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The Queen as We Know Her: Narrating the Sovereign’s Life in The Crown By Bonnie van den Bergh

The lives of British Royals have time and again been adapted for the big screen. From films focusing on one of Henry VIII’s seven brides, like the Other Boleyn Girl (2003), to more recent productions like the 2010 hit about George VI, The King’s Speech, movies about the British monarchy are so widespread most of us have probably seen a fair few without realising it. Let’s also not forget the range of TV series taking the Royals as their subject, as is done for example in The Tudors (2007-2010) and Reign (2013-). It is safe to say then that when Netflix released the biographical drama series The Crown, which focuses on the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, it was not entering completely uncharted territory.

However, a few notes should be added here. With its focus on a reigning monarch, The Crown has a slightly different feel to it than the films and series mentioned above. Most importantly, it seems that as most of us will be familiar with the current Queen of the United Kingdom, we as spectators are bringing our previously formed associations and perceptions in reference to this figure with us when we watch the series. On a certain level we know (of) the Queen, more than we will ever know characters like Henry VIII or Elizabeth I.

On the other hand, it is safe to say that almost none of us really know the Queen on a personal level. In fact, the private lives of the Royals are somewhat of a mystery to us. Elizabeth II is a notoriously private person. As Giselle Bastin remarks about her, she has never given a press interview or reacted to any news stories about herself.[1] Furthermore, Bastin talks about a certain notion of “unknowability” which has clung to the Royal family for decades.[2] She mentions how during the reign of Queen Victoria the relation between the monarchy and the public shifted, as the Queen largely withdrew herself from the public eye.[3] This attitude has largely stuck with the Royals, although in the last few decades the media have managed to bring the Royal family closer to the public.[4] Even so, Bastin mentions that as the Royals embody “the public symbol of constitutional monarchy in Britain,” their private lives will always be of secondary importance to their public lives, hence the former receiving less attention than the latter.[5]

In light of this knowing and not-knowing of Elizabeth II, the makers of The Crown thus faced quite the challenge when they embarked on their mission of making a faithful biographical series about the sovereign’s life. First of all, they had to figure out how to try to paint a fair portrait of a person whose private life largely remained a mystery to them. Secondly, they had to make sure that their adaptation would not be seen as what Robert Stam calls a “bad object.”[6] This concept used by Stam refers to what he sees as an inherent risk of adaptations to overthrow people’s own conceptions and interpretations of a source text or real person and substitute it with that of someone else—in this case that of the filmmaker(s).[7] Bastin links this threat especially to biopics which take the Royal family as their subject, as she recognises that many people may already have formed their opinions about these figures, and might feel threatened or unimpressed when confronted with those of others.[8]

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Having identified the difficulties which are bound up with making a biographical series like The Crown, the next step is to investigate how the makers have tried to resolve these issues. The official trailer for the series gives a clue as to how this is done. Providing spectators with a brief insight into what the series has to offer, the trailer very clearly highlights the conflict which forms the main focus of the series: The Queen’s struggle with her new title and the duties and responsibilities that come with it. This allows for a very particular angle, as the series gives its viewers a personal perspective on a not-too-personal side of the Queen’s life: her duty as sovereign. Although the dramatization of this substantial part of Elizabeth II’s life does not enable the series to solve the problem of knowing and not-knowing her, it does allow it to tiptoe around it. By giving attention to Elizabeth II’s life as a public figure the series validates this as part of her identity, presenting it as decidedly ‘real’. In this way the series can capitalise on the familiarity viewers may have with this side of the Queen, while also diverting the attention from a firm focus on the private. The series then seems to take it from there, ‘colouring in’ the private happenings in the sovereign’s life which occur along the fringes of the public.

Private Vs Public

With The Crown, series creator Peter Morgan is returning to a subject, and indeed a formula, which he has worked on in the past. Morgan was responsible for writing the 2006 biopic the Queen, which focuses on Elizabeth II’s struggle with the media in the days following the death of Princess Diana. As is the case in The Crown, the Queen deals with difficult situations faced by Elizabeth II in connection to her public duty. In particular, it focuses on the relation between private and public. In the Queen, Elizabeth II comes under attack from the public for not responding to Diana’s death, a decision she has made privately. The film sees public and private collide in the most vicious way, with the Queen eventually giving in to ‘the people’ and the press, by broadcasting a formal message in response to Diana’s passing.

These types of collisions also figure in The Crown. Mostly, these have to do with the Queen failing to grant members of her family what they desire. For example, there is an instance in which Prince Philip wants to learn how to fly, but is barred from doing so by the government. A bigger storyline involves Princess Margaret, Elizabeth II’s sister, and her wish to marry group captain Townsend, who happens to be a divorced man. Again, the government, and in this case the Church as well, are against it. Stuck in the middle of her desire to please her family and her duty to do right as Queen, the sovereign is seen struggling deeply with these issues. In the end though, it is always her sense of duty which seems to win.

