With a budget rumoured to be in the region of £100 million, The Crown is the most expensive TV series ever made. It tells the story of Elizabeth II, our longest-reigning monarch, and the key events – both personal and political – of her lifetime.
Her story feels intimately familiar, as she has lived her whole life under the intense glare of public scrutiny, but viewers will be shocked by many of the revelations in the award-winning Netflix epic and left wondering how much of this drama is true.
Now the publication of royal historian Robert Lacey’s official companion book provides the answers. Season One begins with Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip in 1947 and goes on to depict the death of George VI, the Queen’s coronation in 1953, Princess Margaret’s relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend and Churchill’s retirement.
Wolf Hall’s Claire Foy as the young Elizabeth, gradually coming to terms with the burden of monarchy
It’s written by Peter Morgan (The Queen) and directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot), with Wolf Hall’s Claire Foy as the young Elizabeth, gradually coming to terms with the burden of monarchy and learning how to deal with stubborn politicians, scheming courtiers and difficult family members.
Former Doctor Who Matt Smith plays Prince Philip, an alpha male struggling to accept his role as consort. In the foreword to Lacey’s book, Morgan writes: ‘What is truth, and what is fiction? It’s clear that many viewers, while watching The Crown, did so while scrolling through Wikipedia, searching for answers.’
Lacey tells us: ‘You are watching a historical drama, dear reader, not a history documentary. The Crown is a work of creative fiction that has been inspired by real events…What you see on the screen is both truth and invention.’
Of course, some scenes have been invented for dramatic purposes but the series is based on ‘meticulous historical research’ and is, broadly speaking, remarkably accurate, from the press photographers refraining from taking pictures of the grieving Queen after she learned of the death of her father, to the deadly London Smog of 1952 and the plan hatched by Elizabeth and Philip to live in Clarence House rather than Buckingham Palace.
Indeed, some scenes that viewers might assume are artistic licence are actually based on fact. The Queen did have a close friendship with her racing manager ‘Porchey’, Lord Porchester. It was an old friendship based on their shared love of horses.
Talking to her sister, Margaret refers to ‘Porchey’ as ‘The one you let get away. He’s always carried a torch for you.’
Churchill really did dictate to his secretaries while he was in the bath. ‘The dictating was always done with relative propriety, through a slightly open bathroom door,’ says Lacey. ‘But occasionally the PM would stalk out into the corridor with a towel draped round his expansive midriff, still loudly declaiming.’
George VI underwent surgery to remove a lung in a makeshift operating theatre in Buckingham Palace, rather than in a hospital. And the Duke of Edinburgh did learn to fly: ‘One consequence of Elizabeth coming to the throne was that her husband was showered with military ranks, among them Marshal of the Royal Air Force, and Philip decided that he could not morally accept without earning his wings as a pilot,’ says Lacey.
Here, to whet your appetite, our selection of series stills, all included in Lacey’s book, are paired with real photographs showing the extraordinary way in which the film-makers have recreated history…
DID ELIZABETH BECOME QUEEN IN AN AFRICAN TREEHOUSE? Episode 2 of The Crown depicts the thrilling final hours that Elizabeth enjoyed in Africa as a princess, surrounded by wild elephants as she made her way with her husband to the Treetops Hotel, built 35ft up in the spreading boughs of a tree in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park. This sequence was based on the memories of Colonel Jim Corbett, the British hunter who accompanied the couple on the trip. In the small hours of February 6, 1952, when her father died, Elizabeth became Queen while sitting in the branches of a giant fig tree
DID PRINCESS MARGARET REALLY START A SCANDAL? As the Royal entourage moved out of Westminster Abbey after Elizabeth’s coronation, Princess Margaret (right, and left, played by Vanessa Kirby) reached out playfully to brush a piece of fluff from the uniform of the handsome RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend. Princess Margaret’s subsequent romance with the divorced man provoked the same conflicts of religion, politics and changing social attitudes that shook the monarchy during the abdication crisis of 1936
WAS PRINCES CHARLES BORED AT THE CORONATION? The bells rang out and shouts of ‘God Save The Queen’ echoed inside the Abbey. Meanwhile Prince Charles, aged four, born a year after his parents’ wedding, patiently watched his mother’s crowning, flanked by his grandmother and aunt (Victoria Hamilton and Vanessa Kirby, above). Later, photographer Cecil Beaton noted that ‘Prince Charles and Princess Anne were buzzing about in the wildest excitement, and would not keep still for a moment’. For the series, Ely Cathedral doubled as Westminster Abbey, where filming was not allowed
DID THE DUKE BECOME ONE OF THE BOYS? After a few months as first lieutenant on HMS Chequers, in September 1950 the Duke of Edinburgh was given command of HMS Magpie, a frigate in Britain’s Mediterranean fleet. He impressed his crew in 1951 when he stripped to the waist to row stroke in one of the frigate’s whalers (circled above right, and right, as recreated for the show) leading his crew to victory in the fleet’s annual regatta. Philip made clear to his men that royal titles were never to be used on board. ‘Dukey’, as he was known behind his back, also impressed his crew with his seamanship skills, negotiating difficult shallows or turning the ship with precision
WERE PHILIP’S POLITICS A PROBLEM? The Duke of Edinburgh and his new wife (below, and right in The Crown played by Claire Foy and Matt Smith) walk down the aisle at Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947. ‘I can see that you are sublimely happy with Philip,’ wrote King George VI to his daughter after the ceremony, ‘but “don’t forget us” is the wish of your ever loving and devoted papa.’ There had initially been some resistance to Philip from her family as her mother didn’t like his politics. She thought they veered ‘too far to port’ (that is, to the Left).
Queen Elizabeth’s story feels intimately familiar, as she has lived her whole life under the intense glare of public scrutiny
SEASON TWO – FLIRTY PHIL IS HAVING ALL THE FUN…
In Season Two of The Crown, ‘Elizabeth II and her country face challenges on many fronts, particularly in the Middle East,’ writes author Robert Lacey.
‘We have watched the tensions developing… and by the end of 1956, after the folly and tragedy of Suez, Britain’s place in the world will never be the same again.’
Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Elizabeth and Philip
Vanessa Kirby and Matthew Goode as Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon
The Queen and Prince Philip (Foy and Smith) return from a world tour
We also know that joining the cast are Dexter star Michael C Hall and Rellik’s Jodi Balfour as President John F Kennedy and wife Jackie.
Balfour recently told Event: ‘The Queen and Jackie don’t get off to a good start because of Philip. The prince is just a flirt [with Jackie] and I don’t think there’s any intention behind it, but he’s going through a phase of liking a lot of women…’
And there are suggestions that Philip might be doing a little more than just flirting in the Season Two trailer.
The Queen says: ‘The rumours still haven’t gone away. I’ve learnt more about humiliation in the last few weeks than I hoped I would in a lifetime.’
We see her at the theatre, glaring at a dancer. Could this be Pat Kirkwood, whose friendship with Philip sparked gossip?
Season One of ‘The Crown’ is out on Oct 16 on DVD. Season Two begins on December 8 on Netflix.
‘The Crown: The Inside History’ by Robert Lacey is published on Thurs by Blink Publishing, priced £20. Offer price £16 (20% discount including free p&p) until Oct 15. Order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 08445710640