Skip to main content

"Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose when you can have poetry?" These are the questions that the Duke of Windsor, an asp wearing a pocket square, asks in episode five of The Crown, as he watches the televised coronation of his niece, Queen Elizabeth II.

They are rhetorical questions, of course: The king who abandoned his throne, living in bitter exile in Paris, knows better than anyone that the veil between the private figure and the public monarch is both flimsy and impermeable.

The Queen – the real one, not the young monarch played by seismic understatement Claire Foy – is a singular presence, both the best-known and least-known person on earth. The British monarch is a magnificent cipher in a world of too much information, which may explain why authors like The Crown's Peter Morgan keep returning to her, and why viewers keep tuning in. Surely there must be something stirring in the depths? Surely it's not all just stolid surface?

"Pull away the veil and what are you left with?" asks the duke, a crumbling blend of froideur and pathos in the hands of actor Alex Jennings. "An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. But wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil and hey presto, what do you have? A goddess."

He might well be describing the feat achieved by The Crown, the immensely popular 10-part Netflix series tracing the royal family's public ceremonies and private travails after the accession of Queen Elizabeth II. Come and be dazzled by the rich fabrics and lovely uniforms; stay for the glimpse of human failing underneath.

Helen Mirren is the other actress famous for wearing the cardigan and pearls – so famous that she worried her epitaph would read "She played the Queen" – and understands this conundrum better than most. "She's a human being who's lived a totally alien and strange life that none of us can possibly grasp or understand," Ms. Mirren told a New York television interviewer last year. "But she is, underneath all that, the same as you and I."

Or is she? Only a small group of people will ever know.

As royal historian Carolyn Harris says, "The Queen is someone who combines being very well known in terms of her image, but her views on most subjects are not known. She's the ideal figure to dramatize, in that way. People are always wondering, what does she really think?"

The royal family is an enticing vacuum, which is perhaps why Peter Morgan, the creator and writer of The Crown, keeps returning over and over to pitch words into the void, and bringing Mirren with him. He also wrote the Oscar-winning 2007 film The Queen, which examined the monarchy's disastrous response to Princess Diana's death, and the award-winning play The Audience, which imagines the dialogue between the Queen and the British prime minister during their weekly meetings; she's on her 13th PM at the moment. (The Audience will be performed in January in Toronto, with Fiona Reid in the starring role, and at Theatre Calgary, with Seana McKenna.)

At 90, the Queen is now the longest-reigning monarch in British history. She has outlived Fidel Castro and the King of Thailand and Lonesome George, the Galapagos tortoise. That's a long time to be the world's most famous public figure, and as time passes and she remains a head-scarfed, sensibly shod rock in a river of chaos, affection for her only grows. This is evident in the cultural depictions of her family, which also change with the times. Once they were satirical, pointed, even cruel. Now they're about as biting as a toothless corgi.

Consider what we know about the monarch who lives in this world, and the one who appears in The Crown. What can we say for certain about the Queen, even after dozens of books have been written about her? Very little, in fact. She is famously frugal. She believes her role is ordained by God, which is a good thing since she's the head of the Church of England. She loves dogs and horses and horse racing, and her toast at her oldest son's second wedding began with a joke about who had won the Grand National. She breakfasts to the sound of a personal bagpiper. She wears a black glove to shake hands and has a disconcertingly piercing gaze.

Her emotional geography and her personal beliefs are terra incognito. On very rare occasions, the hull of the good ship Windsor leaks and her words slip out. When they do, the boat rocks. "Queen backs Brexit," the Sun, an anti-EU tabloid, roared earlier this year. It cited an anonymous report of the Queen asking a politician about the UK's relations with Brussels. The palace bristled at the story, and the UK press watchdog judged that the Sun was "significantly misleading" readers.

The Crown is at its best when it shows young Elizabeth coming to terms with this dilemma – as sovereign, she must be both a presence and an absence to her people. Her grandmother Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) offers tough love: "To do nothing is the hardest job of all, and it will take every ounce of energy you have." There's only one opinion the monarch is allowed, which is none at all. (Queen Mary must be writhing under the floor of St. George's Chapel at the thought of the meddling that Prince Charles intends to do, if he's ever king.)

The sumptuous series, reported to have cost Netflix $100-million, starts with the death of George VI in 1952, only 16 years after reluctantly becoming King. For much of her childhood, Lilibet had never thought she'd be Queen, and that she would instead grow up to be "an ordinary English countrywoman," as she says to the Duke of Windsor, who through dereliction of duty has stuck her with the crown. The woman under the ermine struggles with sibling rivalry and the pitfalls of marriage – which every person can understand – and with the singular constitutional burdens of being monarch, which are hers alone to bear.

Peter Morgan provides a telling moment in the series' eighth episode, when the Queen Mother (played by Victoria Hamilton) runs off to Scotland to "have a think."

"Well, don't think too much or too deeply," says her daughter, the young Queen. "Gets one in a muddle."

This rings true: By all accounts, the Queen is not a psychologically complex creature like Princess Diana or Princess Margaret, and is driven less by neurosis than by a keen sense of duty. As Morgan recently told The New Yorker, echoing the words he gave the Duke of Windsor, "She's not a natural choice for a writer, being a monosyllabic woman of limited intelligence and imagination."

Perhaps it's equally true that she's a wonderful canvas because she is so blank. Morgan is certainly not the only one drawn to the canvas (though he may be the only one who's made an industry of it.) A few decades ago, the only way to portray the royal family was by slagging them off, and presenting them as dim, braying parasites. The creators of the Spitting Image puppet show knew this, and so did the satirical magazine Private Eye, which called the Queen and her consort Brenda and Keith, the most insultingly lower-middle-class names possible. Sue Townsend booted the royal family out of Buckingham Palace and put them in public housing in her novel The Queen and I.

But then the tide turned, perhaps after the low-water mark of Princess Diana's death in 1997. "Show us you care, Ma'am," begged the tabloid headlines while the Queen hid away at Balmoral and the country rocked in grief. It's all wonderfully portrayed in The Queen, a movie that also serves as a useful reminder of history's punishing wheel: The monarch's reputation has been rehabilitated and Tony Blair's crushed in the intervening years.

By the time the movie came out in 2007, the royal family had a couple of photogenic princes to carry it forward into the social-media age. Alan Bennett had a hit novel with The Uncommon Reader, imagining the Queen as a voracious devotee of a mobile library, and in 2010 came The King's Speech, an exceedingly well-bred story of George VI coming to terms with his stutter and his crown. William Kuhn's 2013 novel Mrs. Queen Takes the Train imagines the sovereign as a hoodie-wearing escapee from her gilded cage. Today the world can't get enough of emotionally constipated royals and the flocked wallpaper that surrounds them.

And always there is Peter Morgan, using the blank slate of the Queen to portray the prevailing anxiety of the times. In The Audience, she has more common sense than the prime ministers who visit her, an unschooled monarch gently schooling the striving technocrats. In The Crown, she is a new hire thrust into an uncomfortable job, wary of her colleagues, while technology changes the world around her.

The tenth episode of The Crown ends with the Queen, having alienated both her sister and her husband, posing steely-eyed for her official portrait. If she is riven inside, she is too much monarch to show it. "Glorious gloriana," the unseen photographer intones, "Forgetting Elizabeth Windsor now. Now only Elizabeth Regina. Yes?" Another rhetorical question, and perhaps one the Queen still asks herself.

Or perhaps not. We'll never know.

Interact with The Globe