Article taken from GQ.
A quarter of a century on from her ‘annus horribilis’, the revived popularity of Elizabeth II is a phenomenon felt all over the world. Ahead of its second series, Marion Van Renterghem of French Vanity Fair visits the set of Netflix’s mega-budget global sensation The Crown.
My source wears a black suit and dull-red tie. He has specified, as I would expect of all current or retired Buckingham Palace staff, that the interview must be strictly anonymous. “We didn’t speak to each other; this meeting didn’t happen,” he reiterates.
The Queen does not like women in her entourage and the men in her inner circle are chosen for their absolute discretion, usually with backgrounds in the army, foreign affairs or the secret service. She likes them tall and handsome, too, and although even the Queen can’t have it all, my source ticks most of these boxes. Seemingly ageless, he lacks particularly striking features: he is of average height, with grey hair, a colourless stare and a skin tone flushed lightly pink. His manners are flawless but staid. What’s fascinating about him is the way he can hold a lengthy conversation without actually saying very much. It’s a feat one only realises after the conversation has ended, as one frantically scans notes that are devoid of information. When amused, his eyes briefly crinkle. Even off-duty and away from Buckingham Palace, an unfettered laugh would be inappropriate.
The Queen is all secrets, mystery and muffled noise – ostensible blandness and unwavering tradition. Guests of Buckingham Palace must observe the golden rule: talk of politics, religion or gender is forbidden. “It limits conversational scope,” says Belgian journalist Marc Roche, a biographer of the Queen. Roche is almost the only reporter on the planet to have access to the press-fearing Windsors – a much-coveted privilege. A longtime London correspondent for French newspaper Le Monde, he has met the Queen six times. “Each time, she asked me the same three questions,” he says. “How long have you been in the UK? Do you like it? Isn’t it a wonderful place?” Once, she added a fourth. “Do you like my paintings?” A Rembrandt and a Rubens were hanging within arm’s reach, Roche recalls. “They are marvellous, Ma’am,” he replied. “Aren’t they just? My great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria bought them,” she said, before slipping away with small, hurried steps to speak to another guest.
Something unprecedented has happened to the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the Netflix series The Crown, she has become the heroine in a pacey and lavish account of her life, beginning with the final years of her father, George VI, the stammering king. Played by Claire Foy, Elizabeth II is the new star of the American video-streaming platform, which recently topped 100 million subscribers. This year, this blockbuster-budget American-British series took home two prestigious Golden Globes: Best Drama Series and Best Actress for Foy. The ten episodes of The Crown‘s first series were released across ten countries simultaneously and critics were universal in their praise. Although Netflix keeps its audience figures close to its chest, its hurry to announce a second series, expected this November, confirms The Crown as a global success.
The amount of documentation studied for the series was immense. So as not to compromise royal neutrality, access to the Palace and the Royal Family was impossible. Instead, historians and biographers were endlessly consulted, with gaps deftly filled with fiction. Even if the facts do not all add up, the tone the series captures feels historically accurate.
Throughout this century, and more than half of the last, the Queen’s complete devotion to her role has made an indelible impression. Her sense of duty was incumbent upon her from the start and she sacrificed her sense of self to better serve the unity and longevity of her kingdom.
She is calm, strong and confident, with never a cancelled appointment nor sign of fatigue or weariness. Such consistency, during the highs and lows of her popularity, renders her reign all the more respectable. And yet it is through Foy’s portrayal of the Queen’s solemn graciousness that the apparent cold indifference of the real Elizabeth has melted away. In short, The Crown has made the Queen likeable again.
Has she seen the series? That is the question… We have no idea what the Queen thinks, feels, says or does in her palace. Secrecy is paramount. The Queen does not express herself; she simply is. My anonymous source, on the other hand, didn’t miss a single episode. His eyes crinkle with amusement when I ask him about it. He becomes enthusiastic, sentimental even. “I enjoyed it,” he says.
Miles away from the real palace, Elstree Studios in North London is the legendary place where, in the Sixties, John Steed and Emma Peel piled on the English charm in The Avengers. Today, it houses the set of The Crown. It is Friday 12 May, the last day of seven months’ filming on the highly anticipated second series. Ten new episodes will chart the Queen’s life from 1956 to 1964: from Prince Charles’ childhood and Prince Philip’s party years, to the Cold War and her meeting with US president John F Kennedy.
