Sunday, January 14, 2018

Our January Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: THE CROWN -- Season Two

As intriguing story and stately pageant, Netflix’s streaming series, The Crown, continues to gleam. Peter Morgan, writer (below left, pictured with director, Stephen Daldry), treats the eyes and mind to the beauty and absurdity of the institution that we are at once possessive of, ga-ga over, and feel superior to — the British monarchy being our own origin story, the authoritarian regime that led us to create a democracy for ourselves. 

Right about now that constitutional monarchy is looking benign and not so absurd, compared to U.S. constitution fuzzies that have permitted exactly what we fought against in the 1700’s — authoritarian rule by an erratic, narcissistic, if not mentally ill leader. The British have since created their own democracy, walling off the Crown from Parliament, so that today it functions primarily as a large PR firm headquartered behind palace walls. Imbued with a deep sense of responsibility at home, Crown royalty work hard, some of them nearly 24/7, supporting charities and civic work that helps make Britain well-meaning, if not great.

Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary (at right), held to the ‘divine right’ view of monarchy. She is said to have told Elizabeth: Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards…..

Of course, that was then. Elizabeth (the spectacular and very hard-working actress, Claire Foy) replies that her husband Prince Philip (Matt Smith) believes that church and state should be separate, that if God has servants, they are priests, not kings. Parliament steers its own track now, while the Crown’s adjustment to 21st century mores creeps forward. It offers a tone of caring and civic-mindedness — humanity absent in the U.S. of late.

In fact King George V (above, left), Elizabeth’s grandfather, broke with tradition to affirm that the House of Windsor owed its loyalty to the British people above all, and to establish the precedent of personal outreach and public service that the royals practice now. (A Netflix documentary, The Royal House of Windsor gives a full account of the history of the 100 year old dynasty.) Her parents, George VI and Elizabeth, outdid themselves bucking up the Brits during the blitz, remaining a presence in London (below).

Having been trained dutifully to serve, Elizabeth addressed the nation by radio on her 21st birthday: “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” Ms Foy portrays the model public servant. Every thought, every worry, every struggle appears on her face and in her eyes; the Queen’s earnestness is palpable.

Crown 2 offers another elegantly, expensively wrought 10 episodes each of which demonstrates, sometimes satirically, the clash between tradition and progress. There is threat to the royal marriage, education trauma for young Prince Charles, parliamentary crisis as England’s colonial domination slips, and for Elizabeth, learning on the job how to “be” with her subjects.

Take the episode, ‘Marionettes,’ in which the Queen delivers a staff-written, unknowingly condescending speech at a Jaguar auto plant that is promptly rebuked by a peer, Lord Altrincham (John Heffernan, above left, a character actor with a talent for satire and irony, shown with the real Altrincham, right). He calls her old-fashioned, priggish, and tone-deaf in the new age of republics replacing monarchies — his words ricocheting across British tabloids. Humble Elizabeth meets him in secret, where he offers suggestions, most involving her being more open and approachable, nearly all implemented in a year. Her first TV holiday greeting was a warm homily delivered in 1958 (below). The palace later conceded that Lord Altrincham did as much as anyone in the 20th century to help the monarchy.

Elizabeth’s flamboyant sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby, below, right), gets two tabloid-ready chapters in her love-life following the debacle of her broken relationship with her father’s divorced equerry, Peter Townsend (the church still rigidly denying royal marriage to a divorce with a living spouse). Her next love is avant garde photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, later titled Lord Snowden. The versatile Matthew Goode (below, left) plays him as controlling and enormously sexy. Armstrong-Jones ran with a bohemian crowd of artists and intellectuals. He had several lovers while also romancing Margaret, including a married couple both of whom he had sex with, the wife pregnant with Tony’s child at Tony and Margaret’s wedding. The narrative suggests that his desire for her was partly fostered by his own mother’s disregard of him as the lesser of her sons and his need for her approval.

The marriage was happy for some years but eventually broke down, each of them willful and needing the spotlight, though they successfully raised two talented, artistic children and remained friends till Margaret’s death in 2002. Armstrong-Jones was the first commoner to marry into the royal family in 400 years, theirs was the first royal wedding televised (below), and their divorce the first since Henry VIII. (Prince Charles’s marriage to a divorcee has paved the way for Harry’s uncontroversial impending nuptials.)

One episode, Vergangenheit, (means ‘past’ or ‘past history’), was especially provocative and reverberates now—here. Peter Morgan’s narrative bobbed and weaved, so please watch Edward VIII, the Nazi King, also on Netflix, to get the full picture. According to this short documentary, the Brits were lucky to have the “divorcee” excuse to deny Elizabeth’s uncle David, new playboy King Edward VIII (Alex Jennings, below, left), his bride of choice, which led him to abdicate in favor of his brother, Elizabeth’s father, a man of responsible character. Our FBI had been watching David’s paramour, American Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams, below, right) because of her Nazi sympathies. President Roosevelt was fielding American anti-war sentiment on his way to war — he could not afford the glamorous duo rallying that sentiment into a movement.

David too was pro-German, seduced by Hitler’s charisma and power. He wanted to reconnect with his German ancestral roots decisively severed by his father because of anti-German sentiment in England during World War I. George V dropped the German family name in 1917, inventing ‘House of Windsor’ (named after one of their palaces) for the sake of "Englishness."

David’s attraction to power played out in his love for Wallis: she was the dominatrix; he the submissive. His admiration for Hitler was narcissistic and naïve; his public statements argued against Britain’s call for war with Germany in the name of “peace.” Meanwhile, Hitler feted and cultivated the couple for future use (as Putin has done with Trump). Hitler’s ambassador to Britain, Joachim Ribbentrop, had an affair with Wallis while she and David were courting; she remained Ribbentrop’s confidante for years, passing him British secrets. FBI and (literally dug up) German war files reveal that David was being groomed as Hitler’s puppet king, if/when Germany conquered Britain. David believed the continued bombing of London would lead his brother, King George VI, to surrender — a revelation that horrified his family. To David, Nazism was a self-evident good; he was mystified, angered at his family’s rejection (in the face of) his “peaceful” and “noble” ambitions. (In the first season of The Crown, the family disdain of David and Wallis seemed overly cruel; only in Crown 2, do we find out why.)

Because loose-lipped David had already hurt the war effort, especially tipping Germany to choose the least defended route to invade France, Churchill contrived to keep the couple as distant as possible. They were kept out of England and shunned by the royals, even by his mother, Queen Mary. In the end Parliament leadership was grateful that Wallis’s divorces kept David from the throne and the crisis his rule might have provoked. Fortunately he was too passive and shallow to overcome the constraints placed on him — but what if he had been strong and manipulative?

Given that both our nations have verged on authoritarianism in the modern era, one is left to ponder whether either system has more to offer than the other in so far as protecting our inalienable rights.

The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent, 
Lee Liberman.

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