If we follow Thomas Mallon’s assertion that “historical fiction is always about contemporary life,” it seems British screenwriters are visiting past moments of political crisis to comment, however sideways, on what has been called the “long history of Brexit.” Writing for The New York Times last July, Amanda Taub said, “Brexit is much more than a vote on membership in a 28-nation block. It is about national and social identity, Britain’s place in the world and the future of the European project, and it has been going on for years.” Brexit’s “long history” took a dramatic turn around 2012, when debates about Britain’s place in the European Union suddenly escalated. By 2014, the current outpouring of British political drama on television had begun, with series like 37 Days (an original drama about Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination) and Reign (a biopic about Mary, Queen of Scots). This may seem like coincidence, but, in the words of noted geopolitical analyst Yogi Berra, it’s “too coincidental to be a coincidence.”
What, then, do these series reveal about contemporary politics across the pond? What do they tell us about new scriptings of Britain’s national identity? And what, as we watch them in our own post-Trump aftermath, do we want them to tell us?
To help answer these questions, we can turn to another queenly chronicle, The Crown. It explores the reign of Elizabeth II who, at 90, is now Britain’s longest-living monarch. The Crown has attracted a small audience here in the United States, partly, no doubt, because of its timing. Launched on Netflix a few days before the presidential election, it disappeared in the pandemonium that followed. But the series warrants close inquiry. Charged with a sense of national import, The Crown has become entwined with conversations about Brexit. And yet, as we’ll see, it displays a political timidity that is itself fascinating to consider.
Tracking the show’s tension between reticence and critique, escapism and political urgency, might help us sort out where we are now — and reflect on what we want period drama to do in the future.
“The British costume drama,” write James Leggott, “is never just a genre. It is always a stage for national identity.” Indeed, for many American viewers, the BBC costume drama is synonymous with weighty tales of rulers and statesmen. Yet until recently, such series have been surprisingly scarce on television. In fact, looking back over the genre’s history, we discover that most political dramas appeared in the 1970s and early ’80s, at a time when scriptwriters still enjoyed a great deal of artistic control, and when leftist politics still shaped the industry. Ranging in style and tone, these dramas include The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970); Elizabeth R (1971); Edward the King (1975); Edward & Mrs. Simpson (1978); The Spoils of War (1980); and most notably, The Jewel in the Crown (1984), the blockbuster series that explores the final days of the British Raj in India during World War II. Touted by The New York Times as “drama that pulses with contemporary relevance,” it offered an unflinching portrait of the arrogance and inevitable corruption of imperialism by making explicit connections to Thatcherism.
But a lamentable irony inheres in The Jewel in the Crown. For while it offered timely political critique, it also deployed television’s abundant new resources (bigger budgets, multi-camera setups) to create a lavish look. Its costumes were exquisite. Its interiors were sumptuous. Its landscapes, Elysian. The result was that The Jewel in the Crown’s prettiness subsumed its politics. Inspired by the show, British and American fans toured India in white linen suits, and unperceptive reviewers, such as one writing for The Newark Star-Ledger, extolled Jewel’s “exquisite rendering of Britain’s lost imperial grandeur.” The Jewel in the Crown thus became, as I have written elsewhere, one of the “most persistently misunderstood television shows in history.” From this point forward, period drama mainly went the way of nostalgia, peddling a genteel and pastoral type of Englishness. And rather than maintaining its interest in politics, it turned toward 19th-century literature, adapting British classics like Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Cranford (2007).
Now, political period dramas have returned with a vengeance, far outnumbering new literary adaptations (sorry, Jane Austen). But to what end? Do these new shows resurrect The Jewel in the Crown’s stealthy critiques, or do they seek to resurrect that other Jewel in the Crown, stripped of politics and draped in imperial nostalgia? It’s hard to answer these questions, in part because of their sheer volume and tonal diversity. Victoria, for example, merrily employs conventions of fairy tale and romance; The Hollow Crown (2012) follows in the testosterone-charged tradition of Game of Thrones; Wolf Hall is unapologetically esoteric. According to Paul Rutman, the creator of Indian Summers, this variety reflects a new sense of artistic license when it comes to British period drama in general. “We’ve entered a period of crazy experimentation,” he told me last December in an interview. “Now we can go global, be more political.”
Collectively, these shows take a new, warier approach to nostalgia. Churchill’s Secret, for example, shifts constantly between sentimental and cynical, heartwarming and grim. With its understated tone and forensic approach, The Crown appears to be studiously avoiding nostalgia. And many series (The Hollow Crown, Indian Summers) seem to positively renounce it, choosing instead to embrace melodrama or irony or even horror as an antidote to rosy clichés of the past. This shift is fascinating in light of Brexit’s “long history” — for if the Brexit vote taught us anything, it is that nostalgia is a mighty force, able to overthrow the politics of a nation. On June 23, 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the European Union, many of them explicitly yearning for a lost world with clear boundaries and values. Until recently, period drama seemed to affirm that yearning, to answer it even against its own will. But current screenwriters seem to be recognizing the political danger of such historical escapism. As Peter Straughan, the scriptwriter for Wolf Hall told me last year, “Nostalgia for some myth of a long, lost England is precisely what has landed this country into so much turmoil. Television writers don’t need to be perpetuating it.”