The Queen gives the impression that her moral aura alone is enough to contain the ego of a prime minister over whom she has no actual power
I watch Prime Minister Anthony Eden (played by Jeremy Northam) at his desk in an ersatz Downing Street. The smoke from his cigarette, which rests on an ashtray, has filled the room with a light fog. A couple of takes later, Eden answers the black Bakelite telephone and responds with apprehension to the news he hears down the line. “The Russians?” he exclaims, anxiously sucking his cigarette. Cut. We won’t find out any more this series. Next, I head to “Buckingham Palace”, a few metres away in another part of Elstree. A family lunch is taking place in a dining room that looks out over the garden. Present are Elizabeth, her sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), and Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew-Goode), the royal photographer and later Lord Snowdon, who would marry Margaret in 1960. At the table, the lovers make a request to the Queen: they want to announce their engagement. Elizabeth takes a spoonful of soup to hide her embarrassment. She too has a confession: she is pregnant and must ask her sister to delay this announcement. Hierarchy means that this request is non-negotiable.
More takes follow, and more spoonfuls of soup. Foy has eaten enough. After the fourth take, her expression reveals a mild nausea and the crew can’t stop laughing. The camera man, sound technician and control room technician can’t focus. It’s 6pm on the last day of filming – just hours before the closing party. The whole crew is here – more than 100 people crammed in front of this tiny dining room. Everyone is tired. Fits of laughter ripple continuously around the room. They need one more take, one more spoonful of soup. Elizabeth swallows and looks at her sister. “I’m sorry, Margaret.” Cut. The end. Cries of joy. Hugs. Champagne. Her fellow actors leave the room, as Foy is praised, embraced and handed an enormous bouquet of flowers. The second series’ filming is over. For the third series, which will span the Seventies, Foy will pass her crown to another.
We don’t know who the Queen is and yet she’s the most famous person alive
What is the bond that ties the British to their Queen? What exactly spurred scriptwriter Peter Morgan to turn Her Majesty into a television heroine, having already written the script for Stephen Frears’ 2006 film, The Queen? By the end of the first series, we still know very little about her, other than that she likes to play bagatelle and regrets not having studied. In 91 years of life, 65 on the throne, she has not given much away. She doesn’t vote, she’s never given an interview and she never intervenes in politics. In The Crown, the story is pegged to the secondary characters – Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) as a tiring leader, an amorous and spunky Princess Margaret and an increasingly frustrated Philip Mountbatten (Matt Smith), forced to quit the Navy to fulfil his role as prince consort.
As a character, Foy’s Elizabeth II has nothing fanciful about her. She is central, but also bland. What more is there to talk about, other than her calm and stubborn dedication to public duty? Is she a person or just a function? It was this question that tickled Morgan and The Crown‘s executive producers, Suzanne Mackie and Andy Harries. “We don’t know who the Queen really is and yet she’s the most famous person on the planet. It’s a brand that intrigues the whole world. There is no equivalent,” says Harries. “The length of her reign tells a world history,” adds Mackie. “From Winston Churchill to Theresa May, Elizabeth II has known 13 prime ministers. She remains unweathered by change, critics and family dramas. Politicians, the media and the church have all been discredited, but the Queen? Never. Six decades later, she’s the only one still intact. It’s the most incredible structure for a television series. Through this prism, we wanted to give a real sense of British post-war history.”
Ask the British if they like their Queen and the more traditional among them will say yes while the more cosmopolitan won’t know how to respond. “Like” is not the right word and yet even among her fiercest critics – exasperated by the Windsors’ wealth, by the pressure of royal expenditure on the taxpayer and the monarchy’s apparent emphasis on class structure – “hate” has no place either. Her subjects both respect and need her. Even today, to forgo the monarchy remains unimaginable. The Queen is the country’s rock in troubled times: a figure whose constancy provides reassurance. She gives the impression that her moral aura alone is enough to contain the ego of a prime minister over whom she has no actual power. Not only is she the guarantor of the country’s unity – something to hold on to in these turbulent waters, roughened by the Brexit vote – she is also the protector of its democracy.
Elizabeth II is at the peak of her glory – a pop icon even
Alastair Campbell observed this from his watchtower at Number Ten where, as Tony Blair’s communications director, he masterminded government strategy.
A staunch republican irked by a Royal Family that institutionalises inequality, Campbell nevertheless developed an admiration for the Queen’s “leadership talent”. So much so, in fact, that her winning strategy is featured in his bestselling book, Winners: And How They Succeed, where she rubs shoulders with sporting champions, political chiefs and top businessmen, thanks to her skill in maintaining the monarchy and staying relevant to another generation.
