'The rivalry is more dramatic than real' – The Crown stars Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Colman on portraying royal siblings
It’s all change in Buckingham Palace. After two series of high drama about power, personalities and pomp, The Crown has escalated from a novice Netflix drama with a suitably grand budget of €10m an episode, to a show winning plaudits and reverence – and most remarkably, an unlikely strong following in even the most un-monarchist of strongholds.
It’s evident why. Rather than branch too far out into existential questions about the Royal Family, Peter Morgan’s lean script dares to peek behind the velvet curtains to imagine the dynamics around events of which we know only the headlines, the drama of the Profumo Affair being an apt finish to the second series. It was all delivered by a believable cast; Claire Foy as the queen, Matt Smith as Prince Phillip, and Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret in particular.
Yet as we fast forward three years to 1964 – when the relationship between the queen and Prince Philip has healed, Prince Charles begins preparing for his (then-regarded) inevitable role as king, and Princess Anne accepts her status as a royal with a proverbial side-eye – the actors have been swapped to reflect these older selves: Olivia Colman appears as Queen Elizabeth, soon after her Oscar-winning turn as Queen Anne in The Favourite. Helena Bonham Carter steps in as Princess Margaret, and Tobias Menzies, also known for Outlander, plays Prince Phillip.
How to acknowledge the new cast on screen? By having Colman assess the queen’s updated postage stamp profile while told it’s a “reflection of Her Majesty’s transition from a young woman to…” “old bat?” she interrupts. “A mother of four and a settled sovereign,” the footman corrects. After this neat introduction, we can exhale: there’s no drop in quality with the third series.
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“What I loved is that we’re actually being employed to be older,” says Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Princess Margaret, during a busy press day in London.
“The profession is so ageist, a lot of the time you get told you’re too old – or up until now anyway, I think it’s much easier these days. It was great that Peter Morgan thought that you can’t act age on some level – not the internal damage that life inflicts. The wrinkles, externally and internally, that’s what we’re employed for.”
Seeing these actors on screen is a treat. This series is a set of 10 self-contained stories – more staccato in feel to the previous seasons, though similar in melody. The royal response to the Aberfan tragedy is covered in one episode, Prince Phillip’s reaction to the Apollo 11 moon landing forms the basis of another one. The episode in which the queen and Princess Margaret’s sibling rivalry is explored is particularly gripping. But Bonham Carter is keen to point out that the show doesn’t necessarily reflect the goings-on in Buckingham Palace.
“The sibling rivalry in Margaretology [episode title] was a brilliant script because it carried on from the themes Vanessa and Claire set up, but having spoken to some of Princess Margaret’s friends, the rivalry is more dramatic than real,” she says, looking suitably goth-tinged in a chiffon outfit with statement black earrings.
“I honestly think that Margaret just adored her sister. I mean, there might have been a bit of it when they were younger, but what’s good about the next season is that we’ve shifted past that, and I’ve got many more scenes with the queen as sisters, because we were genuinely good friends.”
Initially, the episode was about the relationship between Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, but later shifted.
“That’s the thing: we shoot a lot, and a lot goes, and they really massage the episodes after,” explains Bonham Carter. “The luxury of working for Netflix is that people have got a lot of time to get it right. Unfortunately, it meant some of my really good acting parts have just gone because it’s ended up being no longer about me – it has to be about the crown, the queen. It got filleted in favour of it being about the sibling thing, but that was fun.”
As to working with Colman, she describes her as “hilarious, obviously. Slightly anarchic”.
In which case, Colman is true to type when we sit down with her and Menzies later. Despite the afternoon hour, Menzies, who plays Prince Charles, has a glass of wine in hand and Colman’s is brought in later.
“The wine has arrived,” she then announces into the dictaphone with a devilish grin.
Hearing second-hand reports about her loveliness (when Meryl Streep called her “divinely gifted” Colman later blushed, “That she even remembered my name is exciting. She’s, like, Meryl Streep!”), it’s both a joy and relief to find the former Peep Show and Broadchurch star is amiable as expected.
She’s particularly animated about how The Crown’s depiction of politics is an uncanny reflection of what’s going on today. For example, watching the news of the hung parliament resulting from the February 1974 elections, Prince Phillips utters words that Peter Morgan couldn’t have predicted would still be so relevant to his home country, as the Brexit debacle rumbles on into another election (at the time of writing, anyway).
“What a mess,” he laments. “Can you remember a time when the country was in worse shape, or had little confidence in one’s leaders? One wakes up in the morning flinching. How could matters get any worse? And then you come down to breakfast, you see the newspapers and you realise, they’ve done it again. Right now, the United Kingdom is the equivalent of a patient dying on the operating table and the surgeons – no, the butchers – no, the murderers – responsible for causing that death are seeking re-election. Instead of throwing them in jail, the people, the lemmings, are queuing up to extend their bloody contracts.”
Elsewhere, the gruff Trump-esque figure of President Johnson brings the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK into play.
Colman muses on the continuing political parallels. “The thing is we never learn anything. It’s all happened before in history and we all blindly bumble into doing the same thing again,” she says. “It’s great to have the shows like this to remind us of what’s happened but we never learn.
“We’d all be so happy, the world would be totally at peace, if we had ever learned anything from history. We clearly don’t. We’re idiots, as the human race.”
As expected from The Crown, the attention to detail in this no-expense-spared production is astounding. On adopting the mannerisms of Queen Elizabeth, Colman explains, “My natural thing is to creep into a room and just be a bit embarrassed”, but movement director Polly Bennett helped change her into England’s matriarch.
“She told me before every scene to do that-” says Colman, pushing her frame out, “-to go in bigger. Also, the queen doesn’t turn [her head only] to check where she’s going. It’s like she’s wearing a cone, so the whole body moves.”
Bennett told many of the cast to channel an animal in their new character; Josh O’Connor was asked to think of a tortoise for Prince Charles, and Bonham Carter was told to make her Margaret a bird of prey: “The back of her head is further back than normal and that gives her a wider perspective. She’s very aware of what’s going on.”
There was a whole different team to ensure their regal accents were on point.
“Initially, we thought it sounded f***ing mental but then you do get into it,” says Colman. “It’s like learning a new accent. The voice department are always there, and if you’re getting into something and you forget and you say it more common, they come in and they will remind you of particular pronunciations.”
Menzies adds: “There’s a massive technical element to this job in that we have to sound and look something like [the real-life character] but the job of it also can’t be cosmetic. If the audience are too aware of the voice or the movement, then that takes them out of the story. So you’ve got to be accurate, but also natural. That’s an odd pitch to find, isn’t it?”
A challenge for sure, but one gladly undertaken by this revived cast and crew. So bring on series three.
‘The Crown’ Season 3 is released on Netflix on Sunday
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