To underline their political relevance, many of these shows dot their narratives with contemporary references, as in Wolf Hall’s discussion between King Henry and Thomas Cromwell on the value of trade agreements with European countries. And in case we miss their here-and-now quality, creators have been ready to point it out. Director Peter Kosminsky, for example, stated in the London Sunday Times, “I hope I will bring the same ethos — of a well-researched, contemporary, quite political drama — to Wolf Hall that I’ve tried to bring to my own work.” And Rutman, explaining to me why he based his story in 1930s colonial India, said, “These were our grandfathers and grand-uncles, our grandmothers, dancing and laughing and living their lives among imperialist horrors. We don’t want to think about that. We don’t want to confront it. And that seemed to me the best new territory for period drama.”
But how “new” is this new territory? What kind of political relevance does it offer? And will viewers recognize it when they see it? Let’s turn to The Crown now for some possible answers.
Projected to run for six seasons and a total of 60 episodes, The Crown is an ambitious, detailed account of the Windsor family from midcentury to the present. Season one begins in 1947, with Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding to Prince Philip Mountbatten. It ends in 1956, three years into her tenure. Subsequent seasons will follow the monarch’s reign through such milestones as Egypt’s seizing of the Suez Canal in 1956 and the marriage of Prince Charles to Princess Diana in 1981. Representatives state that the show will go “right up the present-day political landscape.” This makes The Crown a rare hybrid of period drama and contemporary drama. More importantly, its projected endpoint means that The Crown will have to take on Brexit and its aftermath (how could it not?). If its creators are up to the task, the series might well end up less a chronicle of a ruler than a dramatization of the referendum’s long history.
The Crown’s principal creators, director Stephen Daldry and scriptwriter Peter Morgan, have their own long history with political drama. Daldry revitalized J. B. Priestly’s old warhorse, An Inspector Calls, as a devastating riposte on Thatcherite values and set his musical film, Billy Elliot, against the miners’ strike of 1984. Morgan’s scriptwriting has focused on a range of political leaders, from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (The Deal) to Nixon (Frost/Nixon) to the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland). Morgan also scripted The Queen, the 2006 award-winning film about Queen Elizabeth’s horrendously icy response to the death of Princess Diana. Recently, Daldry and Morgan collaborated on The Audience, a play that depicts the weekly “audiences” between Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill during 1953 through 1956 — and which inspired them to pitch The Crown.
Both men have stated that in making the series, they wanted to offer a behind-the-scenes portrait of the royal family. Aided by seven full-time researchers, they spent two-and-a-half years studying the Windsors. “We wanted to do something serious,” Morgan explained in an interview with Charlie Rose, “something that would bring new dimensions to the family.” Watching The Crown, it’s easy to see this intention as an attempt to defend a family often maligned for their triviality and backwardness. Daldry and Morgan make much of Prince Philip as a social reformer, for example, showing how he tried to modernize Elizabeth’s image by insisting on a televised coronation, and they pay compassionate attention to Princess Margaret, stereotyped by the tabloids as a pathetic alcoholic. This quarrying approach recalls Stephen Greenblatt’s brilliant observation that the “triumph” of historical fiction is to “reach a point of ignorance.” In fact, Greenblatt’s observation nicely applies to many of these new historical dramas. Whether it’s the insurrectionist climate of Ireland in the early 1910s or the muddy, bloody battlefields of Tudor-era England, the past is no longer something to be wistfully mourned but, rather, rescripted.
The Crown doesn’t glorify its subjects; rather, these humanizing gestures are counterbalanced by the series’s almost ruthless honesty. Tough and resolute, Queen Elizabeth can also be dull as stewed tomatoes, and, while we see her efforts to prepare herself as Queen, the show takes her intellectual limitations almost as a given. Philip is a philanderer and racist brat. And the aging Churchill is bullish, obstinate, and vain. Far worse, he emerges as a leader more interested in the mythology of his own historical figure than in his country’s welfare. In his interview with Rose, Morgan admitted how difficult it was to portray the flaws of these legendary figures. “It almost feels like treason to be writing about them as human beings,” he remarked. His comment conveys the political risk of writing about the royal family, especially at a moment when the queen’s popularity is at its height. “Say too little, and you do a photoshop, a whitewash, a hagiography. Say too much, and you run the risk of alienating your audience entirely.” These anxieties aside, The Crown is notable for its unsentimental view of a family who, despite their occasional deeds of nobility, tend to behave like entitled prigs.
