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23.11.16

Historical accuracy and The Crown (with particular emphasis on Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden)

(Warning: contains spoilers)

I’ve really been enjoying the new Netflix drama The Crown which depicts the early part of the Queen’s reign, looking in particular at relations within the royal family as well as with the government. The show’s writer, Peter Morgan, has previous experience of exploring what goes on behind royal closed dooers with his take on the relationship between the Queen and her Prime Ministers in his play The Audience; as the titular weekly meetings (‘audiences’) between HM and PM are confidential a good writer like Morgan has plenty of scope to imagine what was said in the light of what the historical record tells us happened. The same can be said of what members of the royal family said to each other, and what Morgan has produced in The Crown is a dramatisation that tends, for the most part, to stick with what really happened. Historical accuracy is the key – most of the time, anyway.

I like the way Winston Churchill is depicted. By the time of his second ministry (1951-55), Churchill was very much a leader in decline – “like an aeroplane at the end of its flight, in the dusk, with the petrol running out, looking for a safe landing” was how the man himself, who became Prime Minister for the second time just over a month short of his 77th birthday, put it. It’s rather interesting to see this part of his life dramatised as it usually gets overlooked in favour of his ‘wilderness’ period in the 1930s or, of course, the War – and the elderly, stooping Churchill dealing with a young Queen is a role that John Lithgow plays to perfection.

Anthony Eden, by contrast, tends to be overlooked unless the focus is on Prime Ministerial failures; he is certainly not the only one who waited for years before he got the top job and was unable to make a success of it when he finally did. He was, as shown in The Crown, an ill man; as Prime Minister, he was on a variety of prescription drugs including amphetamines and barbiturates – which may have accounted for his poor judgement, especially over the Suez crisis which defined and destroyed his premiership (this series of The Crown ends the year before Suez, and I am not so sure if Eden’s portrayal in The Audience gives us many clues as to how this will play out in The Crown because his evasions when confronted by the Queen in The Audience served mainly as an historical precursor to Tony Blair and Iraq – plus ca change, and all that).

Eden was recovering from surgery – a botched intestinal operation meant that he had to have two more – at the time when Churchill suffered a stroke in June 1953. The stroke was not public knowledge at the time. The Crown shows the Queen being kept in the dark about the incapacity of both her Prime Minister and his deputy in the summer following the Coronation. She probably was, although I did pick up a hint in a biography of Churchill (the Roy Jenkins one) that Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, HM’s private secretary who is depicted in the show as some sort of dark force behind the throne, was in on the secret as were at least three press barons who ensured that this was one story that stayed out of the papers. It is, though, an exaggeration to say that the government was totally rudderless at the time, for the Chancellor, R.A. Butler, acted as the head of government between June and August with no problems, just as he had done when both Churchill and Eden were out of the country at the same time the previous year. 

Did Churchill really postpone the Coronation just so he could cling to power? This is made explicit in The Crown, as it was in The Audience. The argument he actually used against having it in 1952 was that the country could barely afford it, and if you look at the historical record you’ll find that it’s not unusual for a British monarch to wait over a year before being crowned. Queen Victoria had waited 13 months, Edward VII 19 months (although that one did have to be postponed for six weeks after he was taken ill) and George V 13 months. The Queen’s father, George VI, was crowned after just five months but that was an exception – his coronation had originally been intended to be that of his brother, Edward VIII (who, had he chosen his duty over Mrs Simpson, would have been crowned after 14 months). A 14-month wait between accession and coronation would not, in this light, be an aberration. 

That said, Churchill did have a limpet-like approach to staying in Downing Street from 1952 onwards, which makes it likely that he saw the succession of the Queen as a reason not to step down as soon as he might otherwise have done (the King had been considering persuading him to retire before he died). Indeed, a notable feature of Churchill’s second ministry was how he was always finding reasons to stay on a few more months, much to Eden’s frustration – as well as the prospect of working with a new monarch and the prestige that went with helping to usher in the start of the new Elizabethan age, there was the prospect of dealing with a new US President (Eisenhower took office in January 1953) and an ultimately unrealised dream of having a summit with the Soviet Union’s post-Stalin leadership in the hope of ending the Cold War, or at least reducing the tensions somewhat. He had a bit of luck, too, for had Eden been in good health when Churchill had his stroke there’s little doubt that Eden would have become PM in the summer of 1953.

