Television: Same of Thrones as Netflix shows its royal flush

Review: As RTÉ 2 broadcasts a necessary documentary on rape culture, Netflix looks at the British monarchy

Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown, Netflix’s lavish new regal drama

Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown, Netflix’s lavish new regal drama


“That is sexual assault,” a journalist told Donald Trump, calmly and carefully, during the second US Presidential debate. “Do you understand that?” As Trump defended his now infamous words as “locker-room talk”, it was not at all clear that he did. It may yet count as the nadir of rape culture: a man campaigning for the most powerful job in the world who needed to have the concept of consent explained to him.

Louise O’Neill’s involving documentary for the Reality Bites series, Asking For It? (Tuesday, RTÉ 2), didn’t include that exchange, but it didn’t need to. There is such distressingly ample evidence of rape culture, so much of it closer to home, that her efforts lay in deciding how to parse and present it. O’Neill, the author of the novel Asking For It, had already written a story about rape in small town Ireland, alive to the sexual double standards of slut-shaming and legend-worshipping, and here she turns to the subject behind it. “I want to talk about us,” she says pointedly. “I think we live in a society that doesn’t want to talk about sexual violence.”

Her programme offers a brisk anatomisation of a culture that, for all its progressive advances, would prefer not to talk about sex at all – certainly not meaningfully – while interviews with feminists, psychologists and survivors provide necessarily clear explanations of contentious terms. In a rape culture, sexual aggression is normalised (“locker-room talk”), victims are distrusted or blamed (“Did she drink too much? Was she wearing a short skirt?”), and, with much attention paid to inflammatory rape cases in America and Ireland with lenient sentences, justice becomes a vexed issue.

Identifying personally with her subject, O’Neill features prominently, presenting with seriousness, a sense of style and humour, and sensitivity. It’s a personable approach that underscores her argument: that sex and consent should be a matter of fluent communication. Fearful to appear prudish or glib, the show knows that we need to make consent sexy. Consent, says psychologist Dr Siobhán O’Higgins from NUIG, is “affirmative, it’s ongoing . . . Do you mind if I take your jocks off?” In short, it’s a conversation. For generations reared without decent or demystifying sex education and stifled by shame, now primed by porn and a hyper-sexualised culture, that uninhibited communication is essential: “A vital form of protection,” as O’Neill describes it.

For things to improve, everybody needs to be involved in this conversation, preferably as early as possible (80 per cent of rapes are committed by people known to their victims). Apart from two journalists asked to briefly explain “the male point of view”, few men are featured. “It’s you who are doing it to us,” O’Neill says. “So you have to be part of the solution.”

Rape is an emotive subject for both genders, and more than once an empathic O’Neill is shown upset on camera, interrupting one interviewee and later herself. Her contributors are both impassioned and composed, from Mary Rose Gearty’s even-handed and fascinating discussion of the law, to the rallying words of Niamh Ní Dhomnaill, who spoke publicly about her attack last year, and downplays the perception of victims who speak out as “brave and articulate”: discussion, like consent, requires clarity. “We cannot continue to see abuse as being between two people,” Ní Dhomhnaill says. “We’re all part of it.” The point is persuasively made: We need to be able to talk about it.

Monarchy is murder

A young woman protests as a tall man descends on her, insistent on just one kiss. “No,” she says laughing. “It’s never just one.” Though the moment is affectionate, he desists. After all, she outranks him. The couple are Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and the Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith), the time is 1953, and for royals in post-war Britain, no means no. The theme of The Crown, Netflix’s lavish new regal drama, is the relationship between power and choice in a constitutional monarchy. Elizabeth doesn’t seem to have much of either.

Nobody speaks of the crown here without using the words “heavy burden”, but as writer Peter Morgan follows QEII’s reign through the latter half of the 20th century (with plans to cover a decade each season), you could be forgiven for querying its precise weight. This reign, now the longest in history, is a relatively stable time for the monarchy: a Same of Thrones, in which the royal family has morphed from symbol to celebrity.

