Television’s most expensive ever series dramatises the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. DQ hears from the creative team behind The Crown.
At a rumoured £100m (US$124m), Netflix has paid a princely sum for its latest original series.
No expense was spared for The Crown, the US streaming service’s first original British drama that was given a 20-episode, two season order. Season one launches today.
The series tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign, revealing her personal intrigues and romances as well as the political rivalries that shaped the second half of the 20th century.
Opening in 1947, it begins as Britain is still reeling from the devastation of the Second World War. Food supplies are still rationed and the government is running out of money. But against this backdrop, the nation is mesmerised by the marriage of young princess Elizabeth to the dashing Philip Mountbatten.
Expecting many years of married bliss before ascending to the throne, Elizabeth’s simple life is cut short when her father, King George VI, dies unexpectedly and she inherits the crown at the age of 25 –along with the unimaginable burden it brings.
The Crown sees creator Peter Morgan (The Queen) reunite with director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) and executive producer Andy Harries (The Queen), a trio that previously worked on the Tony Award-winning play The Audience, which recalled Elizabeth II’s weekly meetings with her prime ministers across 60 years of her reign.
Suzanne Mackie executive produces, with Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Inception) composing the music, making The Crown his first ever television project. It is produced by Left Bank Pictures.
Claire Foy (Wolf Hall) and Matt Smith (Doctor Who) star as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, with Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret and John Lithgow as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The cast also includes Jared Harris, Victoria Hamilton, Dame Eileen Atkins, Alex Jennings and Lia Williams.
Netflix has commissioned two seasons of the drama at a cost of £100m, with filming taking place across southern England, featuring stately homes, churches, airfields, streetscapes, town halls and schools. Lancaster House, on Pall Mall in central London, doubles for the state rooms inside Buckingham Palace, while other sets were recreated at Elstree Studios in north London, including the private chambers of Elizabeth and Philip, the Buckingham Palace offices and 10 Downing Street offices, as well as back lots with the gates of Buckingham Palace and the world-famous 10 Downing Street front door.
Location filming also included trips to Scotland and South Africa, which is the setting for Elizabeth and Philip’s trip to Kenya early in the first season.
Daldry says: “We were thrilled to make this. I have to say it’s been one of the most enjoyable professional experiences of my life. It’s been an extraordinary journey. We’re in the middle of shooting season two. In the end, we’re expecting to do six seasons, maybe seven.”
Here, DQ hears more from the director as well as Morgan and Mackie as they discuss the origins of the project, working with Netflix and why they see Claire Foy as the leading actress of her generation.
The Crown’s origins come from Peter Morgan’s enjoyment in writing scenes between the Queen and her prime ministers…
Morgan: A few years ago I wrote [2003 film] The Deal, the story about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. [Left Bank Pictures CEO and The Crown executive producer] Andy Harries then said, “Why don’t you do the same again but with the murder of [Princess] Diana?” So I tried to write that and it was preposterous. I said I wanted to put Tony Blair in and they said, “Don’t put Tony Blair in.” Then I did and we made The Queen with Helen Mirren, and I so enjoyed writing the bits between the prime minister and the Queen. I don’t really like writing about The Queen on her own, I like writing about her in conjunction with prime ministers, because it’s sort of about how we’re made up and what we’re about. Then I thought I’d quite like to write some more prime ministers so I wrote the play [The Audience]. The scene I most enjoyed writing was the one between Winston Churchill and her. So that’s where it came from. I then wrote a film version but then thought it might work better for television.
I thought I was just writing two episodes. Then we went to America to see if anybody wanted to coproduce and Netflix said they’d like two seasons, which took us aback a bit. Then I started writing. We’re now filming season two.
Daldry: Peter and I have always been trying to work together. Then we did the play and decided we wanted to continue working together. It’s been lovely and we’ve had a fantastic working relationship on the play and we continued to work on this. I’m assuming we’ll carry on; the story carries on. I want to because I find it endlessly fascinating. It’s not just the story of the royal family, it’s the story of who we are, why we’re here and what we dream of, in a way. That’s where I find it amazingly interesting. It’s the story of our nation.
A writer wouldn’t choose royalty as their protagonist, they’d choose Tony Soprano…
Morgan: As a dramatist you wouldn’t necessarily choose her as a centrepiece – you’d choose Tony Soprano, because he has violence and mood swings and he is decisive and you can pretty much take him in any direction and it feels plausible. The Queen is not necessarily who I would choose as a protagonist but because of the predicament she finds herself in, the more I dug into it, the more writing about her became interesting to me – writing about a woman who becomes two women and the effect that this extraordinary burden has on her. Whichever point of the second half of the 20th century you dip into, either [the royal family] are making a complete mess of things or the politicians are making a complete mess of things. They’re pulling themselves in and out of pitfalls and there’s something so spectacularly illogical about the British constitution that it becomes quite romantic.
