It’s 1964, and Britain has a new left-wing Prime Minister in Harold Wilson. Over the next decade, the country will see miners’ strikes, the moon landings and the arrival of David Bowie. It’s all changing a bit quickly for the Queen, who is struggling to see where her family fits.
Things are changing in Buckingham Palace, and the country it’s fenced off from, in Season 3 of The Crown. For starters, everyone looks different. The Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Margaret are now played by Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham Carter. All fabulous, of course, which will be a surprise to nobody. The changes are more than cosmetic. Where the first two seasons were broadly about a monarch establishing her place in the world, Season 3 has the Queen settled in her purpose but finding she’s adapted to a world that no longer exists. Britain in the 1960s and ’70s is charging into the future. The monarchy is wedged in the past.
What The Crown continues to do superbly is to use the royal family as eyes on a changing world. Cosseted from normal life, they observe Britain almost like aliens being dropped on a strange planet. For much of this series, the Prime Minister is Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), a proper leftie who thinks the monarchy is a waste of money. In their regular meetings, over which develops a slow but deep respect, he shows Her Majesty a country that is struggling economically, leaving behind fusty traditional values and wondering why it’s paying millions for a living tourist attraction when everyone else is struggling to keep the lights on. Though she wouldn’t be so gauche as to speak it, you can see the horror and confusion slapped across the Queen’s face. For the first time, she has to justify her existence.
Olivia Colman is flawless playing a Queen who appears cold, but that’s as a result of training, not true feeling.
The family’s existential crisis is beautifully observed. Margaret finds the era suits her love of a party and a wild affair, but she wants it both ways: freedom to live and love, but with all the good bits — luxury and fealty — of being a royal.
In a stand-out episode about Prince Philip’s obsession with the moon landing, Mr Queen laments what he might have achieved free of royal duty (less than he thinks, probably). Charles (Josh O’Connor) struggles with the hypocrisy of his family, who encourage him to embrace the freedoms of the real world but not publicly.
Basically, this is a portrait of a family that needs an awful lot of therapy but couldn’t possibly admit to it. Colman is flawless playing a Queen who appears cold, but that’s as a result of training, not true feeling. She is so defined by her duty, her humanity has been crushed down. In one excellent scene, after she’s been reluctantly sent out to give comfort to a village hit by a mining disaster, the Queen confesses she had to fake her crying. Then, in the kind of tiny silent moment Colman can fill with unsaid words, she sheds a slow tear in private. You cannot suppress this much emotion without something breaking.
Season 3 shows The Crown can handle the more soapy elements of the royal story with humour, dignity and real emotional intelligence. Which is good news, because Diana is still to come.
In perhaps the strongest season yet, The Crown digs deep into a family that’s crumbling like the ancient palace they inhabit. It continues to reign supreme.