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Netflix’s series The Crown is gripping stuff, and it is a reminder of what genuinely high drama the British royal family have lived through, and why they continue to be so intriguing not only for the English, but for the world…

When people ask how I get so much done I like to quip, “I don’t watch TV.”

It’s not really the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I watch some of the good TV on Netflix, and despite Peggy Noonan’s party-pooper comments, the series The Crown is excellent stuff. Mrs. Noonan grumbles that too many scenes in this drama series chronicling the life of Queen Elizabeth II are historically inaccurate.* I’m sure she is right about this, but isn’t this what novelists and dramatists have been doing since Homer?

They take the high drama of ordinary life and take it up a notch. Shakespeare did it with his history plays. Netflix is doing it today. It’s called “dramatic license,” and if some people are unable to distinguish drama from history, it is the fault of educators, not dramatists.

But the drama of Elizabeth II’s life doesn’t need much pumping up. Her uncle really was a scoundrel. Her father really was a kindly nincompoop. Her sister really was a spoiled socialite. The Queen really was thrust into a role she didn’t want and was caught up in the sweep not only of British, but world history.

Her longevity has allowed her personal story to be played out on the world stage as a fascinating key player. On the one hand this poorly prepared and under-educated woman sits down with presidents, prime ministers, popes, and potentates, but she always seems to do so as a “little woman.” Constrained by constitutional reins, she reigns and remains a dignified and distanced observer while always seeming to play a crucial role.

While The Crown may not be a perfectly accurate documentary on the reign of Elizabeth II, it is certainly a powerful and poignant drama. The very best episode of the two series so far is unquestionably the sixth of the second series. Titled Vergangenheit (“The Past”), the program opens with the discovery of documents buried by a canny Nazi underling that implicate the Duke of Windsor (the queen’s uncle and former King Edward VIII) as a Nazi collaborator. As the story unfolds, the young Queen, who is personally fond of her uncle, learns about his treachery.

At the same time, Billy Graham is in England conducting one of his famous crusades, and the Queen invites him to preach at Windsor castle and share an informal lunch. While the rest of the royal family and establishment sneer at Graham—the door-to-door brush-salesman-turned-gospel-preacher—the queen is attracted to him. A quiet romantic appeal simmers beneath her sincere attention to his message. We see her agreeing with his forthright gospel, and more than once see her kneeling to say her prayers. The writers and producers convey her simple and sincere faith with touching honesty and integrity.

Meanwhile the Duke of Windsor is revealed for the snobbish, spoiled, conniving, and pusillanimous creep he must have been. He returns to England under the pretense of writing a book. (He was famously boorish, not bookish—remarking  to a friend when given Wuthering Heights—“Who are these Bronts? They seem terribly dull.”) In fact, the Duke was not about a book but a hook. He was trying to snare a job as a diplomat and a return to England, convinced that the people would welcome him with open arms.

The Queen learns of his treachery during the war when the documents that had been discovered and suppressed are finally about to be made public. When she learns more of the inside story, she struggles with the demands of her faith to forgive her uncle. Billy Graham provides the counsel she seeks, and the only weak part of the script is that the North Carolina preacher should have reminded her that she can only forgive if the other person repents and asks for forgiveness—something which the arrogant and spineless Duke of Windsor would never have been able to do.

This is gripping stuff, and it is a reminder of what genuinely high drama the British royal family have lived through, and why they continue to be so intriguing not only for the English, but for the world. The fact that the producers took time to acknowledge in a positive way the simple faith of the sovereign provides a depth and insight to the drama that takes the series into the realm of genuine drama rather than shallow escapism.

The contrast between the sincerity of the door-to-door brush salesman from North Carolina, with the effete and decadent snobbery of the Duke of Windsor, is priceless. There, in Buckingham Palace we see a man of simple integrity and faith meeting with the Queen one moment, and her hoity-toity treacherous uncle conversing with her the next.

Her plain-speaking heart-to-heart with Graham is wonderful to watch, but more wonderful is her dignified and devastating destruction of the Duke.

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 Notes:

*Peggy Noonan, “The Lies of ‘The Crown’ and ‘The Post’,” Wall Street Journal. 

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1 reply to this post
  1. The real Elizabeth’s grace and charm is almost enough to call for a repeal of the Declaration.
    Certainly she deserves credit for having survived everything from the Blitz to being hugged by Mrs. Obama.
    And she is, ultimately, a Good Sport (but pretending to parachute into the Olympics with James Bond may have been a bit over the top, eh?)

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