‘The Crown’: Netflix drama tackles British royal family

Claire Foy: ‘There’s something unsettling about becoming the queen of England’


In Lancaster House, next door to Buckingham Palace, where the royal family are hidden away from public view, The Crown continues its 135th day of dramatising what goes on behind its closed doors.

With interest in period pieces rising – judging by the success of Downton Abbey, War & Peace and most recently Victoria – Netflix once again proves its capacity to jump on the bandwagon and take over the reins. The budget has already made headlines: it’s on a par with Game of Thrones, at £100 million (worth more than the current €110 million at the time of negotiating) for two 10-episode series.

At its epicentre is Claire Foy, best known for playing Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall, now in the central role of a 25-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, newly married and soon to take the throne.

Foy’s is a difficult role, partly due to our familiarity with the subject, but also as it follows award-winning performances by Helen Mirren in 2006’s biopic The Queen and the 2013 play The Audience (both penned by Peter Morgan – one of a number of alumni hired for The Crown). Six actors were considered for the part, but Foy’s success was a result of her reimagination, as opposed to imitation, of the queen, she says, on a break in filming.

“I wasn’t going to do an impersonation because it wasn’t written that way – it was a family scene between two people,” she says, appearing much more relaxed than her onscreen character. “I thought, sod it, I’ll try and get some essence of her as a person and hope that comes across.

“I think if I had really sat down and thought about playing the queen, and how serious that role is, I’d have never got out of bed in the morning. I had to get on with it.”

Of course, not all of the telly-watching public are enamoured with the royal family. But The Crown centres on the human drama prompted by their extraordinary situation: the tension with a domineering prime minister, a marriage of two people under the world’s spotlight, a young mother thrust into a lifelong public role at the very same time as the death of her father.

“As the filming has gone on, I’ve come to think she’s a right cracker, she’s an amazing lady,” says Foy. “I feel for her because she lost her father, King George VI, when she was young, and with that came a huge responsibility. All of a sudden the weight of the world was on her shoulders.

“She couldn’t grieve for her father, and her life was cut short in a way. A lot of people would think: ‘You became the queen of England!’, but there’s something quite unsettling about that to me, and I feel a lot of sympathy toward her.

With all the entwining storylines expected for a major series, the wider cast play key roles: Matt Smith (the erstwhile Doctor Who) as the wayward Prince Philip, Victoria Hamilton (Doctor Foster, Lark Rise to Candleford) as the Queen Mother and John Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun) as Winston Churchill – the only American name in the cast.

The coronation

Game of Thrones

“I don’t know how the queen did it,” says Foy, remembering the scene with some trepidation. “We shot it for five days, all in all, and the dress that Michele got weighs a ton. There’s four different underskirts to it, so wearing all that and then having the crown put on your head which weighs another ton . . . it’s like getting married, but 10 times worse.

“It wasn’t physically hard, but it was a lesson in being patient because there was so much preparation. You’re there needing the loo with this huge crown on your head.”

The attention to detail isn’t only in the outfits; the day we visit, the crew are shooting a banquet scene, which involves dozens of meticulously set places in a long, lavish diningroom. As we poke our heads in, the sweet scent of the fresh flowers is overpowering, although little of this will be appreciated on the two minutes of on-screen time it’s likely to receive.

Along with director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours), it was the job of Andrew Eaton – a Derry-born producer also responsible for Rush and 24 Hour Party People – to create the most lavish show seen on TV, although that wasn’t their explicit brief.

“By the very nature of telling a story about the richest, most famous family in the world, you have to give it scale,” he says. “A couple of lines of Peter’s writing, like ‘a plane comes through the clouds, and appears above the African landscape’ can have a huge implication. For us, that means you need a period plane, you need a helicopter to fly beside the plane, and you need to be in Africa. So that one line can take up a lot of budget and time.”

The first series is shot over 250 days, using a 234-strong cast and crew across different locations. They were unable to film in royal residences (“they kept giving us a polite no,” says Eaton), so there are four stand-ins for Buckingham Palace alone, including Lancaster House, which is usually used by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to welcome and entertain dignitaries.

Filming is intense; theirs are 10-hour days, six days a week, with the industry’s finest to ensure it all runs as planned.

“My background is film and most of the crew are from film,” he says. “I don’t mean that in a snobby way, it’s just that it sometimes is better. I like to think that that was part of our mission; I look at each episode like 10 separate films.”

As to the storyline, it’s a fictional account of the known narrative, Eaton says.

“We’re not going to be making up new scandal – we’re not doing anything that’s not in the public domain,” he says. “Peter writes scenes and conversations that happen privately, so obviously they’re invented, but they’re invented around general historical fact. It works because if you put the stories close together, it becomes more interesting.”

How private do they go with the queen and Prince Philip’s private lives?

“We did build both their bedrooms, but we don’t want it to be salacious and smutty,” he says. “You get to see Prince Philip’s bum a couple of times, but that’s about it.”

While politely handled in The Queen, an even trickier subject to cover would be that of Princess Diana’s life and death. For the moment, they’re spared the predicament.

“That comes much later. The first season only goes up to when Winston resigns, and the second season will take us to 1969. It would be in the third or fourth,” he says.

As it stands, six seasons are planned, although by the time it airs their continuing real-life drama may merit another couple.

“Theirs is a story as valid as any other – I don’t see why you can’t keep it going.

“During 24 Hour Party People, a film reflecting the fact the UK has the best music culture in the world, I remember standing with Peter Hook and his daughter. She just didn’t understand why we were making a film about her dad. The problem with our culture is that we don’t value the story we have in front of us.”

The Crown airs on Netflix from November 4th.

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