Morgan suggests something more privately dramatic – that the monarchy is murder. Albert Windsor “was murdered by his elder brother when he abdicated”, says King George VI gravely, in a charming performance by Jared Harris, and the job is now killing George. The series begins with the famously stammering, accidental king coughing up blood and such is the level of deference and denial that even when his lung is surgically removed no one dares tell him he has cancer. Winston Churchill (a less convincing John Lithgow) is the first to know.

Morgan, the superb writer of The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon and The Audience (on which this venture is based), has a particular genius for imagining the private lives of public figures. He is respectful but not reverent, and Stephen Daldry, director of the first two episodes, follows suit. King George, for instance, has a fondness for dirty limericks, and while the sublime casting of Matt Smith has the perplexing effect of making Prince Philip a sex symbol, you wait in dreadful excitement for him to say something racially offensive. To the show’s credit, if not his own, Philip obliges by the second episode. Dismayed, Elizabeth intervenes. We are not amused.

Morgan, conversely, is known for his discretion, which makes him a surprising show runner for what is one of Netflix’s most expensive series ever, with a cost of £100 million (€112m). That can generate a peculiar tension, where the music will swell with importance under uncomplicated motions on screen as though it is growing impatient. The money is certainly on screen, in vast chambers and attentive costumes and crowd scenes. But Morgan’s drama rests in intimate, affecting moments: George, absurdly vulnerable in a paper crown, tearing up among Christmas carollers, or a sly scene when protocol abruptly takes hold and Philip must lag some paces behind his wife. “The Crown takes precedence,” insists a flunkey. In Claire Foy’s beautifully restrained performance, she registers this sad and sudden transformation, from a person to a thing.

Foy anchors a series that, on the basis of the first three episodes, is stately and subtle, but not compulsive. You wait patiently for the Windsors to catch up with a familiar history, and unless it plumbs deeper it will be interesting to see if Netflix’s faith in Morgan’s slow burn holds. In a becoming irony for his delicate approach, the most lingering early moment is that amorous scene between Elizabeth and Philip, in distant Nairobi, still unaware that the king has died and their lives are forever altered, enjoying a luxury that neither the world, nor television, will allow them ever again – the pleasure of being unwatched.  

Another irony is that The Crown is, in essence, a BBC drama the BBC could not afford to make. On the 80th anniversary of its first broadcast, presenter Dallas Campbell seemed more excited than strictly necessary about recreating the channel’s first, frugal broadcast, using the experimental technology of the time on Television’s Opening Night: How the Box Was Born (Wednesday, BBC Four).

Most of this involved constructing a lumbering facsimile of John Logie Baird’s instantly obsolete mechanical camera, but some attention was paid to the programming budget: £150 (€168). Thus, the world’s first domestic television station began with a display of singers, dancers and contortionists. “It’s basically X-Factor,” Campbell marvelled. The documentary was basically padding, though, honouring the medium’s pioneers, while remaining nervously aware that once broadcast television existed, you have to fill the ruddy thing before more lucrative technologies come to take away your audience and the royal family. But no on-demand service will ever offer something as unconventional. For that, you have to love terrestrial television. “What do you think of television now?” Campbell brightly asked one of its earliest performers, now in her 90s. “Oh,” she said, “it’s rubbish.”

Ones to Watch: Wartime drama and rural isolation

Barry Devlin’s new drama series My Mother and Other Strangers (Tues, RTÉ One, 10.15pm) is centred on the arrival of a US Army air force base in WWII-era Belfast, bringing an influx of servicemen, stirring local desires and resentments.

The Only Gay in the Village (Wed, RTÉ 2, 9.30pm) features lesbian, gay and bisexual people in small town Ireland, including a farmer who never came out to his father, a teenage girl nervous about prejudices at her brother’s wedding, and a gay Traveller’s story.

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