“Let us start with the unrest in Egypt, where anti-colonial passions continue to run high, and where our soldiers continue to come under fire from nationalist insurgents.” This is UK Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, as depicted in a scene in the first season of the widely popular Netflix original series The Crown. The reference is, of course, to the anticolonial uprising led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 that eventually led to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
It is both jarring and curiously entertaining to see how historical events of monumental importance for the world at large are depicted in a biopic mostly about the private life and palace intrigues of Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom.
“It is vital that we remain and successfully defend the Suez Canal,” Churchill continues to huff and puff and report to Her Majesty the Queen, “a point that I will be making in person to the Commonwealth heads, when I host them for the weekend at Chequers”.
Both in this episode and in the rest of the series such references to British colonialism abound. Though they are entirely tangential, almost prop-like, to the actual plot of the biopic, such references give us a clue as to how the British public at large cares to recall their colonial atrocities around the globe. The prose and politics of the series are drawn entirely to the queen’s personal and public traumas; her colonial possessions serve for a bit of narrative seasoning.
At the epicentre of the series is also the predicament of the British monarchy during Queen Elizabeth’s long and troublesome reign. Tommy Lascelles, Private Secretary to both King George VI and to Queen Elizabeth II, portrayed superbly by Pip Torrens, epitomises the radical sentiments of the British monarchists.
The central theme of The Crown is the survival of British monarchy as an institution in a fast-changing world. Queen Elizabeth, played so far with astonishing versatility by Claire Foy (seasons 1–2) and Olivia Colman (season 3), is depicted as initially more interested in her “egalitarian” husband Prince Philip than her duties as queen, but eventually she grows into her role as the monarch of the United Kingdom, the head of the Church of England, the Defender of the Faith, and the head of the British Empire.
At a crucial point in a conversation between Elizabeth and her paternal grandmother Mary of Teck the elder woman tells her reigning granddaughter:
“Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth. To give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God. That is why you are crowned in an abbey, not a government building. Why you are anointed, not appointed. It’s an archbishop that puts the crown on your head, not a minister or public servant. Which means that you are answerable to God in your duty, not the public.”
All majestic and rather amusing for sure but what is compelling in this context is the manner in which the plot moves seamlessly from those highfalutin sentiments to the all-too-human banalities of the royal family, from the domestic affairs of Queen Elizabeth’s household, to her duties as the sovereign of the nation, and then as the monarch of the British Empire.
In that order, the narrative is far more intimate with the domestic dramas of Buckingham Palace than with the national vicissitude of the United Kingdom, and then by extension the affairs of the empire, the wretched of the Earth who live under the British rule, emerge entirely as props that do not even reach the status of a subplot.
The contrast here is between the last female monarch of the British Empire Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901) who was the sovereign of a vast empire and Queen Elizabeth II who began her reign in 1952 having already “lost” the Jewel in her Crown.
As we watch The Crown, we see all the main historical markers hit. There’s Churchill’s re-election and battle with ill-health, the horrid London smog of 1952, the so-called “Commonwealth” tours of the royal family, the drama of Princess Margaret’s illicit love affairs, the disastrous premiership of Anthony Eden and his treacherous plot with the French and the Israelis to invade Egypt to prevent Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
Initially I was disappointed that the MI6 collaboration with the CIA to topple Mossadegh in 1953 was not part of the biopic. This however was compensated for with a fuller treatment of Nasser and the UK-led invasion of Egypt in which they put their newly created settler colony and garrison state of Israel to good military use.
Here we see how the defining trauma of a nation is entirely neglected, the fateful moment of another nation is faintly adapted, but the alleged extramarital affair of Prince Philip is not to be abated a bit. There are times that The Crown looks like the front page of the British tabloids, but that is precisely where popular culture trumps the most detailed works of historical scholarship. It is what the popular culture cares to recall that matters, not what historians and social scientists insist upon recording.
The more we see the scattered colonial references the more we realise they are really the background prop in the picture – and there, paradoxically, is a powerful angle precisely from where you are staged in the background and seem not to matter at all.
As we watch this series, and by “we,” I mean people around the globe at the historical mercy of British imperialism then and Netflix programming now, we realise how narratively incidental we are to this filmic, widely popular, rendition of British imperial history.
