“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare wrote. Centuries later, little has changed: The Bard would have found plenty of inspiration in the eternal dramas of the British monarchy.
As has Peter Morgan, screenwriter of the 2006 film “The Queen,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for best screenplay (not to mention a trophy for Helen Mirren in the title role).
But it was Morgan’s 2013 play “The Audience” — about the weekly meetings between the Queen (Mirren) and her prime ministers — that inspired his latest deep dive into the political and personal machinations of British royalty: Netflix’s opulent, ambitious 10-part series “The Crown” (bowing Nov. 4). The drama, which costs $100 million to produce per season, chronicles Queen Elizabeth II as a young wife and mother, struggling with the burdens of a throne that is thrust upon her after her father suddenly dies.
“I’m sick of writing the world of Elizabeth,” admits Morgan. “But when we did the play, the scene between Churchill and the young queen struck me as having lots of potential — this young 25-year-old girl and this 73-year-old, this daughter and this grandfather. And yet he was so in awe of her.”
At first, Morgan thought he might have material for a movie — with Winston Churchill training Elizabeth, à la “Educating Rita” — but as he began to flesh out the idea, he realized there was a broader story to be told: about Elizabeth’s marriage; her relationships with her sister, her mother, and her grandmother; and her evolution into the iconic figure who still reigns today.
Enter longtime producing partner Andy Harries, chief executive of Left Bank Pictures, who encouraged Morgan to develop the concept as a TV series. Morgan, says Harries, “could sense the mood away from film and the rapid rise of cinema-based television and television with real ambition.”
They recruited director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”), with whom they’d worked on “The Audience.” “We started thinking about the history of post-war Britain through the prism of this extraordinary family and their constitutional relationship with the government and the country,” says Daldry. “The subject matter just kept on yielding — telling the story of this very challenging and challenged family.”
The trio envisioned the project as a BBC drama, with a U.K. and U.S. broadcast partnership. Sony Pictures TV, as their studio, would also serve as international distributor. They embarked on a U.S. shopping tour in 2014, involving all the usual premium cable suspects. Their last stop was Netflix. True to form, the streaming giant pulled off the ultimate power play, making a “very, very good” offer in the room: a two-season deal for $100 million each year.
While Netflix won’t confirm that price, VP of content Cindy Holland concedes that the company seized the opportunity to secure global rights to a series with high-profile filmmakers attached, and clear worldwide appeal.
“We’re not afraid to invest in big production values,” she says, “because we think we’re competing for consumers’ time — not just in how they watch television, but also the biggest movies of the day and other entertainment that they may choose to engage in.” She adds, “We’re unashamed in our support of lavish productions when we think those levels will do it justice.”
That investment was key in swaying the team to opt for Netflix over the BBC. “I think the exciting thing about it was it gave us the opportunity to be really ambitious in the kind of people we wanted to work with, and the kind of cast we wanted to get,” Morgan says. “And to put that money on the screen, which is what we did.”
|“No one imagines her as a romantic creature, a sexual creature. These are all things that other films explore with other characters. But the Queen — one just doesn’t dare! It’s almost treasonable to think about her in a sexual context.”|
But perhaps even more crucial than the money, for Morgan and team, was Netflix’s promise not to interfere in the creative process. →
“In the meeting, [Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos] and Cindy said, ‘We are very supportive of our filmmakers, and don’t like to give notes,’ at which point Peter got down on his knees and cried, ‘Hallelujah!’ ” Harries recounts.
The Netflix execs were true to their word. Sarandos and Holland attended a two-day read-through at the start of production in London, but have otherwise steered clear. “I’ve had no editorial interference whatsoever,” Morgan notes. “They’ve just come to me as a writer and said, ‘We want to put you in charge of a $200 million company.’ And I feel incredibly responsible, because I don’t want to be the one who screwed it up for the other people.”
Queen Elizabeth was just 25 in 1952, when her father, King George VI, died of lung cancer at 56. “It’s like a bomb going off in the family,” says Claire Foy, who stars in “The Crown” as Elizabeth. “None of them knew how to deal with it. It just so happens they were the most famous family in the world. And she suddenly had the most important job in the world.”
The eldest of two sisters, Elizabeth was duty-bound to accept the throne. Adding to the tension was the fact that the specter of her uncle Edward — who had abdicated for the love of American divorcée Wallis Simpson — still lingered, along with the threat it had posed to the monarchy.
In accepting her fate, Elizabeth strained her most intimate relationships. Her husband, Philip, played by Matt Smith (“Doctor Who”), bristled at being forced to move into the palace, give up his surname (Mountbatten) for hers, and — in what’s portrayed as the ultimate insult — kneel before her at her coronation. And her sister, Princess Margaret, was forced to walk two steps behind her and curtsy in her presence.
Vanessa Kirby, who plays Margaret, credits Morgan for his keen insight into the royals’ divisiveness. “ ‘I want it to be uncomfortable,’ ” Kirby remembers Morgan saying, by way of direction. “ ‘I want you to imagine there’s gravel in your shoe. It’s not just, “We’re the royals, and we have a nice life.” ’ That made it much more human.”
