The Crown S3: Aberfan

Aberfan

So, I lied – instead of posting this tomorrow morning, I decided to make this a three-post day. Happy Sunday and all that. Now: This season’s third episode will likely be among those that sticks out from the rest. It covers a real tragedy that occurred in Wales in October 1966 when the spoil tip (accumulated waste from coal mining) in Aberfan, Wales collapsed, slid down a slurry, and killed 144 people, 116 of which were children due to the debris hitting a nearby junior school. This episode begins by showing the disaster itself, but the majority of it covers the fallout for the British government, including its Head of State.

The long and short of it is that Elizabeth’s response is insufficient, but this story is told in two layers: one depicting the logistical reality of her delay, and the other the emotional. Because, per The Crown, it’s not only that Elizabeth failed to visit Aberfan quickly enough, it’s that she didn’t feel anything for the tragedy humanely enough.

Elizabeth is told of the tragedy immediately after it happens. She has to approve Harold Wilson’s use of her plane to visit the site, but she balks at going herself. The Royal Family visits hospitals, according to her, not disasters themselves. So, Martin Charteris – again acting as the lone voice for modern monarchy – is shut down, while Elizabeth approves a perfunctory statement.

We then watch all of the men around Elizabeth feel the tragedy. First Harold Wilson, who seems more in touch with the situation. He not only understands the government needs to be present, but insists on other officials getting their s*** together and high-tailing it to Aberfan as quickly as possible. When they near the town and realize their car won’t go through, he and his entourage walk. We later see him returning home, removing scuffed shoes, and looking visibly shaken, staring at a photograph of (presumably) his wife and child.

Next up is Margaret’s husband, Tony, who unceremoniously packs a bag and visits. We see Margaret joining her sister and mother for breakfast and ordering a whiskey because she’s been up since the middle of the night when Tony called from Aberfan and asked her to go in to their children’s rooms and kiss them while they slept. She says that she’s never heard him like that before, and that he described a picture in which miners were now digging for their children instead of coal. Elizabeth looks bewildered.

Then it’s Philip, who attends a memorial service/funeral for the lives lost. He looks shattered while the town sings a hymn, and when he returns to London, Elizabeth asks him if he wept. He takes umbrage at this and answers that not only did he “weep,” but anyone who listened to that hymn would have been broken into a “thousand tiny pieces.” Elizabeth looks on concerned, but detached.

In the background of this, the situation has unsurprisingly become political – an indictment of the mining industry and the government for allowing this situation to occur. For their part, they mostly blame the weather. Wilson’s advisers are concerned that the Tories are going to make hay of this at the expense of the Labour Party. Next thing we know, Elizabeth is being slammed in the press for evidencing the usual disregard for the Welsh and the working class for which the Royal Family is known. As such, finally, she is prompted to go to Aberfan herself.

She sees the destruction, she sees the makeshift memorials, and she visits with families who lost children. She attends a ceremony of remembrance and, thanks to prompting from her advisers, makes sure that she dabs a handkerchief to her eye as though wiping away a tear. Later, she meets with Harold Wilson to lambast him for publicly insulting her, but he denies it, saying he believes it was his people going rogue.

She then tells him that she didn’t cry at all. She dabbed a “dry eye,” and thank God no one noticed. But that’s not all – she goes on to tell him that there’s something wrong with her. She doesn’t feel things. She visited hospitals during World War II with her parents and they both wept, but she didn’t. She didn’t cry when her beloved grandmother, Queen Mary, died. She didn’t lose her composure when her first child, Prince Charles, was born. She thinks she is lacking in some way, but Wilson assures her that Britain doesn’t need a Head of State who breaks down. They need a leader.

The episode ends with her listening to the hymn that Philip heard while a single tear rolls down her cheek.

Well, in fact, the episode ends with the type that the Queen now views her delay to visit Aberfan as the biggest regret of her reign, and that since then she has visited the town more than any other member of the Royal Family. But before we get too wrapped up in the emotion of it, bear in mind she’s visited four times in the 53 years since.

I am writing this having seen several more episodes of the season by now (v. productive day) and this does appear to be a hypothesis of the show: the Queen doesn’t feel things like the rest of us. She’s an aberration among not only people, but her own family. I don’t think this is true, and I think there is ample evidence that the actual Queen feels a great many things. Most recently, we’ve seen evidence of this during Remembrance Day, an occasion during which she publicly cried, and during she’s cried many times over the years.

Frankly, I find this a tad lazy on the show’s part. They were criticized during the first two seasons for leaving Elizabeth a blank slate while shading in everyone around her, and the solution to this is to apparently depict her as uniquely emotionless instead of a figure who maintains a strict line between public and private. The latter would be harder to do in the absence of information of what the Queen has actually said and done behind closed doors, but it’s also the essence of what this show is meant to tell. We’ll get more into this issue as we go on, but I found this conversation with Wilson be slightly ludicrous. If it needs to be said, no, I don’t think the Queen has ever sat before one of her PMs and confessed she thinks there’s something fundamentally (and emotionally) wrong with her.

But none of that is why I think this episode will stand out. Instead, I think it calls attention to a tragedy that most people today – particularly Americans – have never heard about, and that’s never a bad thing. It’s also our first real Wales-focused episode and we’re certainly not done with it this season.

4 thoughts on “The Crown S3: Aberfan

  1. Anonymous

    I am watching the series and enjoying your comments/summary of the episodes. I thought the conversation with the PM concerning her emotions the most ridiculous/improbable scene yet. The changes in cast have been easier to take that I thought.

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    1. Thank you very much! I agree on both counts – I’ve now finished the season and that scene sticks out to me as one of the low points, while the cast changes have been pretty seamless. I think part of it is that the new actors have based some of their performance on those of the previous seasons and it’s working. Particularly in the cases of Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham-Carter, so well done to them.

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