The Crown promises to be a Netflix extravaganza

Netflix has spared no expense on The Crown, a drama about Queen Elizabeth II’s six-decade reign.

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. Robert Viglasky / Netflix
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Queen Elizabeth II has been the subject of many films and documentaries since she became the British monarch in 1952. The latest offering is by far the most ambitious, as the Netflix Original series The Crown sets out to document her entire 64-year reign.

The drama is the brainchild of screenwriter Peter Morgan, best known for writing historical films including Frost/Nixon, about British TV presenter Davis Frost's interviews with former United States president Richard Nixon, and The Damned United, about football manager Brian Clough's time in charge of English club Leeds United.

It is understood Netflix is spending £100 million (Dh447 million) on the first 20 episodes, making it the most expensive TV series to date. Each of the six planned 10-episode seasons will focus on a decade of the Queen’s reign. The first season deals with the post-World War II years, taking in Elizabeth’s marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh, the death of her father, King George VI, on February 6, 1952, after which she became Queen at age 25, and the squabbles between Elizabeth and her younger, more outgoing sister, Princess Margaret.

The most recent notable drama about the monarch was the 2006 film The Queen, also written by Morgan, which dramatised the reaction of the royal family to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Helen Mirren won the 2006 Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the title role.

Mirren reprised that role in 2013 on stage in the Morgan-scripted play The Audience, about the weekly meetings, or audiences, between the Queen and her prime ministers, from 1952 to the present day.

“There is no record of these meetings at all,” says The Crown producer Andy Harries. “There is no one else allowed in the room, no recordings of it, nobody knows what is going on in the room apart from the prime minister and the Queen. For the dramatist, this is a perfect opportunity.”

Inspired by the success of The Audience – which transferred to Broadway in 2015, and also had a West End revival with Kristin Scott Thomas in the lead role – Morgan thought that after writing about Queen Elizabeth II on film and stage, it was time to see if he could complete the hat-trick by adding a television series.

"I think he was thinking that this is his 'Aaron Sorkin moment', a Newsroom kind of thing. Morgan has written plays, but never done the big, authored thing," says Harries.

Billy Elliot filmmaker Stephen Daldry directed the first episode of The Crown, setting the tone for the production.

“We are putting the audience at the heart of this family and the trials and tribulations and the struggle within the family and their relationship to government, so it’s not just the story of a family but the story of Britain,” he says. Morgan adds: “Becoming Queen at such a young age brings a set of responsibilities, which then makes the conducting of a marriage and family relationships really difficult.”

To show the characters getting older, the actors who play them change every two seasons. For the first two, Claire Foy – who played Anne Boleyn in the BBC costume drama Wolf Hall – will play the Queen, with former Doctor Who regular Matt Smith as Prince Philip, and rising star Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret. Veteran American actor John Lithgow appears as Winston Churchill.

“This young woman had a massive responsibility put on her at a time when she is grieving,” says Foy.

“She’s had a terrible loss, the death of her father, and then her whole life changed.”

But while the series certainly explores the Queen’s public life, where it really excels is when it goes behind the facade to offer a glimpse into her private life behind closed doors at the palace.

“What I think our series does, is that we get to see the Royals be human and be exposed,” says Smith.

Kirby adds: “It goes into a reality that we have never seen before – we’ve never seen behind those closed doors.”

As the series begins, Princess Margaret is an 18-year-old, who becomes a pivotal character after Elizabeth is crowned.

“Margaret is faced with the question of whether she is ready to give up her title for love,” says Kirby.

“She has to ask herself, am I able to live with either option? And the weirdest thing is that it’s her eldest sister deciding for her. Margaret was once the fashion icon, the extrovert and the ­eligible princess.”

One of the areas where The Crown shines is in its costumes. About 350 principle outfits were made for the main cast, and there were more than 7,000 extras to dress. The costume department, headed by Michele Clapton, had a core team of 40 people, and at some times 80 would be working on the clothes.

“For the Queen’s wedding dress, we had six people working for six weeks just embroidering,” says Clapton.

Period details and accuracy were paramount, says producer Andrew Eaton.

“We try to create as much of ­reality as possible and doing that mean you get all the costumes right, all the uniforms,” he adds.

With such high production values, to rival the BBC at its best, this seems sure to be a show everyone will be talking about.

Season 1 of The Crown will be available on Netflix from Friday November 4.

artslife@thenational.ae