For Morgan, such conflict offered a chance to explore a rarely seen side of one of the world’s most famous women. “Certainly no one imagines her as a young woman making choices about her marriage,” he says. “No one imagines her as a romantic creature, a sexual creature. These are all things that other films explore with other characters. But the Queen — one just doesn’t dare! It’s almost treasonable to think about her in a sexual context.”
While “The Crown” doesn’t venture far into salaciousness — one scene hints at the couple’s physical attraction, as Foy watches Philip rowing topless down the Thames; another shows them lazing in bed in the morning — Morgan doesn’t pull back on the heartbreak. “You want to go in hard on what the emotional consequences are,” he says. “I don’t think of the crown as glamorous. It’s this murderous, bejeweled thing.”
Smith empathizes with his character, describing him as a “maverick,” the family outsider. Philip’s human side informs some of the series’ most telling moments, when “we get a glimpse behind the royal mask,” Smith says. He points to a scene in the second episode, when the couple, traveling in Africa, has just been told of the king’s death, and they drive in stunned silence past a line of tribespeople. “You can see for both of them, they’re processing the enormity of George’s death,” he says. “For Philip, he knows his life has completely changed forever.”
For Morgan, Smith was the only choice for the role. “I’m afraid I gave them no negotiating position,” he laughs. “I’m sure Matt’s being hideously overpaid as a result.”
Another key role, King George VI, went to Jared Harris, who focused his research on the king’s famous stutter, learning that it was actually an extended pause. “He would constrict and stop, and everyone else would freeze,” he says. “There was this awful embarrassment about it.”
But perhaps the biggest adjustment fell to John Lithgow as Churchill — a surprising casting choice, not just because he’s American, but because he’s far taller and leaner than the famously stout prime minister. Lithgow credits costume designer Michele Clapton with fashioning a fat suit that helped cloak his frame.
“We spent so much time just getting the body right, so that I could stop worrying about being way too large to play this dynamic little bulldog man,” he says.
Morgan raves about Lithgow’s performance: “It’s an astonishingly versatile piece of acting by one of the world’s great character actors.”
Churchill became Elizabeth’s trusted counsel but faced his own parliamentary battles as post-war London grappled with rations and blackouts. Lithgow compares the situation with the Brexit crisis; just as the U.K. is now challenging the EU, citizens then wondered if they needed a monarchy.
|Courtesy of Netflix|
“Churchill, who grew up with the sense that the empire is everything, was watching the empire fall away all around him,” he says. “He’s determined to save it — and to turn this young girl into a great queen.”
Two and a half years of painstaking fact-finding went into the production, as Daldry, a self-described “research freak,” and the team went to great lengths to authentically re-create the well-appointed lives of the royal family. Armed with a multi-million-dollar budget, they mounted an extravagant eight-month shoot in London, Scotland, and South Africa. And in what was perhaps the most challenging set piece, the production reimagined the Queen’s coronation at Westminster Abbey.
“You’re dealing with a royal family, so they do have expensive clothes, they do go to expensive places, they live in the most expensive palaces,” says Daldry. “It’s always going to be financially challenging, however much you have. It’s always going to
feel like you never have enough. I’m not complaining. We were always fiscally responsible. But for a show of this scale, you need it.”
Although Lancaster House, a working castle, served as Buckingham Palace for most of the shoot, the production rebuilt parts of the palace in studios in North London, with an obsession for accuracy that included reproducing the palace’s disrepair.
“You’d go into the palace and go, ‘Oh, they haven’t finished painting this bit,’ ” says Harris. “And they’d go, ‘No, actually, the palace was really run-down.’ Wallpaper was peeling. They didn’t have the resources to keep it up and spend all that money during the war. It was that authentic.”
For Harris, “The Crown” is reminiscent of his days playing Lane Pryce on “Mad Men,” in both the scrupulous attention to period detail and the scripts. “I read the first episode and knew immediately that [Morgan] is a fantastic writer,” he says. “It’s the first time since ‘Mad Men’ where I knew that the writer is in complete control of the story.”
Of all the endless hours of research, there’s one moment that stands out for Daldry: in the second episode, when an eagle lands on Elizabeth’s balcony after her father’s death. “That can’t possibly happen. But it did actually happen,” he says. “It’s a documented fact. It’s astonishing and wonderful to me how these details reveal all sorts of wonderful possibilities.”
Each season of “The Crown” will explore a decade of Queen Elizabeth’s life; production of season two is already underway. As for future seasons, the team is waiting for a greenlight, but Morgan already has “a stack of ideas.” And the hope is that Mirren will eventually step into the sensible shoes of the Queen as she ages.
The lingering question is how the monarchy will react to this incredibly intimate portrayal. “We don’t ask anything of them, and they don’t ask anything of us,” says Harries. “I like to think they’d enjoy the show. I’d imagine that they’re getting a Netflix subscription or two so they can have a look.”