Farewell Downton Abbey. Welcome, The Crown.
The British upstairs-downstairs soap opera has disappeared into the mists of time. Now comes Netflix's glittery The Crown to fill up the bottomless reservoir of fascination with the British royal Windsors.
Queen Elizabeth II — the oldest (90) and longest-serving monarch (64 years and counting) in British history, the most photographed and painted woman in the world, and the unwilling star of stage and screen — is now set to become a new star in Netflix's The Crown, due Friday.
Unlike Downton,The Crown is a (mostly) true story about real people, some of them still very much alive, and possibly fretting: What could the indefatigable writer/producer Peter Morgan — already famous for seemingly listening at palace doors for Oscar-winning The Queen and Tony-winning The Audience — be up to in his latest compelling dramatization of the Windsor story?
"You can never tell how it goes down," at the palace, Morgan says. "I'm sure there are a lot of things the royal family prefer me not to write about. But when you give people the option to tell their version of their own life, you often end up with a bland, Photoshopped version of reality."
Not so in The Crown. Netflix has reportedly spent more than $100 million on the series, and it shows. No, that's not Westminster Abbey, it's Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, but it looks just as glorious. The clothes, the jewels, the palaces, horses and fine art; even the poisonous London fog and the dreary, shabby look of the city after WWII are deftly re-created.
As with The Queen, Morgan mostly gets the history right. Sally Bedell Smith, acclaimed biographer of the queen, says nitpickers should get over it.
"Peter wants to get all the contextual details just right, visual as well as factual, and then he applies his creative imagination," says Smith. "As sheer drama ... it’s a cut above Downton Abbey but it's going to scratch the itch that people have after that ended."
Part royal romance, part primer on the British constitution, The Crown is as much about the delicate minuet between monarch and prime minister as it is about the cheers and tears of royal life.
"I always say (the queen) is not my main area of interest, because I've never written about her without it being in conjunction with a prime minister — I'm always trying to write about the British soul and constitution," Morgan says.
The 10-episode series follows 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) from her 1947 marriage to dashing Prince Philip (Matt Smith) to the sudden death of her beloved father George VI (Jared Harris) and her accession in 1952, to her coronation in 1953 and the constitutional and emotional crisis in 1955, as she stops younger sister Princess Margaret's (Vanessa Kirby) marriage to a divorced man in 1955.
For the mostly British cast, The Crown has been a learning experience about the royals. Foy, Smith and Harris say they gained new respect and affection for them.
The earnest and dutiful queen buckles down to the new job thrust upon her earlier than expected, painfully aware of the inadequacies of her education and determined, like her father, to do her best at playing the role of symbol of a 1,000-year-old monarchy.
"It's a charged time for her, coming to the throne and becoming the head of state is a unique, odd kind experience … especially as she's still grieving for her father," says Foy. Playing Elizabeth was a challenge because she was both world-famous and almost completely unknown, Foy says.
"Nobody knows her personally — that is the nature of her job and duty, to sort of keep herself under wraps. That is the amazing challenge as an actor. ... She is still an enigma to me."
Harris (Mad Men) who plays George VI at the end of his life, says the king played a major role in rescuing the reputation of the monarchy after the abdication of lovesick brother Edward VIII, and passed on important values to his daughter.
"I admire him tremendously for that," says Harris. "The queen learned: What is the job? One of the things she would have gotten from him is that he took his responsibilities very seriously."
Smith (Doctor Who) was shocked to learn of Philip's harrowing early life as an exiled Greek royal, and admires his dogged support of his wife.
"They expected another 20 to 25 years of living in Malta, he rising up in the Navy," Smith says. "And with the death of (George VI), everything changed, for her and for him. The conflict is about his great love (for her) and wanting to be the head of the house, and all of that being stripped away from him."
The Crown's queen catches on quickly to her new role, recognizing the machinations of both palace courtiers and government ministers such as crafty Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), who is fading physically but fighting to hold on to power.
More than six decades later, Queen Elizabeth II is still head of state, outlasting 12 prime ministers, and is more popular than ever.
Says Morgan: "I can’t think of a situation where someone who has been head of state for more than 60 years has an approval rating higher than when she came to the throne."