(Almost) everything you see on screen really happened
Daldry: We do have the most amazing research team in the world. It works as a team effort so every circumstance that you can possibly imagine that we dramatise – even the things you think are created by the director – they are documented moments. They actually happened. It’s endlessly fascinating to us. Of course, it is an interpretation of those events, it’s bound to be. We’re not trying to make a documentary, we’re artists interpreting it, but the facts themselves are phenomenally interesting. A good example [of artistic licence] would be at the very end of episode two. The Queen goes to Sandringham and sees the body of her father. I know she didn’t [in real life], it’s documented she did not see the body of her father. But I think it would be more dramatically interesting if she went into the bedroom and saw her father. Everything is a moment of discussion about where we part from absolute reality and where we want to heighten the drama. Emotionally I felt she wanted to see it, even if it’s not literally true.
Morgan: It’s commonplace on a show like this to have a writers room. But we don’t really have a writers room; we have a researchers room. We have seven or eight people working full time doing research so what will happen is I will ask them to do this and that or find this and that as I’m writing it and I will map out at the same time what an approximate structure is for the episode or for the season or the story or whatever it is. So they are constantly feeding back at me while I’m writing.
Everyone working on The Crown was in awe of Claire Foy’s performance…
Daldry: We’d always appreciated Claire Foy in all the shows that she’d done but now it suddenly seems she has become the leading actress of her generation. Suddenly she’s gone into this extraordinary realm. We are all in awe of Claire. It’s an extraordinary performance of being the most visible/invisible woman in the world but also a woman you never quite get to grips with. All the times I’ve spent time with the Queen, you know her and you don’t know her. You think you’re getting somewhere and there’s this other world you have no access to. Claire does this extraordinary tightrope walk between giving you access and not giving you access. It’s an extraordinary performance.
Mackie: She was pregnant when she auditioned so by the time we got to principle photography, it was a very inauspicious start. We started at Elstree and we realised we needed bigger rooms and scale and depth and corridors. Starting in Scotland was very necessary. Claire had just given birth and although we started in the summer, it was horrendously windy, the weather was awful and, poor thing, she was just trying desperately to adapt to this sudden shock of being on set in a very beautiful but challenging location with a newborn baby and playing a princess. She was stoical, brilliant and professional. And we’re gifted with a cast who are not only very, very good but also incredibly nice. We’ve not had tantrums or difficulties. Claire carries so much of this and she’s a delight.
“It’s an expensive show, but it’s not that expensive…”
Morgan: No writer has ever been told the truth about money, ever. But when I read [the cost of the show], I think, ‘That doesn’t describe the experience we were having.’ Whatever sums of money we did get, you have to halve it because we have two seasons.
Daldry: It’s an expensive show, but it’s not that expensive. At the moment we’re discussing a scene in season two where Jackie Kennedy comes to see the Queen. We think it’s quite important to show the expanse and scale of Air Force One in comparison to the British Comet. So Peter and I are quite vigorously hanging onto the idea we have to build Air Force One.
Writing for Netflix made a period drama feel modern and progressive…
Morgan: There’s something about Netflix that made it feel modern and progressive, and that galvanised me and my storytelling and made me excited to go back to this material because I felt I was doing it at the same time as I was moving forwards. I felt somehow that even though I was writing about something in the past, I was at some level at the cutting edge of where we were going. Even if I do continue with this, I imagine the way in which we’ll be watching seasons further down the road will be very different to how we’re watching now. I’m too unimaginative to be able to project where we’ll be with watching television in five or 10 years.
Daldry: One of the great things about Netflix is I said: “How do you feel about the show? Are you happy with the show?” They said: “The best thing about this show is we said yes and got out of the way.” It’s such an unusual experience. They were so enthusiastic and so easy to work with. It’s great [not to have anyone] telling you what to do – just saying, “Keep going and we’re loving what you’re doing.”
The royal family weren’t involved in the production…
Morgan: I want to keep my distance. I’ve ducked the opportunity to meet [the Queen] a couple of times, not because I don’t want to but I’d be in shock. I just think it’s better for her, better for us to have complete independence. I want to be free to write how and what I want. I want the work to speak for itself and I don’t want to feel that I’m endorsed or supported or that I owe anyone. Equally, I want them to have total deniability and to [be able to] say I got it all wrong. Both sides being able to give one another that respect and independence is important.
Writing season two while filming the first was tough…
Morgan: I was polishing certain episodes that were being shot, I was looking at rushes of certain episodes being shot, there were other episodes to be shot and I was still having to write season two. I got pretty low during that – but I didn’t have time to get low, I was just sunken eyed. It was tough.
There will be a new queen in future seasons…
Daldry: At the moment we’re casting for the difficulty Prince Charles had at [his school] Gordonstoun. We’re casting Jackie Kennedy, JFK – the casting process never stops. And it’s a fantastic ensemble of actors. We are trying, and we are achieving at the moment, to [bring together] a wonderful group of people. It’s not only the best of our British acting talent but people with the right spirit and the right grace. John Lithgow was an unusual piece of casting. He said: “Why on Earth do you think of me as Churchill?” I said: “You’re American, you’ll be fine.”
Morgan: We did it [cast an American actor] for The Queen with James Cromwell [who played Prince Philip] and I thought when certain parts are so iconic and you feel like you’ve seen the turn being done before, somehow Lithgow brings an iconic, leftfield aspect.
Daldry: We are going to have to cast another queen. Claire Foy will do a second season and then we’re recasting for the queen in middle age.