This weekend sees the hugely anticipated return of hit Netflix show The Crown, and even not-so-sharp-eyed viewers will spot that this season there’s a new Queen on the throne. In fact, as the show heads into the 60s and 70s and the monarch enters the second decade of her reign, the entire cast has been replaced (although you may spot a familiar face or two popping up from time to time). Original cast members including Claire Foy, Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby have stepped aside to make way for their slightly more ‘mature’ acting counterparts, Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham Carter, rather rely on make-up and prosthetics to make them appear older. While this change may sound extreme, it works and it works well.
The third season opens with the 38-year-old Queen (Olivia Colman) reflecting on the passing years. “Age is rarely kind to anyone,” she comments as she’s presented with the portrait of her latest official stamp that reflects her status as ‘settled sovereign’, and she speaks from experience. Her country is in a period of financial decline, the British people are heading to the polls to elect Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) as their new Prime Minister, and public opinion of the monarchy is understandably changing during these hard times. Meanwhile life inside the palace walls is equally difficult what with the Queen Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) experiencing somewhat of a midlife crisis, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) catching the eye of a young Camilla Shand (the future Camilla Parker-Bowles, played by Emerald Fennell) to the frustration of his family, and Princess Margaret’s (Helena Bonham Carter) tempestuous marriage with Antony Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels) on the rocks. Thankfully Her Majesty’s own marriage appears to be on more stable ground; their troubles that were the focus of season 2 now a thing of the past. At least for now.
The third season spans from Wilson’s election in 1964 through to the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977 and covers a number of historic events, from the deaths of Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) and the Duke of Windsor (played this season by the brilliant Derek Jacobi); the 1966 Aberfan tragedy which devastated a small mining village in Wales, killing 116 children; and the 1969 Moon Landing. Writer Peter Morgan continues to impress with a clever script packed full of drama and intrigue, but one which is evenly balanced out by tender moments and brilliant flashes of humour. The meeting between Princess Margaret and President Johnson in episode three is particularly memorable, and one would give their right arm to see bloopers of that episode. Although of course, the series shows a sympathetic look at the Royals, Morgan isn’t afraid to shy away from controversy, and this season includes Lord Mountbatten’s (played by the terrific Charles Dance) alleged involvement in the coup against the Labour government.
One niggle is that the script is tailored to introduce particular characters or provide background to the audience, which means that there are times when the dialogue seems a bit clunky, but personally, as someone who wasn’t alive during that era, the additional information was welcome. While a certain amount of artistic licence is of course taken at times – viewers are aware that not everything that happens is necessarily true – the show offers a fascinating insight into British history at the time and hints that the Royal Family, despite their wealth and fame, are a normal family at heart in some respects. Even if that normal family does live in a palace with more than 700 rooms.
Though the likes of Claire Foy and Vanessa Kirby are a tough act to follow, the new team of actors make the roles their own within seconds of being on screen, which is certainly no disrespect to the original cast but more evidence that the transition works. Her Royal Highness Olivia Colman never fails to light up the screen and so it shouldn’t be surprising that she does the same in The Crown. Colman has admitted that she was supplied with an earpiece during filming so that she could listen to the shipping forecast during more intense scenes to avoid expressing too much emotion and that’s certainly played off, with the actress nailing the hard exterior we tend to associate with the Queen. But she also shows a more vulnerable side to the monarch at times, notably when the Queen reflects on “the unlived life” how much happier she might have been if things were different; and, of course, during the Aberfan episode. Despite increasing pressure the Queen didn’t visit the site of the tragedy for eight days, a move that was said to be her biggest regret, and Peter Morgan offers a glimpse into why the Queen may have made the decision that she did. “To do nothing, to say nothing is the hardest job of all,” Colman says as the Queen, and it’s in this episode that the actress really gets the chance to shine, the final minute or so surely earning her a Bafta nomination.
But The Crown is very much an ensemble piece, perhaps even more so this season with both Prince Charles and Princess Anne becoming more prominent characters, and the quality of acting impresses all round. According to reports Tobias Menzies wasn’t initially the first choice for Prince Philip, but he proves he’s perfect for the role, capturing Philip’s impatience and bluntness while also showing a softer side to the Duke (notably during episode four ‘Bubbikins’) as well as the humour we come to associate with the real thing (“It’s not a sermon,” a frustrated Duke tells the Queen in episode seven about an impending church service. “It’s a general anaesthetic.”) He and Colman are a joy to watch on screen together, and the same has to be said for Colman and Jason Watkins as the Queen and Prime Minister slowly build an unlikely friendship.
If there’s one criticism it’s that none of the actors are on screen for nearly enough time and that’s definitely the case with Helena Bonham Carter, who is predictably brilliant Princess Margaret. Thankfully, the final episode of the season goes someway to making up for her absence in earlier episodes. Bonham Carter gets to have the most fun, showcasing her talents as an actress as she laughs, cries, sings and screams her way through the season in spectacular style, but it’s when Margaret is in a venomous mood that she’s particularly brilliant. She shares great chemistry with Ben Daniels who plays a charming, if somewhat frustrating Antony Armstrong-Jones.
The third season sees the next generation of royals, Prince Charles (Josh O’connor) and Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) step into the limelight as Anne is ‘launched’ into the public domain while Charles receives his investiture as the Prince of Wales and later falls in love. O’Connor elicits sympathy as the sensitive young Prince Charles, who faces tension between the life he wants and life as the future king. Meanwhile Doherty is a breath of fresh air as the young, no-nonsense Anne, who unlike her brother is free to live her life as she wants – within reason. She’s delightfully witty and sarcastic, a confident woman who knows what she wants, and Doherty is sure to be a firm favourite amongst fans.
The Crown has always impressed with its production values and attention to detail, and this season is certainly no different. With impressive direction and beautiful shots, The Crown certainly is a feast for the eyes. The third season sees re-enactments of Churchill’s state funeral and the Aberfan tragedy, not to mention spectacular sets, beautiful locations and Amy Roberts’ lavish costumes (all individually handmade) and it’s easy to see why the show commands such a high budget given the grand scale of the piece.
Long-term fans needn’t be concerned with this new-look show. The Crown continues to be a compulsive watch, and outstanding performances, well-rounded characterisations and clever dialogue combine to produce a captivating drama with enough intensity to leave you wanting more. With season four promising the introduction of Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher, there’s a lot to look forward to, but for now let’s celebrate – The Crown is back and it’s better than ever!
The Crown streams on Netflix from Sunday 17 November.
Photo credit: Netflix