Netflix’s new drama The Crown explores the romance and rivalries of Elizabeth II’s early years on the throne. Set in post-war Britain, viewers get to be a fly-on-the-wall of the Queen’s (played by Wolf Hall‘s Claire Foy) private meetings with Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) and watch as her marriage to Prince Philip (Matt Smith) is put under the strain of royal duty.
Written and created by Peter Morgan – who also wrote the hit film The Queen starring Helen Mirren – all 10-episodes are set to premiere on Netflix on 4 November 2016. We spoke to Mad Men star Jared Harris, who plays Elizabeth’s father George VI, about what to expect from this daring television series.
The show’s creator Peter Morgan told The Daily Telegraph that the royal family are “very nervous” about The Crown, do you think they have anything to worry about?
Do I think that Buckingham Palace has Netflix? (Laughs) I have no idea. If anybody knows, he would know; it’s his third outing doing this kind of project. I’d be surprised if they had Netflix, though.
The King’s Speech has obviously informed the modern view of George VI as a reluctant but duty-bound monarch, and you’re picking him up toward the end of his reign: where is he emotionally?
Emotionally you find him quite distressed because the family unit he’s protected all his life – his wife and two daughters – is about to be ripped apart because his daughter has fallen in love and wants to marry Philip, and despite his best efforts, it’s going to happen. It’s fairly accepted wisdom the trip to South Africa they took was an attempt to distract her and see if her head could be turned by someone else, but she was absolutely determined. The Crown starts at a point where his home is about to be broken up forever so he’s not particularly happy.
The state of the monarchy has changed dramatically in the past 80 years. Where does George VI fit in with that narrative?
I think you could say that George VI and his father, George V, created the template for the modern monarchy. They needed to readdress how the monarch was going to interact with the public and also with the political functioning of the state, and George V was extremely concerned the royal family were going to be thrown out because it was happening all across Europe. That was the reason why he changed the name to Windsor during the war.
I think that George VI observed his father and used him as an example – essentially that one’s job was to be the ‘first family’ in the way that the American president’s family is today – you’re expected to lead by example, which he did incredibly well during World War II. He was a tremendous source of inspiration to the public and certainly [Winston] Churchill saw the King as an ally in maintaining the morale of the country.
There are flashbacks in the show – how far back in time do you go?
Episode Three starts to deal with Edward VIII and the abdication because again that had consequences – not just for George and the feeling that he cut his life short by taking on responsibility that he didn’t want and he wasn’t really temperamentally suited for – but it also affected Margaret [and her relationship with Peter Townsend], and in fact, it was even an issue when Charles wanted to marry Camilla, so the abdication had a tremendous effect.
How did you prepare for the role?
One of the questions I asked [director] Stephen Daldry was: what the f*** is the job? At the end of the day it seems you are available to consult if the political class wants it – you are not allowed to offer it or impose – but you are the most consistently informed person. If you think about it, the queen has been reading those red boxes – she knows world secrets, both domestic and foreign – for over 60 years. Nobody else in this country or even the planet has that kind of access to information. Even US presidents are no longer privy to that information when they’re no longer president. It’s an extraordinary position to be in – you have all this knowledge, but you can do nothing with it.
Did you know much about George VI beforehand?
I had a superficial understanding but now I have tremendous respect for what he did. One of the things that interested me was the idea that his father refused sanctuary in Britain to Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra, which directly led to their assassination, because they wouldn’t have been in Russia. But when that situation arises during WWII, George VI says yes, come here, and about four or five heads of royal families were all staying at Buckingham Palace!
It wasn’t swanky at the time, either, it was crawling with rats, you couldn’t turn the lights on and it was freezing cold. Eleanor and [US President] Franklin Roosevelt have a very funny diary entry about coming to the Palace and being horrified about the conditions because they insisted they lived the same way as everyone else in the country, so there were lines on the bathtub showing how much water you could use, and they were on the same rations as everyone else.
It must be intimidating knowing that you’re playing the current Queen’s father, have you given any thought to how she might feel to see it?
I didn’t think about it. It’s an empathetic portrayal of the Royal Family, it’s not sanitised but they are treated with respect and as human beings with deep deep relationships. From that point of view, anyone should be satisfied, but on the other hand, they have specific personal memories of these events and I imagine if you were watching it having lived it, you’d think ‘That didn’t happen,’ ‘They didn’t say that’.
All 10 episodes of The Crown will launch on Friday 4 November 2016, exclusively on Netflix. For more amazing tales from history, pick up the new issue of All About History or subscribe and save 40% on the cover price.