While both of Morgan’s creations deal with the push and pull of the public and private, the knowable and the unknowable, there is a difference in approach that should not be overlooked. Talking about the Queen, Bastin argues that the film, “knowing that it cannot solve the riddle of how to film the “indefinable” or “ineffable,” takes instead as its subject the desire and hunger of the audience for this unachievable state of being.”[9] The film is thus not just acknowledging, but also putting emphasis on the fact that, indeed, there is a side of the Royal family that we do not or cannot know. The Crown does not linger on this unknowability, but instead seems focused on allowing a way in. Where the Queen paints a picture of the public almost invading the private, The Crown takes the public duties of the sovereign as its starting point, and goes from there. Essentially, the differences between the two seem to come down to the film saying ‘look at all these things we cannot know,’ while the series seems to convey the message of ‘let’s start with what we do know—the objective information about what the Queen is or does— and fill in the blanks as we go.’

The Pressures of Royal Duty

Although The Crown narrates the early years of Elizabeth II’s reign, the first episode opens before that, when her father, King George VI, is still on the throne. With Elizabeth still bearing the title of Princess, these early episodes focus mainly on her personal life. Spectators witness her marriage to Prince Philip and catch glimpses of their family, while Elizabeth’s strong bond with her father is also brought forward. When George VI dies in the second episode, a dramatic shift occurs. As Elizabeth inherits the title of her father, the struggle which will lie at the heart of the series begins to take shape. This is introduced by Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary, who tells the new sovereign: “And while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else: Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, the Crown must win.”[10]

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With Queen Mary’s foreshadowing in place, the series starts shifting its attention to Elizabeth as a public persona, following around the young Queen as she goes along her new duties. Bringing viewers along to her one-on-one talks with prime Ministers, documenting her trips to other countries, and giving backstage access to royal events like the Coronation, The Crown is not necessarily showing its viewers a new or hidden side of the Queen. After all, most of these events happen in the public eye. The difference is that this time, we are seeing these happenings unfold from the Queen’s perspective, thus getting a more intimate view.

Besides allowing viewers access to spaces which are usually off limits and letting them listen in on conversations which are normally not shared with the public, The Crown does not seem to be on a mission to present any hidden truths about the Queen. This is not to say that The Crown does not deal with any personal drama. For example, the series deals with the Royal family’s grief about the death of George VI and later on, that of Queen Mary. It also presents marital problems between the Queen and Prince Philip, and focuses on the strained relationship between the Duke of Windsor—Elizabeth II’s uncle who abdicated the throne, making her father King—and the rest of the family. While the series relies on fictionalised representations of these events—as obviously, we cannot know how the Royal family really reacted to these circumstances—it does not do much more than show it from their perspective. That is to say that The Crown does not seem to have a project of uncovering hidden emotions, or delving deep into the psyches of the Queen and her family. Instead it seems to take a rather detached approach. For example, after the death of George VI, viewers are only briefly confronted with Elizabeth’s reaction to it. The series then quickly shifts its attention to the tasks that the new Queen now faces, again only giving an on-the-surface reaction of the young sovereign.

In a review for the Independent Clarisse Loughrey rallies against The Crown’s depiction of Elizabeth II, stating that she is presented as nothing more than “a puppet, a polished dolly.”[11] She is commenting here directly on the passiveness that the show gives to its sovereign, and says that she regrets that there is “not much soul beyond the pomp and circumstance.”[12] It is interesting to note that these sentiments are somewhat repeated by someone within the series, namely Princess Margaret. Commenting on a speech that she has to deliver, but which was written for the Queen, she bemoans the fact that it is written in her sister’s “register, reflecting her character.”[13] She adds to this, rather sarcastically: “if that’s the right word.”[14] As she hints at the idea that her sister lacks character, the Princess is putting this forward as if it is a personality trait, something which is part of the Queen’s identity. Like Loughrey points out, there is indeed a fairly noticeable lack of personalisation given to Elizabeth II. Princess Margaret’s comments seem to indicate that this is a conscious choice on the part of the showrunners.

In a similar vein, The Crown also places emphasis on the pressure exercised on the sovereign to act a certain way. The show stresses the importance of impartiality in regards to the role of Queen, and the power of keeping quiet. This is made clear through comments of other members of the Royal family, like when the Queen mother tells her daughter: “You know how to keep your mouth shut, that’s more important than anything”.[15] When it comes to the question of defining Elizabeth II’s identity, The Crown thus seems to convey the message that essentially, she must be what she is expected to be. Her duty defines a big part of her identity, and she has to constantly live up to certain expectations.

