“The Crown” opens with a clever acknowledgment that time has passed for Queen Elizabeth II and taken with it the Emmy-winning actress who played her in the Netflix drama’s first two seasons.
In the scene, postage stamp portraits are displayed for the monarch: one with Claire Foy’s likeness as the alluring young queen, the other showing a woman edging toward middle-age mundanity. A subordinate clumsily tries to gloss over the physical differences, but Elizabeth, now embodied by Olivia Colman, will have none of it.
“One just has to get on with it,” she says, tartly, advice for herself and the audience that will meet other series newcomers, including Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret and Tobias Menzies as royal spouse Prince Philip, when the 10-episode third season is released Sunday. Josh O’Connor and Erin Doherty join the cast as Charles and Anne, the grown offspring of Elizabeth and Philip.
Peter Morgan, the series’ creator and writer, said transparency was the proper approach.
“I thought, let’s just get it out in the open. It’s always best to, as it were, be honest and direct about it: We’re changing cast. This is the new one,” he said in a phone interview from London this week, with production for next season’s episodes in progress.
There’s change as well in swinging 1960s Britain, where this season of “The Crown” begins with the Labour Party narrowly winning power and Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) installed as prime minister. Cold War rumors that Wilson is a Soviet spy are feverishly circulating, a reminder that the spread of dubious information predates the internet. When the allegation reaches the queen via Philip, she sensibly asks the source. His nonchalant reply: “Friends at the club.”
Current events echo elsewhere in “The Crown,” including frustration over economic disparity that exposes the monarchy’s expensive upkeep to criticism, and fraying international relations, particularly between Britain and the United States under President Lyndon B. Johnson (the explanation offered: Johnson is peeved over Wilson’s refusal to support his Vietnam policy). The season ends in the late 1970s.
Morgan said he wasn’t “engineering” parallels between then and now, but realistically depicting a “country really at its own throat” during that period.
“You have the left and the right screaming at each other, and not hearing and not listening to one another,” Morgan said. “In a funny way, it was reassuring because what the show has continually reminded me of, again and again and again, is that crisis is the default position rather than harmony. But we project a harmony into the past.”
The series artfully weaves together the political and personal. There’s a tender scene in which Elizabeth visits a frail Winston Churchill (John Lithgow, who won a 2017 Emmy for the role); a wrenching disaster that tests the queen’s capacity to serve as comforter-in-chief, and a national economic crisis that gives second-fiddle Margaret a chance to shine.
Morgan is an esteemed chronicler of authority and privilege, earning Academy Award screenwriting nominations for “Frost/Nixon,” about journalist David Frost’s TV interviews with former U.S. President Richard Nixon, and “The Queen,” featuring Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance as the monarch grappling with the repercussions of Princess Diana’s death. In 2017, Morgan earned the British Film Institute’s highest honor, the BFI Fellowship.
Ben Caron, an executive producer and director for “The Crown,” called Morgan’s writing “the very best of the best.”
“But the edit is when Peter’s innate understanding of his own material comes into play. He is brutal with his own work — cutting out whole scenes, speeches, moments — in order to refine, refine, refine,” Caron said in an email. “It’s a writer’s instinct as much as a filmmaker’s, this whole idea of, ‘Why use 10 words when you can use one?’ It often means we lose a lot in the edit, scenes that we’ve slaved over, beautifully shot work, prized moments, but his instincts are always, always right.”
Morgan said he’s become comfortable with dramatizing the famous, but admits that finding his approach to the modern genre wasn’t easy. His breakthrough came on “The Deal,” a British TV movie about Labour colleagues and rivals Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
“The really big leap of terror for me happened in 2003, really when I first started writing Tony Blair in a serious way and broke with the tradition of only dealing with political figures and our leaders through satire,” instead creating fully realized individuals, he said.
Morgan doesn’t mingle with the royal family, but he did have a brief encounter with Prince Charles in 2015, when the heir to the throne invested him, among some 80 others, as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire — in Morgan’s case, an honor recognizing his services to drama.
“So you’re a scriptwriter?” Charles asked him, adding his view that what a writer chooses to leave out is more important than what’s included — a comment that Morgan says he didn’t take as a veiled message (it was, to be fair, before “The Crown” had debuted, but after “The Queen” had taken a hard look at the House of Windsor).
“I don’t think he had the faintest idea who I was,” Morgan said, matter-of-factly. “I think he would have been far more excited and far more interested to meet people involved in conservation, or farming or even in science and invention. It’s hard to imagine, for those of us in London, New York or Los Angeles, but there’s a huge world out there that doesn’t give a (expletive) about what we do.”
“The Crown” has proven compelling to audiences and, although Netflix doesn’t release ratings, Morgan happily noted that views have jumped for this season’s preview trailer. He’s mulled both viewer dedication to the series and his own (“Why am I still doing this?”) and concluded part of the answer is the canvas it offers to examine the latter half of the 20th century.
“On the one hand, you’re looking at history and you’re looking at a family and you’re looking at the British constitution. But because these people are such strong connective tissue ... you’re also looking at your grandfather, your grandmother, your father, your mother, your own childhood and your children’s childhood,” he said.
He hadn’t foreseen that the series “would be the story of our lives,” he said, invoking Warren Buffett’s name and economics to bolster his resolve to stick with “The Crown” to its end, whenever that may come.
“In a funny way, I think it’s important that I carry on doing, because it’s a bit like compound interest,” Morgan said. “It becomes more profound the more of it there is.”