The last couple episodes of The Crown have seen the drama follow a far more episodic structure, lengthening out the timeline to focus on pivotal single events. It works well in its favour, as while the earlier focus on the royal marriage was fascinating, there was just too much else going on during the late 1950s to be left in the background.
In the case of episode five, it’s an incendiary editorial in a little-known newspaper titled the National Review, written in 1957 by editor Lord Altrincham. Also known as John Grigg, the writer caused a stir in his harsh criticism of the Queen, describing her as a ‘priggish schoolgirl’ after supposedly hearing an conceived speech she gave at a factory.
The speech itself is on public record, and Peter Morgan deftly emphasises how tone-deaf it is. In the episode, the Queen’s speechwriters (a bunch of old men, surprise) happily churn it out while put-upon ex-private secretary Martin Charteris attempts to point out how terrible it is. In the end, it’s too late and the Queen reads it out, describing the working class public as being the essential part of ‘dull, repetitive work’ and ‘average men and women’. It’s cringeworthy to watch but Elizabeth doesn’t quite see where she’s gone wrong.
There is some minor joy here though- Claire Foy has clearly done her research as she does an uncanny imitation of the Queen on one of her scheduled visits, nodding and asking essential questions during a tour. It’s entertaining to watch precisely because it’s so familiar to anyone who has seen Elizabeth II in action, as she still continues to stick to a method that has served her since she started the role.
In a clever spin, the next scene sees Elizabeth getting a new, stiff hairstyle whilst Handel’s Zadok the Priest plays ironically in the background. This mundane task is all part of what makes the monarchy, of course, and why shouldn’t it be recognised as a noble tradition? Well, according to John Grigg, that’s exactly the problem. The monarchy are happily emphasising the idea of ‘us and them’, and superiority in all their actions. In a changing world where the media are vocal and the class system is evolving, that isn’t just going to work anymore.
The Queen decides to invite Grigg round and grudgingly listens to his ideas. On one hand, you can definitely empathise with her. She was born into this job after all, it comes steeped in tradition and she’s the only one in the country who truly knows what it’s like. To get told that she’s doing it wrong by somebody who has no experience in the job must be galling.
Unfortunately, Grigg is completely correct in identifying the need for the monarchy to become more accessible, stating that if it doesn’t, it is ‘unlikely to survive, let alone thrive’. The royal family are not doing themselves any favours and they need to break traditions. Elizabeth, despite her misgivings, clearly sees that there’s a grain of truth to the writer’s reasonings and starts to implement his suggestions, starting with televising the Christmas speech.
Regardless of its historical accuracy, it’s remarkable that this editorial may have started the ball rolling for a complete overhaul of the royal approach. Eventually those suggestions would lead to a royal family where forty years later, the ex-wife of the heir to the throne would be giving candid interviews to Vanity Fair and personal discussions about mental health by her sons were aired on public radio twenty years after that. In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine that the monarchy would have survived until now without this evolution.
No one was to know that at the time, though. The Queen Mother’s angry rant at the conclusion of this episode betrays a woman terrified at the prospect of losing everything down to the ground that her family stands on. It’s understandable through their lens and yet also understandably frustrating through the view of republicans, who see the royal family as a lingering symbol of a damaging class system. That’s one of the real strengths of The Crown – it empathises but doesn’t sympathise with its subjects, letting the viewer make the final decision on their own opinion.