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This approach to the sovereign has some interesting implications when it comes to the issue of knowing and knowing her. It could be argued that the dutiful side of the Queen is more accessible to the public, as we are more familiar with this. The scenes in which we see her go on world tours or deliver official speeches have a recognisable ring to it. Instead of relying heavily on the representation of the private side of the Queen’s life and telling its audience that this is who she really is, The Crown capitalises on what its viewers might already know, and presents this as ‘the truth’—or at least part of it. It thus takes the attention away from ‘the unknown’, or mysterious side of the Royals and sends out the message that we, the public, know more than we think we do.

As Seen on Television

Conscious of the links between the Royal family and the media, The Crown often presents the former through the eyes of the latter. TV broadcasts in particular are often used in the series to paint a picture of the Queen’s public duty. The broadcasting of Elizabeth II’s Coronation is focused on, while other events and tours the Queen partakes in are also seen through the little screens of early television. Other members of the Royal family are seen watching her through their own TV set, while at other times the sovereign looks back at herself in a similar way.

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The use of television broadcasts in the series is interesting because of the way this connects back to viewers. As most of us are used to observing the Queen in this way, an element of familiarity is tapped into when audiences are presented with these types of footage. Seeing the sovereign as she is usually presented to us, from a considerable distance, and without much personal interpretation involved in her presentation, the audience is allowed a certain amount of freedom in the way they imagine her. This brings us back to Stam’s discussion of what he refers to as a “bad object.”[16] While the media is instructive in what it does and does not tell us about the Royals, its main function is to remain objective, and allow its recipients to have their own interpretations of what they see, hear, and read. Dramatizations like The Crown are limiting this freedom as they already contain the imaginations of someone else, namely the makers. However, it has already been pointed out that by its focus on the public side of the Queen’s identity, the series remains on the surface of subjectively portraying Elizabeth II. Furthermore, the instances in which spectators get to see the Queen through television broadcasts permit them to bring their own associations and interpretations with them. As a result, they might see the series as less of a threat to their own imaginations.

Conclusion

By focussing on the public side of Queen Elizabeth II’s life,The Crown manages to circumvent two problems which arise when making a series about a living sovereign. It avoids going too deeply into the uncharted territory of the Queen’s private life, emphasising the much more accessible side of her identity, which is dominated by her royal duty. It bridges the unknown by diverting the attention away from it, giving us a Queen that we know, and are familiar with. However, it also faced criticism over this choice, by critics who expected to see a sovereign with a bit more soul and character. As the series is renewed for a second season, it remains to be seen whether it takes this critique to heart.

Works cited

[1]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 21.1 (2009): 34-51. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.

[2]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 34

[3]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 38

[4]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 38

[5]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 36

[6]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 35

[7]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” Idem.

[8]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 36

[9]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 47

[10]“Hyde Park Corner.” The Crown. Dir. Stephen Daldry. Netflix.

[11]Loughrey, Clarisse. “The Crown Review: Sumptuous but Empty, Netflix’s Latest Fails its Queen.” Independent. Independent, 7 Nov. 2016. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.

[12]Loughrey, Clarisse. “The Crown Review: Sumptuous but Empty, Netflix’s Latest Fails its Queen.”

[13]“Pride & Joy.” The Crown. Dir. Philip Martin. Netflix.

[14]“Pride & Joy.” The Crown.

[15]“Scientia Potentia Est.” The Crown. Dir. Benjamin Caron. Netflix.

[16]Bastin, Giselle. “Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family.” P. 35

“What is Human?”: The Anti-Humanism of Sense8 By Esther Adema

The Netflix original TV show Sense8 tells the story of eight individuals (called sensates) who become psychically linked through a so-called cluster. The eight characters – Nomi, Will, Riley, Capheus, Kala, Wolfgang, Lito, and Sun – each embody a variety of experiences, genders, sexualities, and races. The characters are located all over the world: in the United States, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Kenya, India, Germany, Mexico, and South Korea –  allowing for a multitude of perspectives that are each treated with equal value. The sensates get to know each other at the same time that the audience does. Over the course of its twelve episodes, the show especially raises questions about what it means to be human and, perhaps unsurprisingly, about our connectedness to others.

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Making a Believer: Discourse Construction in “Making a Murderer” and the Formation of Audience Allegiance By Bonnie van den Bergh

When first released by Netflix in December 2015, the true crime documentary Making a Murderer sparked a tidal wave of interest in the case of Wisconsin resident and murder convict Steven Avery, whose story lies at the heart of the series. The documentary follows the thought provoking tale of Avery’s wrongful conviction and eighteen year incarceration, followed by his exoneration and a subsequent murder charge, which now sees Avery back in jail for life. Focusing on the ambiguous facts surrounding Avery’s supposed second crime and highlighting suspicious elements of the police’s investigation of the case, creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos seem to be questioning the American justice system, and even more so, questioning Avery’s guilt.[1]

Continue reading Making a Believer: Discourse Construction in “Making a Murderer” and the Formation of Audience Allegiance By Bonnie van den Bergh