'The Crown tells us as much about our present as about the past'
'The Crown tells us as much about our present as about the past'

'The Crown tells us as much about our present as about the past'

The new season of The Crown premieres on Netflix this week. Is The Crown mainly a stylish soap opera about the royals, or does the series influence how we think about British culture worldwide?

Fair is fair: "Basically, The Crown is just a soap opera for people who don't like Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden (an iconic Dutch soap opera), says Dennis Kersten, university lecturer specialising in English-language literature. Its appeal is similar to many other soaps. On the one hand, The Crown revolves around a world that is impenetrable to us, with characters we admire. They are people whom we expect, or even demand, to be superhumanly warm and generous, but on the other hand, we also want to see genuine emotions, i.e. their 'ordinary' human side."

On the other hand, we should be careful not to think of The Crown as a documentary. At least that is the concern of several British politicians and celebrities, such as former prime minister John Major and actress Judi Dench. They have spoken out in the media about the risk that the sensationalism of the series could seriously damage the British royal family. Partly due to this outcry, the latest season comes with a disclaimer: ‘Inspired by real events, this fictional dramatization tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II and the political and personal events that shaped her reign’.

Not a documentary

Kersten indeed understands this concern. "The makers of The Crown try incredibly hard in many ways to give the impression that everything is truthful. The beautiful white dress that the actress wears in the series when portraying Elizabeth’s visit to Ghana in 1961 is an exact copy of the dress that she wore at the time. After each season, you can read comparisons of locations and costumes in the series with those in real life, and you can see that the creators put a lot of work into ensuring the accuracy of these details. The temptation is therefore to think that everything is accurate. We tend to assume that if they have checked the small details, then the dialogues must also be correct. We understand that it's a dramatisation, but it’s still tempting to go along with it."

British identity

But The Crown is more than just a beautifully made soap opera; there is also plenty of material for researchers. This is certainly the case for Kersten: in his research, he is particularly interested in the biographical genre, and his lectures regularly address the theme of 'Britishness'. According to Kersten, there are many reasons to follow The Crown with ‘professional interest’.

"The British national identity, certainly to the rest of the world, is largely built around its representation in media such as films, books and series like The Crown," Kersten explains. "When I ask my students in their first lecture about what Britishness means to them, I always get answers like tea, the iconic red telephone box and the British royal family. Series like The Crown confirm these existing images and only reinforce that aspect of British identity."

Past and present

What makes The Crown so interesting for Kersten is not what it says about the past, but mainly what it says about the British present. "When history is written, it is always a product of its time. In both The King's Speech and The Crown, Elizabeth's uncle Edward is portrayed as a self-centred man, choosing his own interests above those of the British people and the nation. But in the 1980s, a series on Edward VIII showed him in a much more positive light. And in 2011, Madonna made W./E., a film that also put a more positive spin on his life."

"Developments in our own time make us look differently at moments from the past. Consider, for example, the image of Elizabeth herself. In the 1960s, she was seen as a somewhat dull, frumpy type: she held firmly to traditions at a time when huge protests were taking place in society and the Beatles and Rolling Stones were taking British culture by storm. Now, at her death 60 years later, it is impressive that she remained so consistent for so long. There is so much respect for Elizabeth's sense of duty that Edward now seems to be a loser."

Kersten continues to follow The Crown and other narratives (and revised narratives) of the history of British royalty with interest. "The Crown is a very good series. Whether you love costume dramas like Downton Abbey, are fascinated by British culture or are drawn to the stunning cinematography, everyone can indulge in The Crown. But it is also only one interpretation of the role played by Elizabeth. This interpretation is already changing. For example, criticism is emerging about about injustices in former British colonies, often committed in her name."

"A few years ago, British publisher Penguin released the Penguin Monarchs, a series of 44 booklets with a short biography of a British monarch in each volume, from 924 to the present. That provided many new insights into how we currently look at royals of the past. In a review at the time, I wrote that each generation actually has to re-explore its relationship with the monarchy. The same applies to The Crown: in a hundred years, Elizabeth will mean something completely different to us than she does today."

Image source: Pexels

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