She did, however, have to weather the “annus horribilis”. In 1992 came the fall from grace of Charles and Diana, the revelation of Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, Princess Anne’s divorce, Prince Andrew’s divorce and a fire at Windsor Castle. But the worst came five years later: the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in August 1997. The emotional response to the loss of the “People’s Princess” was immeasurable. From Downing Street to Buckingham Palace, were mountains of flowers and crowds of tearful pedestrians. The Queen appeared not to understand it. All that for a pseudo-princess who flaunted herself with her lover on a luxury yacht, was constantly slandered by the press and brought the Royal Family into disrepute? The sovereign stayed in Scotland, locked in Balmoral Castle, and delayed the lowering of Buckingham Palace’s royal flag to half-mast. Come to London? She didn’t see the need. But Prince Charles and Tony Blair, worried about triggering public hostility, convinced her to return. “At that point, the institution really had a scare. It could have taken a turn for the worse,” recalls Campbell.
Without people’s fondness for the monarchy it can’t exist
Twenty years later, the Queen is at the peak of her glory – a pop icon even. On 22 April, the day after the Queen’s 91st birthday, Rihanna superimposed a picture of the monarch’s head on her own body and posted it on Instagram. Her breasts are bare beneath her open dress, her hair is dyed pink and she’s holding a bottle of cider.
So how did the Queen, after a decade marred by gaffes and scandals, rekindle affection? William and Kate’s marriage in 2011 triggered national fervour. Even Charles and Camilla have become well-liked. “The Queen understood that to protect the longevity of the monarchy, which is to say, her job, she had to make as few changes as possible,” says Campbell. “There will always be a battle between the modernists and traditionalists. Between the two, the Queen is a pragmatist: she rarely ever changes; she lets the world change around her.”
My source with the dull-red tie turns the idea on its head, quoting a phrase from Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “Everything must change for everything to stay the same.” The more the world evolves, the more the Queen becomes a pillar of stability. “We paid close attention to the opinion polls,” he says. Not by choice, but because without the people’s fondness for the monarchy, there is no monarchy.” “Image” and “strategy” are not Windsorian notions. “For the Queen,” he says, “the question is not knowing how to please the people, but making sure the monarchy stays relevant and durable.”
Also, the power of communication displayed by the Queen should not be downplayed: she has handled televised speeches with great skill since 1953, when, only 27 years old, at her coronation, and against Winston Churchill’s advice, she agreed to being filmed and transmitted live on television. In truth, the Queen is a master of image. She knows what she wants to show: unity, stability and continuity, always.
And so here she is today, meticulously unchanged. Hunting with her corgis in her wellies and headscarf, or in town, visiting her tailors and dressed in bold colours to separate her from the vulgum pecus. Thanks to Netflix, the Queen’s likeability has surged. “Her popularity,” explains Marc Roche, “has always been highest in the provinces – in small, poor, industrial towns.” Places that essayist David Goodhart calls “the Somewheres”. By the urban “Anywheres”, who live in London and the university towns, she is treated with more indifference. Cosmopolitan and open to foreigners and free trade, they voted to remain in the EU. “The Crown has made the Queen loved by the ‘Anywheres’,” says Roche. “The monarchy is conquering the ‘Anywheres’ and the ‘Somewheres’ simultaneously.”
This is no small achievement with Brexit impending, as well as a new battle for independence looming in Northern Ireland and Scotland, who wish to remain in the EU. The Queen’s slightest move is scrutinised like no one else’s. The Sun decided she was pro-Brexit; others interpreted an equivocal phrase as a plea for the Scottish to vote against independence.
At 91 years old, she’s a shared reference point for billions of people around the world
No one dares say out loud the fear that plays on everyone’s minds. “It would be monumental, terrible, one of the most significant events of our lifetime, for everyone,” says Campbell on the subject of the Queen’s death. At 91 years old, she’s a shared reference point for billions of people around the world. Generations of children from Great Britain and the Commonwealth have grown up with her. Three out of four of the last prime ministers were born after she took the throne.
What will happen once she passes? What will happen on the day she passes? More taboo than discussion of the tragedy itself is that of the ceremonies that will follow, a programme planned to the millimetre. Journalist Sam Knight explained theproceedings in a recent piece for the Guardian: “Her eyes will be closed and Charles will be king. His siblings will kiss his hands.” The last time an English sovereign died, 65 years ago, the news of George VI’s death was transmitted to Buckingham Palace with the codewords “Hyde Park Corner” so papers didn’t get wind of the news prematurely. “London Bridge is down” are the words chosen for the death of Queen Elizabeth. Civil servants will announce it over secure phone lines. The prime minster will be woken. The Commonwealth’s chiefs of security will be notified. The course of action that follows has been planned and perfected since the Sixties. On the day, only Prince Charles will have the right to make decisions.
All of this is enough fodder for a whole future series of The Crown, ensuring the future, too, of the real-life family on which it’s based.
Translation from French by Eleanor Halls