If the first episode set the stage and gave us our characters, it is this week in which the action really begins. Princess Elizabeth becomes Queen Elizabeth and Britain, once more, is shouting, “God save the Queen.”
It is February 1952 and Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, are beginning a four continent tour of the Commonwealth that will mean months of travel – and months of separation from their home, family and children. I didn’t bring this up in my recap of the first episode, but it bears mentioning here: For all that this show underlines the split between Elizabeth as a woman and Elizabeth as a monarch, that attention is focused on her as a wife, not a mother. Charles and Anne are after thoughts, small child actors running around Malta, Buckingham Palace and Clarence House. Elizabeth isn’t worried about leaving them; she is worried about Philip wanting to undergo that lengthy of a tour. It’s too soon to tell in the series whether there is a larger point being made about her parenting, but I have a feeling there is.
In any case, the young couple are in Kenya representing King George VI. Elizabeth gives a speech dressed in a polka dot dress and a white hat to a sea of Kenyans, telling them how proud the British government is of them for allowing the transition from savagery to civility. It’s a startling and rather horrifying reminder of the racism that helped spur the expanse of the British Empire – you know, in case you forgot.
Then there is Philip who, going down the receiving line of Kenyan government officials, is tickled that some of them boast the same military medals he does. “Oh come now,” he says, amused. “Where did you steal that one from?” Elizabeth is less than pleased. He then pauses before a man wearing an ornate headdress. “Like the hat,” he remarks. Now Elizabeth is humiliated – she pulls him away, offering an apologetic smile to the man. “That’s not a hat,” she says. “That’s a crown.”
Back home and Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s political rivals are growing concerned that he only pays attention to international affairs, completely ignoring what’s going on within the UK. Or, perhaps closer to the truth, he only cares about the matters that will bring him glory – that he has a personal interest in – as opposed to doing his duty to ensure proper governance. Anthony Eden goes to George VI and asks him to speak to his PM, not as a king, but as Albert Windsor to a friend.
But I am no longer Albert Windsor, says George. He refuses to overstep the boundaries of his position and then carefully clips Anthony by telling him his time will come and he’s better-served by waiting for it patiently.
George is feeling better. He gets the approval of his doctor to organize a shooting party at Sandringham and he has a day out in the thick of things with his friends and his younger daughter, Margaret. That evening they sing a duet together made all the more poignant by what you know is coming next. He goes to bed and when an aide tries to wake him up the next day they can’t. He’s died in his sleep.
Thus comes the true action of the episode – how the Palace goes about notifying the family, the world and the new sovereign. Unfortunately, it’s in that order. You get the very real sense as the aid runs down the hallway to notify his superiors that that moment is probably the most important of his life. The news is whispered in Queen Mary’s ear as she’s taking her breakfast. You see that Queen Elizabeth – now the Queen Mother – has been told when she comes running out of her bedroom weeping. No one has told Margaret, though – she stands frozen in the hallways, picking up the news by the chaos happening all around her.
Churchill is told and the news is leaking out around the world, but they’re holding the BBC from reporting because no one can get a hold of the new queen. He asks for an update on when she will be reached and there isn’t one. He lets the BBC report, underscoring that for a brief time the entire world knew Elizabeth was queen before she did.
She’s still in Kenya, enjoying a stay at the Treetops hotel where she can view elephants, taking pictures of birds and driving around the countryside with crowds cheering her on. This is all true, btw, and you can read a full rundown of that day here. In any event, her staff learns about the King’s death and her private secretary, Martin Charteris, rushes to tell her. You see him pausing outside her door, her writing a letter on the other side without any inkling of what’s going to happen – he pauses and goes instead to Philip who is napping in a hammock.
You don’t actually hear anyone say the news – all you see are the pained expressions on everyone’s face once they learn. It’s skillfully done and perhaps no one looks as genuinely anguished as Philip who knows full well how deeply his marriage, his wife and his family are going to be impacted. It’s a point worth underscoring: there was no sense when Philip and Elizabeth married four years before that they would be called up for the “top job” as quickly as they were. They had no reason to think they didn’t have another decade or two to ease into their roles, adulthood, careers and family.
As it is, Elizabeth and Philip immediately drop the rest of the tour and fly back to London. She is met on the plane by George’s private secretary, Alan (“Tommy”) Lascelles, who is now her private secretary – replacing Martin. She is given a black dress to change into and a letter from Queen Mary. And it’s the letter that spells everything out: From now on Elizabeth Mountbatten comes second; Elizabeth Regina comes first. The personal and public will come into conflict over and over again, but the crown must always win.
The advice clearly hits Elizabeth immediately, for she comes out from the room dressed in mourning and she’s the queen. Philip tries to escort her down the stairs and Lascelles stops him – no, the Queen goes first. And without a moment of hesitation Elizabeth does exactly that, forcing Philip to trot along after her.
The episode ends with Elizabeth being greeted by her mother and sister (not the other way around) and for the first time both drop in a curtsy to her because she now outranks them. It ends with Queen Mary, shrouded in a black veil, meeting them in the corridor and also making an obeisance to her granddaughter. And it is this curtsy, from a woman brought into the royal fold during the reign of Queen Victoria, where you truly get the sense that the respect is less to her granddaughter, whom she loves, and more to the institution of the monarchy, which she serves. Elizabeth, in that moment, is not a person but an idea that her physical person must always symbolize.
So, what else? You see the relationship between Margaret and Peter more clearly – that they are genuinely in love and both are willing to risk quite a bit to make it work. It is also reinforced that not only is Peter married with children, but that the rest of the royal household knows full well that an inappropriate relationship is unfolding. Without ever saying Margaret’s name, Lascelles drops him a threat that is both cutting and correct. He has stepped out of place and yet, instead of stopping things before they become a scandal, he is barging forward into the abyss.
The episode sets up Margaret and Philip as martyrs to the monarchy – those to whom there is very little regard shown at Elizabeth’s accession and yet two people who are perhaps impacted just as deeply. They have effectively lost the wife and sister they knew and their relationships with her have forever changed. They come second to the job and they walk behind, not alongside, her. Literally and figuratively – these points are well made and they’ll drive the rest of the season as they both flounder in the new order.
Churchill, who has been on the receiving end of any number of disparaging remarks, delivers an address to the nation on the news of George’s death that is magnificent. He understands the mood of the people and he is able to perfectly capture the magic of the British monarchy. Can anyone else deliver the rhetorical skill that he does? Not bloody likely and every man listening to him in that room knows it.
Hyde Park Corner is a tight episode. Unlike the premier which covered four years, all of the action here takes place in a matter of days. But they are arguably some of the most important few days in 20th century British history.