The best series so far of the royal drama, with the family sliding into dysfunction and new characters providing 80s shoulder-padded spectacle
The Crown (Netflix) has finally reached the blockbuster era, thanks to the pincer-like introduction of Diana (soon to be Princess) and Margaret (Thatcher), at long last, who both elevate the season to its best form yet. It begins in 1979, with the election of Britain’s first female prime minister, and ends in 1990, amid the furious flames that were beginning to consume the marriage of the heir to the throne. It is grand, gorgeous and as soapy as ever, perfect for a wintery period of hunkering down.
I have not always been convinced by The Crown. In the past, it has been prone to sentimentality, and never knowingly using one word to hint at a situation when several thousand will do. The sumptuous look of it all and the delicious performances have frequently been called upon to come to the rescue of the writing, which is sometimes clumsy, over-explaining subtext, not trusting its own subtlety, eventually spelling any emotional conclusions out all in bold capital letters.
This season does not suddenly find a low-key groove – it deploys a hunting metaphor with which it repeatedly slaps the viewer around the face in these first episodes – but because the subject matter is so big and bombastic, it does fit together with more ease. It helps, I think, that the coldness and cruelty that runs through the Firm – the snobbery, the resistance to outsiders, the refusal or inability to act with anything resembling parental affection – is shuffled to the front, while the question of what must be sacrificed in the name of duty is ever-present. Its sympathies are leaning less towards to old guard, and more towards the new.
Emma Corrin, fresh out of drama school, is a wonder as Diana. She first appears dressed as a tree, hiding behind a plant pot, impish and youthful to the point of child-like. Later we see her dancing to Blondie when Charles first telephones, having spied the potential of what she might have to offer him, or what he might take from her. That hunting metaphor, we know, is about to become all the more pertinent. The role is demanding, and asks a lot of Corrin; with the assistance of Josh O’Connor, who has emerged as one of the true stars of the saga, she pulls it off with remarkable skill.
I imagine Gillian Anderson’s Thatcher will be divisive: she is remarkably un-Anderson-like, devoid of that icy cool that she does so well, and her mannerisms and posture are uncannily good, her tone of voice unwavering. Her meetings with Olivia Colman’s Queen are one of the real treats of the season, as the two attempt to understand each other, side-stepping the notion that “two women running the country”, as Phillip puts it, should be immediately compatible, all the while carefully negotiating the trappings of the imbalances between them, whether of class, or power, or experience. To see Thatcher wriggle under Princess Margaret’s thumb – Thatcher begs her pardon; Margaret witheringly tells her that “begging for anything is common” – is even more fun.
The Crown’s problem with tone and taste, whipping one way, then the next, does continue, and at times, it lacks grace. Over Lord Mountbatten’s funeral, an IRA spokesman talks of war and the Warrenpoint ambush, but then we flip to Princess Anne’s nerves over an equestrian event, and a simmering storyline about sibling rivalry and where Prince Philip’s affections are being distributed. Charles, a sympathetic character last time, is eventually chewed up by the beast that is his family; a heart-to-heart, if you can call it that, with his father in the first episode provides an acting masterclass from both O’Connor and Tobias Menzies. The main players here are all human, to a point, but it is not a sparing portrait of many of them, nor is it particularly flattering.
But this is The Crown at its best, jumping from beautiful location to beautiful location like an episode of Countryfile with a jaw-dropping budget. All of the drama of the 1980s bubbles away underneath, and its soapiness rarely jars like it once did. It is a delicious stage for brilliant actors to do their best work. Colman, who seemed, perhaps, a little too nice for the part last time, has chilled off fabulously. This makes it hugely enjoyable television, indulgent and rich, tailor-made for settling into, during these long, dark nights.