Peter Morgan’s Gloriana

There has been considerable discussion about the ways in which the fourth season of showrunner Peter Morgan’s The Crown takes liberties with the historical record, most notably Hugh Vickers’s The Crown Dissected. Any discussion of departures from the historical record is incomplete unless it explains why the creators made their narrative choices and outlines the bigger picture or larger truth that they are conveying.

At the outset, I should make it clear that I’m interested in Elizabeth’s role as constitutional monarch, rather than as matriarch of a large and dysfunctional family. The program combines both, of course, so I will focus on the former.

In 2016, several years after The Audience and during the first season of The Crown Morgan gave an interview that sharply contrasts his treatment of the Queen and of her prime ministers;

“It’s desperately unfashionable to say she does the job well, but she does the job well. If you got a team of scientists together you couldn’t create a better queen. It’s sort of a breathtaking achievement, really, to have gone through public life in the age of the hypersensitivity of media that we have and to have somebody who is fucked up as little as she is. Her absence of catastrophe is unfathomable, given the leaders that we’ve got. If you look at the people that have reached the very top of our society because of an electoral process and what they’ve done… Every single Prime Minister leaves a crushed broken man, having made a complete idiot of himself, and she just carries on being absolutely identical and unchanged. It’s kind of extraordinary.”

Thus, the second season ends with Elizabeth accepting Harold Macmillan’s resignation and reflecting on her first three prime ministers: “all ambitious, clever, and brilliant men. But not one has lasted the course: one was too old, another too ill, a third too weak. You are a confederacy of elected quitters.”

Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher

The formidable Margaret Thatcher is prime minister for all of season 4. In every instance when she and the Queen are in contact, it is the Queen who comes off the better. Thatcher, inappropriately, lectures the Queen in their weekly audiences. The Thatchers commit numerous faux pas in their visit to Balmoral such as arriving for drinks in evening attire and forgetting to bring casual attire for wildlife stalking. The Queen, realizing that the arc of history bends towards justice, coaxes a reluctant Prime Minister to join the rest of the Commonwealth in supporting sanctions of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Mrs. Thatcher, attempting to retain her office in the face of internal opposition, asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament. The Queen refuses, pointing out that Thatcher is losing the support of cabinet, parliament, and the country, and advises her to accept the inevitable. After Mrs. Thatcher does resign, the Queen privately awards her the Order of Merit, given at her discretion, recognizing her “work ethic, sense of duty, and devotion to the country we both love.”

Some of the above reflects the historical record, some doesn’t. The Thatchers weren’t as out of place at Balmoral as depicted, and Mrs. Thatcher definitely did not ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament. The untruths blend with the half-truths and the truths to portray a monarch more successful at statecraft than one of her most exceptional prime ministers.

Juxtaposition as Method

Peter Morgan’s programs are built on juxtapositions, sometimes parallelisms and sometimes contrasts. Louis Mountbatten’s boat is being blown out of the water at the same time the Queen and Philip are killing deer and Prince Charles is clubbing a trout he just caught. Contrasts between characters include: Prince Philip and Louis Mountbatten as mentors to Prince Charles; the Thatchers, ill at ease at Balmoral, and Diana fitting in effortlessly; the Windsor children and the Thatcher children, each one troubled in a different way; the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher; the Queen and Princess Margaret; and Camilla and Diana, each aware of their own and the other’s position in the triangle. Morgan’s juxtapositional storytelling often requires distortion of character and historical action and even the chronology of actual events. The audience might enjoy the aesthetics of juxtaposition without realizing the extent of fictionalization necessary to achieve the effect.

A decade before The Audience, Morgan wrote a trilogy of low budget movies focusing on Tony Blair, always in juxtaposition with a co-protagonist: The Deal (2003) about his negotiation of a power-sharing agreement with Gordon Brown; The Queen (2006), about his advising the Queen about how to respond to the outpouring of emotion at the death of Princess Diana; and The Special Relationship (2010), about Blair’s relationship with President Clinton, especially regarding peace-keeping in the former Yugoslavia. These movies use juxtapositions in a much more subtle way than The Crown, painting a much more nuanced portrait of politics and the complex motivations of politicians. Writing about them in Governing Fables (p.97), I concluded “There are neither indisputable heroes, nor villains, nor even antiheroes in Morgan’s version of the [English political] fable. They are, rather, complex and contradictory human beings acting out private dramas of character on a very public stage.” I encourage readers to watch these films for a more thoughtful side to Peter Morgan.

Season 4 ends with Prince Philip at Christmas telling an alienated Diana “everyone in this [family] system is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider apart from the one person, the only person that matters. She’s the oxygen we all breathe, the essence of all our duty.” Gloriana she remains.

I wonder how Morgan will deal with the Queen’s reaction to the death of Diana in season 5. His previous film The Queen depicts a monarch with over forty years of experience suddenly rejected by her subjects and having to take lessons in a different type of statecraft from a newbie prime minister. This conflicts with the dominant narrative of the previous four seasons of a calm and thoughtful monarch and floundering politicians. Perhaps the Queen’s composure fails when the issue she is confronting derives from her own family’s dysfunction. I look forward to seeing how Peter Morgan squares this circle.

2 comments

  1. Excellent, insightful analysis. Very helpful as I am binging on the series and wondering about some of the portrayals.

    Just out of curiosity: since Churchill in WWII, which if any of Britain’s PM’s left office on a high note with reputation intact? Is there something about Britain’s system of government especially conducive to a PM’s term ending badly (e.g., votes of no confidence?)?

  2. The absence of term limits gives any PM an incentive to keep trying to win — until they lose. Blair left because of his agreement with Brown and would have gone out on a high note, except for the ongoing (and life-long) stigma of his support for Bush in the Iraq War. Harold Wilson, in his second term (1974-76) left when he chose to because he knew dementia was setting in.
    In Canada, two long-serving PMs chose to leave before they knew they would be defeated in the next election (Trudeau, Mulroney) and one left because of intra-party conflict (Chretien).
    Sandford Borins

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