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Jared Harris, seen with co-star Claire Foy, plays a startlingly realistic King George VI in Netflix’s new drama, The Crown. (Alex Bailey/Netflix)
Jared Harris, seen with co-star Claire Foy, plays a startlingly realistic King George VI in Netflix’s new drama, The Crown. (Alex Bailey/Netflix)

John Doyle: How Netflix's The Crown makes the royals sympathetic Add to ...

The lavishly made The Crown (now streaming on Netflix) is disconcerting from the get-go. In the opening scene we see George VI (Jared Harris) coughing up specks of blood into a toilet bowl. The bathroom he’s in looks archaic and drab. This man, the King himself, looks utterly enervated.

Soon after, viewers see the King being dressed – a small army of staff help him with his collar and tie. He’s a bit tetchy and he looks unwell and anxious. A rude limerick is used to cheer him up and get him through the ordeal.

For all the lavishness of costumes and the vast budget spent on the 10-part series – reportedly $125-million (U.S.) – there is something almost cinéma vérité about The Crown at times. In style and tone, the early episodes hark back to the British kitchen-sink dramas of the early 1960s. There is an emphasis on the grimness of life, even in Buckingham Palace and on royal estates. There is a sense that royal life is, a lot of the time, a matter of domestic drudgery and, further, rather like those British dramas of the early 1960s that portrayed working life with grim focus on the monotony of existence, The Crown is presenting its royal character as trapped, boxed-in and vitiated.

It’s a startling approach and it works – by emphasizing the rule-driven, grimly traditionalist existence of the Windsors, the series makes them sympathetic. They are anachronisms, cooped up in this strange, sometimes terrifyingly restrictive world. Curiosities to the outside world, they are rather like caged grotesques, occasionally trotted out for the world to gawp at them.

Some of us approached The Crown with wariness – another epic costume drama about royal personages featuring a royal wedding, a coronation and, one suspected, a slavish reverence for all things English, upper class and twee. The sort of thing that brings a lot of tourists to England every year; a Downton Abbey on steroids with an even bigger frock budget and toffs being frightfully busy doing very toff things. It is, thankfully, so much better than that.

Peter Morgan, a dab hand with the royal genre, having written The Queen and the stage play The Audience, wrote The Crown and in the first series the aim is to chronicle the lives of the Windsors from 1947 to 1956. First off, Claire Foy gives a remarkable performance as Elizabeth – carefully underplaying, almost muted in her delivery of a young woman expecting to live a rather ordinary though royally posh life, and then elevated and essentially incarcerated as Queen. The incarceration aspect is underlined by the attention given to the many men in suits who are almost Dickensian severe in their insistence on protocol, rules and imitations.

Even Matt Smith’s portrayal of Prince Philip is surprisingly empathetic. As a man whose gaffe-prone snobbishness has been caricatured with abandon, this Philip comes across as another trapped figure – essentially decent and unworldly but willing to strive for a comfortable domesticity, he’s a man quietly bristling at the enslaving rules and regulations to which he must adhere. Casting John Lithgow as Churchill was a stroke of genius – unburdened by an English actor’s reverence for the role and bringing a gravitas to it that is outside the English tradition, he inhabits the man with a vigour and sass that is fiendishly endearing.

Having Stephen Daldry on board as a producer and as director of the first two episodes is also an important addition. Daldry made a major splash with Billy Elliot, a film set in the grim northeast of England during the miner’s strike and that film is linked in style and method to those cinéma vérité English movies of the 1960s that sought to portray the sour, doggedly restricted life of the English working class. It’s by bringing that same approach – the underlining of restrictions – that The Crown transcends the genre of costume drama about the royals and brings its characters to life with empathy and remarkable dramatic force.

Airing Wednesday

The Beaverton (Comedy, 10:30 p.m.) is the Comedy Network’s shot at a satirical Canadian news show. Heaven knows, we need a fresh one. Co-hosts Emma Hunter and Miguel Rivas anchor the 13-episode, 30-minute series, with help from “reporters” Aisha Alfa, Donavon Stinson, Laura Cilevitz and Marilla Wex. Some of the advance “bits” are definitely funny. Good luck to all with it.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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