“Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl,” sang the Beatles, “but she doesn’t have a lot to say.” Turns out they were right, if we are to believe a new and mesmerizing TV series about the reign of Elizabeth II.
“The Crown,” a Netflix original series that’s catnip for those of us who sat glued to “Downton Abbey” for six seasons, begins with the marriage of 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) to her handsome consort, Philip (Matt Smith), in 1947. But within a few short years, the death of King George VI thrusts Elizabeth into the new and not entirely welcome role of sovereign.
The aged Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow, in a fat suit) mentors the new queen, as does her grandmother, Queen Mary, played by Eileen Atkins in the best dowager-countess style. (Atkins could take down Downton’s Maggie Smith.)
It’s grandmother Mary who tells Elizabeth to keep her mouth shut. As the head of a constitutional monarchy, she must keep her opinions to herself and not interfere in the workings of government, even though she is routinely briefed and consulted on the affairs of the day.
“To do nothing is the hardest job of all,” Mary says, “and it will take every ounce of energy that you have.”
The show began streaming last Friday and we have already watched six of the 10 episodes in Season 1, torn between bingeing and a desire to save some installments for later. Even my husband, who is no Anglophile (and didn’t like “Downton”), is caught up in the drama.
The palaces, the hunts, the trip to Kenya. The courtiers, the political intrigue and the members of the family—including the acid-tongued former King Edward VIII, who lives abroad since abdicating the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson but returns for the funerals of his brother and mother.
The bigger question, I suppose, is why we Americans—or some of us, anyway—are suckers for a show about British royalty. To be sure, England was once the mother country. But that was long before most of our ancestors arrived in the United States. This Anglophile, for one, doesn’t have a drop of English blood.
Maybe it’s the display of order in a chaotic world. The manners and customs may be stultifying, as Elizabeth discovers in assuming her royal duties. But at least they are clear-cut and definitive. You know what you’re supposed to do, even if you resent every minute of it.
Whatever the reason, it’s instructive to note how fake news stories and Internet memes kept cropping up during the 2016 election season suggesting that the queen might be an alternative for those dissatisfied with the actual candidates.
“The Queen urged Americans to write in her name on Election Day,” deadpanned the New Yorker’s humor columnist, Andy Borowitz, “after which the transition to British rule could begin ‘with a minimum of bother.’”
In lieu of that option coming to pass, at least we have “The Crown.” I was cheered to learn that Season 2 is already under development.