Filmed at some of our historic places, including Eltham Palace and Audley End House, The Crown follows the young Queen Elizabeth II’s journey to the throne and beyond. But how much of what we watch is true?
As we prepare for the long-awaited second series, the show’s historical consultant, Robert Lacey, reveals how his team stays true to history. Robert is also the author of a new companion book to the first series, The Crown: The Inside Story.
Robert tells us more about the new book, his fascination with the Queen, and his role on the show to keep the plot historically accurate.
Many scenes were filmed at Eltham Palace and Audley End. What was it about these sites that lend themselves to Elizabeth II’s story?
When shooting short scenes, it pays to find a location that’s versatile, so that you can spend a day or two in one place and get as many as five or six sets. Eltham Palace is a gift in this regard, because not only do its rooms reflect very different periods in English history, they are exceptionally photogenic. You can be on board an art deco ocean liner on the first floor, then, with the right dressing, you pop downstairs for a stop-off in Australia and next door you’re in Norman Hartnell’s London studio. You can take a voyage round the world there.
Audley End House offers massive scale as well as opportunities to travel back to Princess Elizabeth’s youth, with architectural details of another time. When you’re telling a story that goes back into a more distant past – a flashback, if you like – but doesn’t spend long there, you need shorthand, and Audley End is instant time-travel. A bonus is that when you are in one of its vast rooms, it’s not hard for viewers to imagine more beyond – exactly the feeling you get in Windsor Castle.
What do we learn about the Queen’s relationships with those closest to her from watching The Crown?
We learn that she married the first man with whom she fell in love – Prince Philip. She met him at Dartmouth Naval College in 1939 when she was only 13, still wearing ankle socks. We see her instinctive positive reaction when her sister Margaret told her of her wish to marry the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend. In what was the first major scandal of the reign, and a running theme of the first season, we see how the queen tried to actually make the marriage happen. There’s a lovely scene of the two young sisters with their military sweethearts, Philip and Peter, having a hopeful dinner together, although Philip voices his concerns in his customarily sardonic fashion.
What are the challenges in capturing an accurate look and feel of post-war Britain in a TV series?
The look is fairly easy, since we’re lucky to have quite a lot of Britain looking very much as it did in the past – give or take the odd curb-side double yellow line – and certainly the countryside. It’s the texture that is the challenge – how people actually felt. In some ways, the 1947 wedding of Princess Elizabeth and the Coronation of 1953, which are the highlights of The Crown’s first season, were delayed victory celebrations. Only a few years earlier many of those crowds cheering in the streets had been running for the bomb shelters.
How would you describe the importance of the Queen’s public role during this period?
While the ups and downs of her family have sometimes mirrored the travails of the years, she herself has been an icon of stability and duty. Whatever happens, we know that we can always rely on the Queen. This stems from her personal understanding and belief in the value of the monarchy, along with her own deeply-felt Christian faith.
What will people be surprised to learn about Queen Elizabeth II from watching The Crown?
When she came to the throne in 1952, the Queen and her husband desperately tried not to live in Buckingham Palace. They very much wanted to stay in nearby Clarence House, the cosy family home they had created with their children, but were denied their wish at the insistence of the Prime Minister (Winston Churchill) and the courtier establishment. Prince Charles has recently let it be known that he wants to stay living in Clarence House with Camilla after his future accession, leaving the Palace to operate as an office and tourist attraction. We shall see if he has better luck than his mother.
How does The Crown ensure that scenes like the spectacular Coronation of 1953 are historically accurate? What resources does the team draw on to ensure all details are realistic?
It was a great help to us that the Coronation was televised and documented. So even when the 1953 television cameras weren’t on it – for example during the Queen’s anointing with holy oil – the process was verbally described in such detail that our own modern cameras could photograph something very like the real thing.
We copied reality extending from the beaten-up Coronation chair to the rather beige-looking 1950s carpets – but in certain cases we felt it important to break the rules. In 1953 there was a lot of covering up done in Westminster Abbey for the TV cameras, almost as though they were embarrassed by it. In our version we showed the act of covering up (with its vast rolls of carpet and camera hides painted to look like stone) because it was both accurate and amusing. However we let the grandeur of the location show through in the wide shots in order to preserve the scale and nobility of the spectacle. Preserving those gave the presence of a 1950s TV crew a welcome incongruity which was good for the telling of our story.
Another research gift was a magnificent documentary film in colour called ‘A Queen is Crowned‘ (narrated by Laurence Olivier) – an invaluable source which I recommend to all lovers of modern history and spectacle.
How do you remain historically accurate while simultaneously entertaining audiences?
By finding out more human details. History does not have to be boring. In episode seven (chapter seven in the book) we encounter a pet raven hopping over the notebooks of the young Princess Elizabeth, Harry Potter-style, while she is studying constitutional history in the study of the Vice-Provost of Eton. That actually happened. Henry Marten, the Vice-Provost of Eton who tutored the future Elizabeth II in constitutional history, kept a pet raven in his study. Alec Douglas-Home, the future Prime Minister and an Eton student in the same years, recalled Marten feeding sugar lumps to the bird.
Why do you think it’s important to tell the queen’s story?
She stuck by the rules. She married and stayed utterly faithful to the first man with whom she fell in love – and she did the same with the job for which she never applied, but which she accepted without demur. She’s the story of duty done. She didn’t try to change things much, but perhaps she’s an example of how some things in this world don’t need to change as much as we think, if the founding principles are strong and correct.