Whatever individual attention it pays to the Windsor family, The Crown’s real fascination is the monarchy’s symbolic value, both as it enables bad behavior and serves a unifying purpose during times of crisis. The Crown probes the monarchy’s meanings and uses, registering continual fascination with the beauty of its rituals, its reach toward the divine. Watching its depiction of Elizabeth’s coronation, breathtaking in its luxurious camerawork, I thought of Clifford Geertz’s suggestion that “A world wholly demystified is a world wholly depoliticized.” Politics depends on a certain degree of mystification, as Daldry and Morgan seem to recognize. And Britain, The Crown suggests, depends on the monarchy to settle and unite it. As Morgan said in a recent New Yorker interview, “The role [the Queen] plays as a unifier is extraordinarily stabilizing, especially these days.”
But the question of what, precisely, the monarchy stabilizes, and for whom, is left open by the series. For even as The Crown painstakingly stages these rituals, it works just as hard to explore their emptiness. No moment captures this better than a crosscutting sequence that shifts between our perspective of the coronation and that of King Edward — the man who famously abdicated the throne to marry the Duchess of Windsor — as he watches it on television. At the ceremony’s pivotal point, the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints Elizabeth with holy oil as he recounts the centuries-old incantation about “former kings, priests, and prophets.” This is the moment, Edward tells his friends, that the British monarch is “transformed, forever changed.” We witness this anointing in sensual, spectacular detail. But Edward and his friends see none of it; nor did the actual television audience of 1953. “How come we can’t see it?” someone asks. “Because we’re mortals,” Edward replies. Then, in an arresting tone of cynicism and reverence, he says, “Who wants transparency when you can have magic?” Edward’s comment articulates the central question of The Crown, which indulges in the monarchy’s seductions even as it interrogates them. Indeed, it’s this ambivalence, this willingness to grant the seductive power of such ceremonies while exposing their hollowness, that makes The Crown such powerful drama.
In interviews and press conferences, Daldry and Morgan have repeatedly stressed The Crown’s relevance to Britain’s contemporary political landscape. But these comments, while provocative, also seem strained, and at times illogical. Asked by Charlie Rose about his portrait of the queen, Morgan immediately replied, “In making the decision to leave the European Union, an entire generation was focused only on itself and, with that, on its own destruction. A moment like that makes you look at someone who gave up her personal life and accepted the responsibility of her duty.” And at a gala premiere last November, Daldry wasted no time in bringing up Brexit when asked about why he and Morgan wished to make The Crown. “This is an extraordinary tale about an extraordinary family,” he replied.
Why wouldn’t we tell it, especially at a moment when we have decided as a nation that perhaps our journey and our future doesn’t lie toward what should have been our course, which is Europe, but toward some other sense of England. So what is this England that we believe in? And what is this constitutional monarchy that seems so important to us? It’s a subject of vital importance to us right now.
This is, to put it mildly, a counterintuitive claim. For Daldry, apparently, the warts-and-all Windsor family must pull double duty, as the poster children for the dangers of nostalgia and the heroes of post-Brexit Britain.
Despite its ambitions, The Crown is ultimately a timid work of historical drama. Comments like the ones above are clearly designed to invest The Crown with a kind of ripped-from-the-headlines value, to flag its lavish historicism as important rather than frivolous. And yet, like its forebear The Jewel in the Crown, the series can easily function as pure escapism — a sumptuous production that renders British history into the stuff of spectacle. Any critiques the series levels against the monarchy or the nostalgia industry are easily side-stepped by viewers uninterested in dwelling upon them. And, indeed, the show is suffused with an almost palpable sense of constraint. Perhaps this has to do with the proclivities of its creators. Or perhaps it lies in the tremendous pressures surrounding The Crown: its $100 million dollar budget, its status as Netflix’s first major foray into British period drama, its depiction of living royalty. Or perhaps all of this has to do with the nature of British period drama itself, its deep-rooted entanglements with national pride and audience nostalgia since the mid 1980s. Regardless of the reason, The Crown’s politics are confusing. And confused.
So many period dramas of television’s new Golden Age, from Deadwood to Mad Men, have been willing to leverage cruelty for revelation, to be harsh on their characters in order to give us insight about our contemporary lives. But too often The Crown’s complaints about the monarchy register as ad hominem attacks or harmless clichés. In other words, it’s not at all difficult to read The Crown as a love letter to, rather than a deconstruction of, its titular symbol. And perhaps, after all, this is what viewers ultimately want from period drama: history done prettily. It may even be that The Crown’s multiple references to visual media — painting, photography, film, television — add up to a self-referential questioning of period drama’s purpose. If The Jewel in the Crown was a blistering critique of imperialism too easily reappropriated as nostalgia, perhaps The Crown is the opposite: a romance of the monarchy clothed in politically potent realism. And perhaps Daldry and Morgan, two artists whose politics actually veer far to the left, know it. Who wants transparency when you can have magic?
Nancy M. West is a Professor of English at The University of Missouri in Columbia. The author of two books (Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia and Tabloid, Inc), she publishes on a wide variety of topics including photography, film, and television drama.