The first few days of the Television Critics Association (TCA) Summer 2016 press tour have offered a few programming announcements that will be music to the ears of those interested in British history and monarchy. Three drama series — one on Netflix and two on PBS — debuting this fall and next winter will bring to life a few of the most interesting and, in some cases, infamous, British royals.
First up, on Nov. 4, Netflix will release all 10 episodes of Season 1 of The Crown. Written by Peter Morgan (The Queen), the series explores the political rivalries and personal intrigues across a decade of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, looking at the delicate balance between her private world and public life upon suddenly having the mantle of Queen thrust upon her at age 25.
Claire Foy (Wolf Hall) plays Elizabeth; Matt Smith (Doctor Who) is Philip Mountbatten, her husband; John Lithgow is Winston Churchill; Victoria Hamilton plays the Queen Mother; Jared Harris is King George VI; Vanessa Kirby is Princess Margaret; and Dame Eileen Atkins is Queen Mary.
Netflix had two fairly rough-cut episodes of The Crown for screening, and they were impressive. Foy, Lithgow and Harris are especially strong. Right away we get the sense of the daunting task Elizabeth faced as she became Queen of England, and Morgan touched on that at the TCA panel.
“Well, here our story in The Crown, the series starts with [Elizabeth] assuming, quite reasonably, that she has a long time before her father will die. That, you know, George VI died at age 56, and I think the Windsors have a tradition of living a long time. I think she could quite reasonably have expected 20, maybe 30 years, as a young woman married to, you know, a young naval officer, and for them to have a career for him for Prince Philip to have the career, and for them to live somewhat out of the public eye in Malta. And that story of the crown landing in her lap or on her head way sooner than she ever imagined is essentially the essential narrative of the first season, and the terrible impact becoming queen at such a young age had on her and on all her relationships with her husband, with her sister, with her mother, so just what a devastating impact it has. We all imagine it’s a fairytale. It’s anything but.”
Another young woman who suddenly found herself as Queen was Victoria, the subject of an eight-part series debuting on PBS in America in January 2017. Daisy Goodwin created and wrote the series, which stars Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who) as Victoria and Tom Hughes as Prince Albert, her husband. We didn’t have full screeners to check out, but the clip of Victoria and Albert meeting at a dance was as mesmerizing for a viewer as the two characters were with clearly mesmerized by each other. The story starts when Victoria becomes queen at age 18; given that Victoria ended up ruling for over 60 years, there clearly could be many seasons ahead if ratings are there, but at the outset, it shows how strong Victoria was even at such a young age.
“I think it was more about getting into the head of Victoria,” Coleman said at the TCA panel. “Victoria being 18, Victoria having never been in a room with a man alone before and what it is that she has to face overnight and the changes to her life, but I think always keeping that vein of iron in her, that spark in her, which remained with her for her life.
“A big inspiration to make the series was Daisy looking at her daughter and thinking, ‘My goodness. What if tomorrow you wake up and you are the most powerful woman in the world? But you’re my teenager. You’re inexperienced in life in lots of ways, yet you have to inherit this job and have to walk into the Houses of Parliament and talk to your privy counsel.’ It’s a really it’s extraordinary to even consider.”
Finally, also coming to PBS (Dec. 11, 18 and 25) is The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses. This follow-up to 2013’s The Hollow Crown continues the tradition of following Shakespeare’s History plays; this time, the story encompasses Henry VI (in two parts) and Richard III. It’s practically a who’s-who of British actors bringing these stories and their royal figures to life. Starring in the series are Benedict Cumberbatch (very intense as the hunchbacked Richard III), Tom Sturridge (as Henry VI), Sophie Okonedo (as Queen Margaret), Keeley Hawes (as Queen Elizabeth), Hugh Bonneville (as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester), Judi Dench (as Cecily, Duchess of York) and Michael Gambon.
The clips shown here at TCA were engrossing; it’s generally hard to screw up Shakespeare, given the terrific story material and quality of the writing, but the way the Hollow Crown stories are presented — as mini-movies of a sort — is wonderfully engaging and entertaining and certainly will please fans of the first series.
The Crown Season 1 is available Nov. 4 on Netflix.
The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses airs Dec. 11, 18 and 25 at 9pm ET on PBS.
Victoria premieres January 2017 on PBS.