In this piece, Anirbaan Banerjee explores the pervasiveness of the British monarchy through the lens of the historical television drama series, The Crown.
One does not need to be facing the imposing façade of the Buckingham Palace to be able to acknowledge the indelible imprint of the monarchy on British society. Homage to the sovereign is omnipresent – from city streets to Tube stations, pubs to parks, monuments to memorials. It is in these moments, when identification of everyday banality is made possible by invoking the elevated ideal, that the real pervasiveness of the monarchy becomes evident. For many post-colonials inhabiting the metropole in the UK today, including myself, the powerful persistence of the monarchy is as intriguing as it is baffling. It is, admittedly, a source of partial discomfort and perpetual self-reflection for us to indulge in a television series devoted to the British monarchy – the symbolic force of the British Empire. Such is the ambivalent indulgence with which I watched the Netflix series, The Crown. However, the story of the British monarchy is not a narrative that needs resuscitation through a computer screen. The resuscitation is, in fact, a re-negotiation with the reality of this narrative that continues in our world today. Through The Crown, the monarchical narrative takes a double life – one life more fictive than the other, yet both founded on narratives that we collectively construct and believe in. What can one spectacle then tell us about the other spectacle? And do we remain similar spectators as we partake sociologically in these fictions?
In the first season of The Crown, a young Elizabeth learns from the pages of Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution about the monarchy as the “dignified” element of the Constitution whose authority transcends the need for popular consensus. The increasing instability of Bagehot’s words is reflected in the second season of The Crown when a modern and post-colonial ethos generates an institutional existential crisis. The test of relevance requires irreverence, and irreverence abounds in this season, even if it is tentatively tendered. The royalist reformist Lord Altrincham declares to Queen Elizabeth, “The age of deference is over”, even as he fails to defy the royal protocol of bows and curtsies. Rather than fawning and fumbling over finding the appropriate tea set, a household wife Eileen Parker bitterly refuses favours to the Queen on a home visit. We find ourselves in soirées where the sovereign is not sacred, in colonies where the queen’s portrait is unceremoniously dismounted, and in newspaper offices where scathing editorials of a “priggish schoolgirl” queen are printed. This ironically self-indulgent tenor of this season seems to resonate today when the monarchy persists as an anachronism in our contemporary consciousness.
The second season suggests that the monarchy is the manifestation of the collectively imagined ideals of the British people. It is in many ways the most obvious and extensive materialisation of a symbol rendered tangible by the taxpayer. To consider individuals as embodiments of an ideal, however, requires a fair bit of lowering one’s gaze. But, what happens if you look straight ahead, anyway? The queen copes with the personal paradox of being the most important person in Britain with a seemingly uninteresting character. Her preoccupations as a monarch intermingle with everyday anxieties of womanhood and motherhood. Prince Philip’s personal history of exile, his sister’s Nazi affiliations and his experience of parental neglect further add to the show’s rejection of a caricatured monarchy with a stiff upper lip and stiffer protocol sheets. The monarchy is complex, with its fraught histories and insecurities. Yet, the royal family in the show, and often even in reality, seems to want brush under the carpet the messiness of being human because they derive privilege by appearing perfect. The Crown’s second season, however, also subverts this idea that the people expect the monarchy to be superhuman. The public seems to want their royals to be real and relatable – not placed on pedestals. It becomes increasingly difficult to claim that the monarchy represents collective British ideals because this claim assumes that the British have a consensus on a common set of ideals to aspire towards. The second season rather shows that this consensus, if it ever existed, is in constant flux.
In the public eye, the royals are often not as much persons as they are personifications. Jolting the dreary conventions of monarchy is what made us fall in love with Princess Diana, and it is what is making us fall in love with Meghan Markle today. Biracial American actress, divorcee, outspoken rights activist. She ticks all the wrong boxes and wins all the public favour for that very reason. She exudes a this-worldliness which makes her a relatable, potentially rebellious royal entering an other-worldly institution. Markle’s unconventionality is very different from that of Princess Margaret in The Crown, in both manner and context. But, both represent the royalty’s perpetual negotiation with evolving public values. Literally every thread on Markle’s body is read as rebellion in the public eye, and almost always placed in sharp contrast with the conventional conformity of her future sister-in-law, Kate Middleton. And so, in an apparent celebration of womanhood, two complex women are crudely reduced to negations of one another. In a similar way, in The Crown, Elizabeth and Margaret become foils to one another. But, The Crown takes pains to show that the lives of both women are complex in their own way. It reminds us that as we celebrate Markle today, we must not undermine the reality of being Kate Middleton.
The monarchy is a symbol of necessary excess in the show. And there is something inherently infuriating in witnessing this paradox at play. But, in the brilliance of The Crown, this infuriation is not isolated and rather, we find the characters of the show dealing with a similar frustration – like Princess Margaret, claiming the title of a ‘modern’ woman but still expecting public deference to her royal title. The introspective tone of The Crown creates an astonishingly powerful space for radical and royalist sympathies to be conversational bedfellows. Even when the show eulogises the death of the absolutist monarchy, its tone appears insincere, or at least interrogative. While people do want the monarchy to persist in Britain, they don’t seem to have a simple reason why. Reasons change and people’s relationship to the monarchy changes. Till then, the monarchy may be contested in its symbolic meaning but it remains unquestionably human in form. Acknowledging and respecting this mortality will add more dignity to a public relationship with the royals that more often than not spirals into voyeuristic excess. The Crown can help us to critically engage with both the monarchy as an institution and our relationship to it as its reluctantly voracious consumers.
The Crown, (2016 – present). [TV programme] Netflix: Peter Morgan (accessed at http://www.netflix.com)
Anirbaan Banerjee (@anirbaan96) is pursuing an MSc in Sociology in the Department. His research interests include cultural studies, immigrant cultures, post-colonial studies and social theory.