Another Elizabethan drama about a young Queen in a man’s world whose reign marks a turning point for the British Empire and the dawn of a new era. We’ve seen this before, right? Not exactly- we’re not going back to the 16th Century for one thing; this is far more recent history, for this story is about Elizabeth II, and the (miss)fortunes of a fading British Empire following the Second World War, and the role of the modern monarchy in this new world.
I will say this- I didn’t expect to enjoy this series as much as I did. As an historical drama recreating the 1930s/1940s and 1950s Britain, this is a very accomplished effort, not withstanding historical accuracy regards the Royal Family etc. It is clearly drama more than documentary -although there is some surprising truth in what it portrays- but it is very accomplished technically and the ten episodes are well written. For a modern epic drama it is pleasantly restrained regards graphic indulgence or sensalitionism. More Downtown Abbey then than Game of Thrones, to be sure, and none the worse for that. The contemporary tendency for television dramas to go for excess and strain credibility (as Hard Sun recently did) is in little evidence here. While it may seem more establishment fairytale than council estate reality, Americans lap this stuff up and us Brits often like to lose ourselves in Downton dreamland in the face of the present-day soap opera of Brexit Westminster.
Personally speaking I’m far from a Royalist and have little affection or interest in the modern generation of privileged Royal elite that ‘graces’ our Isle, but all my life I have lived during the reign of Elizabeth II and its difficult to ignore the fact that she has been this constant figure in my lifetime, for good or ill. She represents the England of my childhood of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly her Jubilee of 1977 when I was in the Scouts – we had a street party and felt a real sense of community that feels as long gone as, well, my childhood. The inevitable pangs of nostalgia mean something I guess, but in any event, I have, if not affection, then some grudging respect for her if only for what she represents of my childhood: those rose-tinted images of simpler times, less murky politics and social responsibilities. Certainly it is clear from the ten episodes of this first season (of six, apparently) that she has lived through historic times and seen/met many historic figures: perfect recipe for historical drama on television, anyway.
Claire Foy is excellent in the lead role (it seems such a long way from Little Dorrit) , though Dr Who seems rather bereft of his Tardis as the Duke of Edinburgh, but the real surprise is John LIthgow as the raging-against-ageing Winston Churchill, whose story proves just as interesting and involving as that of the Queen. If anyone were to tell me that Lithgow could pull off Churchill I wouldn’t have believed them, but he manages with considerable aplomb, damn near stealing the show. The strangest casting decisions sometimes work.
As a whole the rest of the cast manage well enough in fairly routine character roles that seldom really surprise but it is all very entertaining. In the old days this would be the staple of BBC drama and watching this I always had a nagging feeling that this sort of thing is exactly what the Beeb should be doing, but considering the cost and scale of this enterprise perhaps it’s just another sign of the changing times this being a Netflix production. It’s certainly is much better than I had originally expected and I quite look forward to seeing season two.