Netflix’s new royal drama The Crown, focusing on the reign of our current monarch Queen Elizabeth II, comes at an interesting time – aiming to fill the gap left by Downton Abbey, it plans to cover the full 64 years of her sovereignty.
Hoping to be just as much of a longrunner as its main character, then, the beginning of this show is pivotal – so how does ‘Wolferton Splash’ fare as the series premiere?
In many ways, this episode is dedicated to setting up the chessboard. It’s not quite about Elizabeth (Claire Foy) in the way one might have expected; rather, it’s dedicated to contextualising her story and introducing the characters. We spend most of our time focused on King George (Jared Harris), Elizabeth’s father – as he copes with a terminal illness, we begin to get an impression of quite how difficult the life of a monarch is, and what exactly Elizabeth will face over the rest of the series.
There’s also an introduction to Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) who’s no doubt going to prove to be an antagonistic force across the course of series, with his own beliefs about power and who should wield it.
This all feeds into the central conflict of the drama, of course – the idea of the duty of royalty. It’s set up through George’s struggle, but furthered through Philip’s clear discomfort for the obligations of the crown; Matt Smith embodies these doubts and reservations perfectly, and it’s obvious that there’s a lot of potential for engaging television here. Certainly, the next episode – which will directly confront Elizabeth and Philip with royal duty – will provide a compelling set up to further explore this dichotomy.
Of course, this all plays out across an expansive – and expensive – backdrop of luxury and decadence. It’s very obvious that a lot of money went into The Crown (whether or not the rumours as to it being the most expensive small screen drama ever are true is debatable) and it’s definitely paid off on screen; it’s a very stylish piece of television that maintains a polished aesthetic throughout. ‘Wolferton Splash’ also benefits from a very fluid and accomplished vision from director Stephen Daldry.
Admittedly, though, it’s not perfect. Helpful though it is to contextualise Elizabeth’s story through this focus on her father, it’s difficult to argue that it’s actually necessary – when considering where to start the story, it’s hardly essential to do so here. We could just have easily been introduced to the conflict between duty and choice with Elizabeth’s coronation; equally, if Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship is to be the central focus of the series, why not begin with their first meeting?
A somewhat muddled choice as to when, exactly, the series begins, alongside a lengthy time skip, has the effect of making this series opener feel somewhat disjointed, when the priority should have been to provide a tightly focused and precise hour of drama.
Nonetheless, though, that’s a very idiosyncratic issue to pick up on – regardless of how the programme began, it’s evident enough that ‘Wolferton Splash’ is a particularly strong start for The Crown.
All 10 episodes are available to watch on Netflix now.
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