Watching the Netflix show, The Crown, now in its fourth season, I reminded myself that when I lived in England in the mid-1960s, I never stood in movie theaters when “God Save the Queen” played, and when everyone in the audience got to their feet. Elizabeth II wasn’t my queen. I didn’t see any reason to honor her, though I received a “Research Studentship in the Arts” from Her Majesty’s Government.” It wasn’t just a name. It came with two-hundred pounds.
I was enrolled at the Victoria University of Manchester, as it was officially known, and which was named after another queen. I knew more about her than I did about Elizabeth II. I was writing my Ph.D. thesis about British imperialism in the nineteenth-century and beyond.
In 1964, the year I left New York and went to England, Marxists taught in British universities. Some were also Communists. I could say the word “imperialism” in conversation with them and not be reprimanded. Columbia, where I’d received a B.A. and an M.A., was still locked in the days of McCarthy and McCarthyism. Professor Eric Bentley, who taught drama and plugged the work of Bertolt Brecht, had once been a lefty but he didn’t advertise his radical past or his bisexuality on campus. Bentley died in August 2020 at the age of 103.
I believe that the word “imperialism” is mentioned now and then in The Crown, though not often and usually by individuals who lived in the colonies, or in newly liberated, independent nations. The Netflix show is in part about the decline of the British Empire, though Elizabeth II and Her Majesty’s Government, as it’s called, try to do everything in their power to resuscitate a dying institution that ought to have died and been buried in, say, 1945, when the American Empire took the reigns once held by the Brits.
The Crown offers lovely images of stately homes and castles, as well as Buckingham Palace, both inside and outside. The settings and the costumes are also lovely. There are real dramatic moments in the series — Elizabeth’s coronation, for one, and during the Suez Crisis for another — but there are far too many scenes that show the royals getting into and out of cars, and going through doorways usually opened by servants.
The show is mostly fluff, or English treacle, as one might call it. Sure, the royals have their squabbles and their breaches on the show. King Edward VIII marries a commoner and has to abdicate. He and his wife, Wallis, aid and abet Hitler and the Nazis and are exiled, though they should have been tried for treason. The Crown shows Edward and Wallis consorting with the German high command, but it mostly soft pedals the connections between the British royal family and European Fascism.
Churchill, played by John Lithgow, comes across as a vain old man concerned with his image. Elizabeth, played by Claire Foy, has a fickle face that can be entertaining, but she is often petty and shallow, and on the cusp of vindictiveness. Indeed, she’s a woman caught up in a domestic soap opera in which her philandering husband, Prince Phillip, aka the Duke of Edinburgh, carries on behind her back.
The Crown makes it clear – at least it did for me – that the British monarchy was and surely still is a huge bureaucracy in which lackeys and underlings of all sorts do the dirty work. Still, some of the faces of the actors who carry out the commands are unmistakably English and a delight to watch. The Tudors, it would seem, have been the British version of the Medici, though with the notable exception of Henry VIII, the Tudors have been less bloody and less violent at least in England.
In the colonial world the Tudors and their allies ruled ruthlessly, destroyed local economies, as in India, and tried for decades to prevent the liberation and independence of countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. The Crown shows Elizabath dancing with Nkrumah in Ghana (that really happened), albeit for political reasons to try to prevent the Ghanans from allying with the Russians.
The show mostly glosses over colonialism and the Cold War. It tries to humanize the royal family, though why anyone would want to be called “Your Highness’ or “Your Majesty” is beyond me. Both expressions strike me as dehumanizing on both sides of the equation.
I stopped watching The Crown early in the third season, which is shortly after the Labour Party triumphed over the Conservatives and Harold Wilson became the prime minister. That was a month or so after I arrived in England and settled in Manchester with my then wife, Eleanor, who soon adopted a British accent. The first party we attended took place at the home of a member of the British Communist Party, who remained a friend all through our three years in England.
I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with my comrades, including Arnold Kettle, who was on the central committee of the CP, I believe. No matter what I talked about when I was invited to speak to the comrades, someone or other could be counted on to ask me, “What about the workers?” It’s a question that’s still worth asking, here and there and everywhere there are laboring men and women. That includes Buckingham Palace.
(Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.)