Donald Clarke: Why The Crown won’t make Olivia Colman’s brown eyes blue

Neither Claire Foy nor Colman look much like the queen, so does ocular continuity matter?

Will the "blue-eyed community" call for a boycott of The Crown? We learnt last week that the people behind that absurdly lavish soap opera have decided to leave the incoming Queen Elizabeth with brown eyes. Claire Foy, who played the British monarch during the fog and Churchill years, had eyes so blue they could have been plucked from the young Paul Newman's head. The imminent Olivia Colman, due to rule in the sozzled Princess Margaret era, has got by so far with brown peepers.

The production team made two efforts to maintain ocular continuity. First they tried contacts. Then they had a crack at digitally altering the eyes in post-production. But both created a kind of alternative Olivia that lacked humanity.

It was as if "she was acting behind a mask", Ben Carono, a director on the show, explained. "It was as if we had taken all of her acting ability and put it in a safe and locked it away."

It would be amusing if some Blue-Eyed League did accuse Colman of cultural insensitivity. There are thousands of working actors who have irises of the same hue as the Queen. The attack could come from right or left. Where are those maniacs who, when a James Bond of colour is mooted, ironically wonder if it would now be okay to have a white actor play Martin Luther King? Huh? Huh? (They've got you there. Right?) Scarlett Johansson was so unmoved by objections to her playing an Asian character that she told the world she would essay "any race" or "any tree".


‘Blacking up’ for David Lean

We jest. The question of cross-racial casting is an important one and we don't want to go back to the days of Alec Guinness "blacking up" for every second David Lean film. But the story of Olivia Colman's eyes is interesting. Does it matter if characters look like the people they're playing? If not, then why bother even attempting such an intimate alteration? Most people couldn't name the Queen's eye colour. It's hard to tell on something so small as a stamp.

Neither Claire Foy nor Olivia Colman looks much like Her Maj (and neither looks a great deal like the other). Vanessa Kirby looks no more like the "fun-loving" Margaret than she looks like Scarlett Johansson, but her breakout turn has won her roles in blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. The lack of facial resemblance mattered not a whit.

The Crown has, for the most part, fashioned quasi-fictional characters who retain just enough of the original’s physical traits to avoid sending bum notes about Horse Guards Parade. Work too hard at manufacturing facsimiles and you risk producing an animated Madame Tussauds. Audiences do, however, expect filmmakers to make reasonable efforts to stay in the same physical area. Don’t hire somebody enormously fat to play somebody enormously thin. Colour the characters’ hair the same shade as their inspirations.

Anthony Hopkins is a great man for this. He didn't much sound like Richard Nixon in Nixon. His Pablo Picasso in Surviving Picasso was approximate

If your fellow is playing Queen Elizabeth's first prime minister, then have him flick through the pamphlet titled Churchill Acting for Beginners. You know how this goes: wear a spotted bow tie, stuff a pillow down your jumper, talk as if trying to simultaneously chew steak and kidney pudding (something you may actually be asked to do). This is, to be fair, a bit of a special case. John Lithgow in The Crown was doing more "Churchill acting" than acting at being Churchill. The same is true of Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. That character is now as much a part of the dramatic tradition as Pantalone was of the commedia dell'arte.

Singular character

The best historical or biographical dramas allow writers, directors and actors free range to develop a singular character – inspired by, but not copied from the original – who finds his or her own space within the semi-factual construct. Anthony Hopkins is a great man for this. He didn't much sound like Richard Nixon in Nixon. His Pablo Picasso in Surviving Picasso was approximate. Towards the end of November, in Fernando Meirelles's The Two Popes, you can see him as an unexpectedly comic version of Pope Benedict XVI. The closing sections, weaving in news footage, confirm that he looks far less like that holy father than co-star Jonathan Pryce looks like Pope Francis. But both are having fun with individual creations – the austere but playful German; the flexible but tormented Argentinean – that escape the restrictive bounds of impersonation.

All of which is a way of saying that it doesn’t matter much if the upcoming fictional queen has different-coloured eyes to the one in Buckingham Palace. Best not to dress her in hot pants. Best not to give her Bride of Frankenstein’s beehive. But some tonal tweaking in the optical arena will do no great harm.