The Brits didn’t always adore their kings and queens. Mary Queen of Scots lost her head on February 8, 1587, and King Charles I lost his on January 30, 1649. King Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis, cavorted with Nazis and engaged in treasonous behavior, though they were only exiled after Edward abdicated. These days, the monarchy is one of the few things that the Brits have to cluck about. Brits can’t seem to get enough of the royals, though they’ve heard the same stories over and over again.
The December 28, 2020 issue of People magazine has a cover story about the “real” Princess Kate, wife of Prince William, and mother of their three children. It depicts Kate, her husband and kids as just another close-knit family that shops at the Sainsbury supermarket near their country home in Norfolk. People magazine casts royalty as exalted and at the same time as down home.
The royals aren’t just another family, as The Crown, the popular Netflix series amply demonstrates. They are wealthier and more powerful than the garden variety British family. If The Crown is to be believed, the royals are also much more venial and hideous than ordinary Brits. They don’t behead anyone these days, but they punish those who don’t toe the line. Personal lives and personal happiness don’t matter. The bloodline does. The show must go on.
When I watched the first two seasons of The Crown, I was reminded of my life in England in the 1960s when I never stood as “God Save the Queen” played in movie theaters. Watching seasons three and four I asked myself, “What would the British historian E. P. Thompson think of the series? I believe that he might say there’s too much tabloid history, and too much about the sex lives of Philip, Charles, Lady Di, Camilla, Princess Margaret and Princess Anne, though there’s nothing X-rate about Fuckingham Palace. Thompson would probably say that there’s not enough about class conflict and especially not enough about the British working class, how it was made and how it helped to make the nation.
The author of books about Blake and William Morris and a classic about British workers, Thompson helped to popularize “history from the bottom up.” Jesse Lemisch apparently coined that phrase in the early 1960s in an SDS pamphlet. The Crown is the antithesis of history from the bottom up. Indeed, it’s history from the top down and with very little “down,” though there are plenty of servants who scrape and bow, but don’t have names or lives of their own.
Thompson might say that to understand the British monarchy one also has to understand its “subjects.” After all, there can’t be kings and queens without commoners.
The series occasionally places working class Brits front and center. It treats Welsh miners sympathetically, but working and middle class folk mostly appear as extras. They’re on screen to show how popular the royal family is with “the public,” as Queen Elizabeth II calls the people of England.
Season three depicts Princess Margaret and LBJ together and suggests that they’re both cut from the same crude cloth. Margaret calls the royal family an “endangered species,” and endangers herself.
Season four is probably the best so far. It pits Queen Elizabeth II, who can be tough as well as compassionate, against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, who is as nasty and as reactionary as any royal. The relationship between the two women culminates near the end of season four when Thatcher asks the Queen to dissolve parliament. That she will not do. “I’m protecting democracy,” Elizabeth says. She’s also protecting her family, her image, and the status quo.
Season four concludes with the Conservative Party in mutiny against Thatcher, and the end of her eleven-years at Ten Downing Street, during which time she aimed to beat the working class into submission and remake Britain as an imperial power by going to war in the Falklands. Prime Minister Harold Wilson has some of the best lines in the series. “Everything is political,” he says. “When people are angry they throw stones at their leaders.” In The Crown, the people are rarely angry with their leaders. They don’t throw stones at Fuckingham Palace, Parliament, or 10 Downing Street. The media does that metaphorically.
The series suggests that the Brits love fairy tales, even when they’re “fractured,” to borrow a word from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. It also suggests that the Brits will suffer fops like Prince Charles if they can relish feisty, glamorous royals like Princess Di, who suffers from bulimia. Time after time, we see her kneeling in front of a “throne”—a toilet, that is—and puking her guts out. One wonders if the producers, writers and directors of The Crownintended viewers to link the throne on which Elizabeth sits with the throne in Di’s bathroom. I hope so.
Season four ends with D’s face on the screen. We know what’s coming next: the lovers, the car crash and the deification of a young woman who married a prince and didn’t live happily ever after.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.