The Crown: season two review – the one with all the shagging … and Suez
Attagirl, Lilibet! From the Kennedy assassination to the Profumo affair, Netflix goes bigger and better as it kicks off a truly historic second series
Friday 8 December 2017 15.27 GMT Last modified on Thursday 14 December 2017 08.17 GMT
When the dusty scrolls of television history are unfurled by future generations and all 60 episodes of The Crown promised to us are found to lie therein, this one shall be known down the ages as The One With All the Shagging – and Suez.
We start this second series of creator and writer Peter Morgan’s masterpiece in 1956. Continuing the first series’ delicate blending of complementary private and public events, we find both the royal couple and Britain descending into war. The Queen has found a photograph of a young female dancer in the luggage Prince Philip is taking on his five-month tour of the Commonwealth and is alternately grief-stricken and incandescent with fury. (Claire Foy is brilliantly subtle at conveying the thoughts behind the monarchical mask with the most minor of quiverings and careful recompositions of her luminously compelling face.) Philip is unaware – he is Philip. Matt Smith will get his turn in the spotlight this series, but not quite yet.
First, the Suez crisis has to play out. Those who lived through it or know their history better than I do will feel less keenly the grace with which the exposition of national events is worked into the drama without hindering its progression. But as in the first series, the writing throughout this episode – which covers the Duke of Windsor’s return, the Kennedy assassination and many other defining moments before ending with the Profumo affair – is a marvel of skill and consideration.
Harold Macmillan succeeds Anthony Eden. The Queen endures. In the second episode, we turn to Philip, who is still chafing at the ignominy of coming a permanent second to his wife. This series gives far more attention and depth to characters who were, of necessity, mostly reacting to the events in which they were swept up for most of the inaugural 10 episodes. Margaret, in particular, is given more room for manoeuvre – embittered, vulnerable, a crashing snob and still the last fun thing to come out of Buck House before Prince Harry – as her relationship and marriage to Anthony Armstrong-Jones (that’s where most of the shagging comes in) unfolds. Lord Snowdon-to-be, incidentally, is so wonderfully played by Finn Polmar that I would like a special award for Pitch-Perfect Portrayals of Sixties English Shits to be invented forthwith so he can be handed it asap.
But it is Philip who benefits most from the extra emphasis on character study. Matt Smith is an actor whom it is impossible to give too much to do, and even by the end of this – his final run before he and Foy are replaced by older actors next season – he is not truly stretched. Flashbacks in several episodes flesh out the Duke of Edinburgh’s largely forgotten but extraordinary background: early exile in Paris; an absent father and a mother diagnosed with schizophrenia; the Nazi-sympathising family; the death of several relatives in a plane crash, including his favourite sister and the baby she gave birth to during the flight – all before he was past adolescence. Later episodes, in which he struggles to master his frustration with Charles and love the boy despite their differences and despite himself, are painful to watch.
It is another nuanced, psychologically acute 10 hours of stately – but never dull – plotting and portraiture, which uses the past to illuminate the present, rather than merely retelling history (the courtiers’ bafflement at people crying over Billy Graham’s sermons, and the barely concealed royal resentment of the glamour of the Kennedys, surely have their parallels in Diana, for example). It is also, as the presence of the public begins to make itself felt to the Establishment, a little less suffocating than the original.
The light and air is welcome, and prepares us for the unprecedented moment when the Queen, after being told the rude remarks Jackie Kennedy made about the sovereign’s intellect and home, shows a sense of humour. “Well,” she replies, “we must have her again soon.” Attagirl, Lilibet. Attagirl.
Netflix is rumoured to have spent twice the £100m budget of the first series on this one, but it is money well spent again. Easy can lie the head that wears this crown.
• The Crown is available on Netflix now.