Normally I like to recap these episodes by focusing on the actual show as opposed to fact-checking, but in this case I’m going to deviate. This covers such a specific moment in time that I think it’s worth drawing out what was going on, particularly as the episode ends with a short epilogue on Lord Altrincham.
As depicted, in August 1957 a piece called, “The Monarch Today,” ran in a small publication, the National and English Review, which was written by Altrincham and criticized not only the Queen but the courtiers surrounding her. Altrincham already had a reputation for near heresy thanks to his position on women in the Anglican Church and his lobbying against the House of Lords, which he claimed was full of members unfit to serve. His opinion was given more attention than it perhaps normally would have thanks to his own background, which included an education at Eton and Oxford, a title and service as an officer in the Grenadier Guards.
He argued that the monarch should function in a “truly classless and Commonwealth court,” as opposed to one dominated by similarly upper-class men and women who would be unable to deliver an outside perspective. As for the Queen, he did criticize her speaking style, as depicted on the show, referring to her as a “priggish schoolgirl” who seemingly repeated whatever words she was handed.
The outcry, as there often is when the monarch is criticized, was sizable. Within the Palace it was viewed slightly better, thanks to the presence of Martin Charteris and Prince Philip. The latter offers a point not fully acknowledged by the show, which is that for all his discomfort and for all the marital strain that Elizabeth’s rise to the top prompted, Philip was a fully working member of the Royal Family. The show often only shows him swinging by his club and complaining, but he was building the organizations that he still patronizes today and was a very real guiding force for the mid-century modernization that the monarchy went through. This was reflected more tangibly in the first season and only nodded at here and there so far this round.
Whether Lord Altrincham actually met with Charteris, much less the Queen, I don’t know, but from the summer of 1957 on there was a significant change in how the Queen operated. Most concretely was the rise of her television interviews, which leveraged technology as a way to reach more of the people and was a tool that Philip endorsed.
What’s left out from the show is that Elizabeth was poised to go to North America for a foreign tour that autumn and it was in Canada that she conducted her first televised address. Speaking in both English and French, she reached an audience of 14 million and started off by saying:
“I want to talk to your more personally … There are long periods when life seems a small dull round, a petty business with no point, and then suddenly we are caught up in some great event which gives us a glimpse of the solid and durable foundation of our existence.”
The tour overall was marked by more spontaneity and a greater effort to mix with non-royal people and places, prompting criticism back in Britain that the Queen saw fit to do so across the Altantic but had yet to show such humanity at home.
The party depicted at the end of the episode, in which the Queen Mother churlishly clutches her pearls at the idea of such middle class people swanning into Buckingham Palace, is a nod to the garden parties that are hosted each year in England and Scotland. They have become staples of the royal calendar and are attended by various members of the RF throughout the spring and summer. These events, starting in 1958, replaced the antiquated debutante presentations that had been held at court since the days of George III.
It’s an interesting moment in time for The Crown to capture, but what is perhaps most notable in its depiction is the resistance they show from the RF, particularly the Queen and the Queen Mother. Philip is almost nowhere to be found, while you get only a sense of duty and resignation from Elizabeth. Is that fair? Maybe re: the Queen Mother, but for once I would say the show chose to leave out Philip in a moment where he actually did merit more attention.
We’re going to take a brief break from The Crown tomorrow for a history post, as well as to cover one of the Duchess of Cambridge’s engagement, but we’ll be back at it on Wednesday with the next two episodes.