, and certain elements do begin to, but it never quite goes all the way even though there is a lot it could say given a lot of the issues being raised today are a rehashing of those being dealt with then.
Ultimately then season three of The Crown may be a slightly different to the precursors, and maybe not quite as successful as a whole, but it still remains a gripping journey through the history of the UK in the later section of the mid-twentieth century taken from a unique perspective.