We are drawn to her life, the drama of being catapulted into public life against her and her parents’ will when her uncle abdicates. We identify with her, share her happiness, partake in her predicament. Only with a reference to Egypt, or Palestine, or India, or Australia or Africa does it suddenly hit us that we have been at the mercy of the factual ferocity of this monarchy.
There is a magnificent moment in a speech James Baldwin once delivered at Oxford about watching Western movies in his youth, when he says, then it suddenly occurs to you, “the Indian IS YOU”.
In the very first episode we see the newlyweds move to Malta, where the newly minted Prince Philip re-joins the British Royal Navy. The young Elizabeth then gives birth to their son, Charles, back in England. In the second episode we see how Elizabeth and Philip go on a tour of the Commonwealth, where Elizabeth learns of her father’s passing while in Kenya. Some of Philip’s legendary racism is on display in his encounter with the Kenyans. Though The Crown has a “jolly good time” making light of his racism.
In another episode depicting the great smog of December 1952, we see how Churchill’s mind is entirely on the Egyptian uprising and disregards the daunting domestic issues. In yet another episode, Anthony Eden having replaced Churchill as Prime Minister now becomes trapped in an escalating dispute with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser over rights to the Suez Canal. The plot, the script, the camera, all come together to make it impossible for any viewer for a split second to identify with Nasser or the Egyptians putting claim on the sovereignty of their homeland.
For the rest of the first season, Egypt remains a constant prop in the events more intimate to Elizabeth’s household such as her marital quarrels, or her uncle, Edward VIII, who had abdicated to marry the woman he loved, demanding a stipend to sustain his luxurious life, as Philip’s uncle, Earl Mountbatten, “the man who lost India,” warns Elizabeth about Eden’s plot to invade Egypt, which royally angers Elizabeth upon learning Israel had crossed the Sinai Peninsula in cahoots with the British and the French.
As Eden reveals the invasion of Egypt is part of a secret agreement between the Israeli, French and British governments to reclaim the Suez Canal without approval from Parliament or the United Nations, Elizabeth’s mind is somewhere else, with the Russian ballerina Ulanova with whom she suspects her husband is having an affair. We see her going to see her perform in a ballet as Israeli, French, and British forces invade Egypt. As our hearts begin to bleed for Elizabeth’s bleeding heart, we remember, to paraphrase Baldwin, “the Egyptians are us”.
The next season opens with Philip on a global tour of British colonial bases where he has his colonial fantasies with native women put on full display.
Such popular television versions of history are 10 times more important than any erudite piece of scholarship in measuring the sentiments of the public at large, and it is right here that the colonial calamities of British empire become a mere background noise to flesh out the more immediate vicissitude of an outdated institution coming to terms with a vastly and swiftly changing world.
In one of the episodes of the third season we see how the BBC once tried to do a propaganda “documentary” on the royal family to promote its significance. The piece became such an embarrassing flop that the Queen forbids it being shown anymore.
In many ways this show we are watching, The Crown, is an overcompensation for that catastrophe the BBC made to propagate the British monarchy, where even a monster like Churchill appears as a deeply human father mourning the death of his infant child Marigold with an incessant probing of a pond in his paintings.
This Churchill is not the Churchill the savagely colonised and robbed world knows.
This lovely dialogue between Queen Elizabeth and her two delightful children Charles and Anne sums up the running tension between the domestic chores of the young Queen as a caring mother missing her handsome husband Prince Philip and the mandate the global British colonial “territories” has placed on her crown. Mother and children are in a lush and spacious hall in Buckingham Palace looking at a globe:
ELIZABETH: Now, Anne, what’s this?
ANNE: A penguin.
ELIZABETH: Very good. And, Charles, who do you suppose is surrounded by penguins at the moment?
ELIZABETH: Yes, that’s right. That’s because he’s in the Antarctic, and from there, he goes to the South Shetland Islands, then he goes on to the Falkland Islands. And then he goes all the way up here, to Ascension Island. All these are British Overseas Territories, and they have to be visited every once in a while, so they don’t feel neglected or forgotten, and don’t get any silly ideas like becoming independent. Right, brushed your teeth?
ELIZABETH: Good. Have you said your prayers? Yes. Jolly good. Right. Night-night.
ANNE: Night-night, Mommy.
NANNY: Come along, children.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.