Then, near the end, there was his eightieth birthday in November 1954 – he was only the third person to serve as PM while an octogenarian (the others were Palmerston and Gladstone) – and the unveiling of the controversial full-length Sutherland portrait. Here, The Crown is spot-on. Lady Churchill (her husband had been knighted in 1953) rather liked the artist, but Churchill detested the final result and wanted the presentation ceremony – the portrait was a gift to him from both Houses of Parliament – to go ahead without it. In the event, though, the ceremony went ahead as planned and was even televised; the best Churchill could say of the portrait was that it was “a remarkable example of modern art”. Opinion about the portrait was divided, although tellingly people who disliked Churchill (such as Aneurin Bevan) tended to like it while admirers (Lord Hailsham, for example) did not. The idea had been that the portrait was meant to hang in Parliament after Churchill’s death, but as it had been a personal gift he took it to Chartwell, where Lady Churchill had it destroyed; it was by no means the only portrait of her husband that met this fate. Churchill finally stepped down as PM in April 1955, just over five months after he turned 80.

There are two points at which the narrative of The Crown diverges significantly from what really happened. Chronologically, the first is the political crisis that developed during the Great Smog of ’52, an exaggeration on Morgan’s behalf. There was little or no panic at the time; London was well-known for its poor air quality and the occasional ‘pea-souper’ (also known as a ‘London particular’), which occurred when certain weather conditions caused fog to combine lethally with the coal smoke that emanated from power-stations and thousands of domestic fireplaces. The December 1952 one was without doubt the worst, lasting longer than usual (five days) and claiming many lives – at the time, they estimated that 4,000 had died but later research puts the figure at closer to 12,000 (this would lead to the Clean Air Act four years later). There was little criticism of the government at the time, with most of the media focus being on the effects of the smog. Churchill did not lose a secretary in a collision with a bus (most public transport was suspended due to very poor visibility), and Venetia Scott is in any case a fictional character (one of few such characters in The Crown; incidentally, the actress who plays her, Kate Phillips, was in Wolf Hall – as was Claire Foy, who plays the Queen). Churchill’s real-life secretaries, by the way, didn’t have the benefit of being on the other side of the door when the great man rattled off his ideas while he was having a bath; they had to take notes while sitting in the bathroom as he splashed around. Sometimes the truth really is stranger than the fiction.

The second point at which The Crown strays from the historical record is in the depiction of the denouement of Princess Margaret’s doomed relationship with Group Captain Townsend (Vanessa Kirby and Patrick from Coupling really stealing the show here). The show sticks with the widely-held public perception of the affair – that the Queen was coerced by the government, headed by Anthony Eden who was by now the PM, into forcing her sister to abandon her plans to marry the divorced Battle of Britain hero. In actual fact, papers from the National Archives show that Eden – himself a divorcee who had remarried – was sympathetic (and doubtless aware that public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of the marriage); in contrast to the harsh option he offers to the Queen in The Crown, the compromise that HM and her second PM were able to work out would have allowed her sister to carry on living in the country, keep her title and even keep her Civil List entitlement in the event of her marrying Group Captain Townsend, the only downside being that she would have had to renounce her place in the line of succession. This was the option that was presented to Margaret before she made her decision.

Much though I might quibble over certain aspects of historical accuracy, I did enjoy the show which has clearly been exceptionally well-researched (even down to the silly nicknames – the fifth Marquis of Salisbury, the grandson of the Victorian PM, really was referred to as ‘Bobbety’). I liked how they really tried to get under the skin of the Queen’s marriage, and how they tied in events with flashbacks to the Abdication crisis; it was fascinating how they managed to involve the outcast Duke of Windsor (who really did come back for Queen Mary’s funeral but opted to stay away from the Coronation) so much. A second series is in the pipeline; for this, we can look forward to the Suez crisis, Tony Armstrong-Jones and the Profumo scandal, among other things.

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