GLEN WELDON, HOST:
In the latest season of "The Crown," a new cast steps into the roles of Queen Elizabeth II and her family just in time for the 1990s and a series of scandals growing out of the bitter separation and divorce of Charles and Diana. The world around the royal family undergoes sweeping changes - the fall of the Soviet Union, the transfer of Hong Kong, the rise of cable television - while Elizabeth strives in her own stolid way (imitating British accent) to hold on to privacy, tradition and duty. I'm Glen Weldon. And today, we are talking about "The Crown" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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WELDON: Joining me is Kristen Meinzer. She is the co-host of the podcast "Movie Therapy With Rafer & Kristen." She's also the co-host of Newsweek's "Royal Report" podcast. Kristen, hello.
KRISTEN MEINZER: Top of the morning to you, Glen.
WELDON: Also joining us is podcast producer and film and culture critic Cate Young. Cate, how do you do?
CATE YOUNG: I'm great, thank you.
WELDON: And rounding out the panel is film critic and culture journalist Bedatri D. Choudhury. Bedatri, how do you do?
BEDATRI D CHOUDHURY: Doing very well with a cup of tea.
WELDON: There we go. Speaking of, let's spill some tea, some very British, disquietingly milky tea. Imelda Staunton takes over from Olivia Colman in the role of Elizabeth II because heavy hangs the hair helmet that wears the crown. And Jonathan Pryce takes over from Tobias Menzies as royal stick-in-the-mud Prince Philip. But this season nudges both of them into the background to focus on the rocky divorce of Charles, now played by Dominic West, and Diana, played by Elizabeth Debicki. Diana is portrayed as desperately lonely, given Charles' love of Camilla Parker Bowles, played by Olivia Williams under a wig that is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in that performance. We watch the royal family recoil as Diana airs her frustrations, first in a tell-all book, then in a television interview.
But the season also devotes serious screen time to Lesley Manville's Princess Margaret, who rekindles an old flame, and to Prince Philip's fondness for carriage racing, for some reason. We even spend an episode getting to know Mohammed Al Fayed, played by Salim Daw, who's the father of Dodi Fayed, played here by Khalid Abdalla. And Dodi Fayed, of course, will figure largely in Diana's final days, but we won't see them play out until the series' sixth and final season. "The Crown" was created by Peter Morgan, and it's streaming on Netflix.
Bedatri, this season is kind of all over the place. How are you finding it?
CHOUDHURY: On one hand, I appreciate how they're not just blinkered by the royal family and its tales, but it also goes to such great lengths to, you know, make that, you know, royal family is equal to Britain, Britain is equal to royal family argument.
CHOUDHURY: Like, everything that happens inside one of their many castles and palaces is also happening in the country. And what's happening in the country is also happening inside the palaces. So it's just - and it's more than just the bigger world seeping into their little cocoon. I just got, I think, a little bored of the pathologizing of this is a little Britain and what happens here happens in the big country. And I think once or twice is OK, but in each of those 10 episodes, they really hammered that in, and I think it wasn't very subtle.
WELDON: Yeah, that is the show's central thesis; you're right. And if you are tiring of that, you're tiring of the show. Cate, how about you?
YOUNG: I have to say, I was very excited for the season as, like, a perennial gossip hound. I think we were kind of all really looking forward to, you know, the War Of The Waleses, as they called it. But, in that regard, I think it was quite a bit of a letdown. I felt like the stuff that I actually came to see this season was very much on the back burner. We got a lot of peripheral political stuff that I just don't care about. And, like, I know that the show is called "The Crown" and not "The Queen," but it still bothers me how often the show chooses to focus on the men in her orbit, rather than on what she's actually going through. And it just - I'm over it. I'm bored. I don't know who these men are. They all look the same to me. Like, I just want to know about...
YOUNG: ...What's going on with Diana. I feel like so many of the bombshell things that happened in her life barely get the sense of impact that they deserve. I mean, we kind of breezed through the whole revenge dress situation, which was wild to me because that was a massive story and it's a big part of the law of Diana. And we just - we get, like, two minutes of that on screen. I felt like it was very unbalanced in terms of where its audience's interests actually lie.
WELDON: Yep. I hear you.
Now, Kristen, I saved you for last because you're an honest to God royal watcher. So where does the season land with you?
MEINZER: Well, I got to say, what we are watching for this season, I agree with Cate. We are not getting it. When we think of the '90s and when we think of the royals, we are thinking Tampongate. We are thinking Fergie's toes being licked.
MEINZER: We are thinking of phone calls being tapped. We are thinking of Charles giving his Dimbleby interview and, you know, releasing his book and Diana doing hers. And there's barely any time given to this. And every time there is time given to the juicy stuff, the stuff that made the world fixate on this family, they decide to just dedicate a whole episode to Dodi's dad, not to Dodi...
MEINZER: ...Who, by the way, Diana only dated for a few weeks, but to Dodi's dad, an entire episode; or an entire episode dedicated to what's happening on the ninth floor of the BBC versus satellite television. What should we think about the funding and who's on the board right now? Or an entire episode dedicated to Queen Mary of Teck's cousins, the Romanovs; I did not need...
MEINZER: ...Any of these side stories. And they were all symbolically saying something that could have been said in one heavy-handed line, which they, you know, each episode did...
WELDON: Had plenty of.
MEINZER: ...Eventually deliver...
MEINZER: ...That one heavy-handed line in the episode, saying this is symbolic of something else bigger going on. I did not need those diversions. I needed it more down, more dirty, more filthy, more of what we are there for in the '90s.
WELDON: I hear you.
CHOUDHURY: But I also think I would have loved more commentary on, like, how this whole thing was orchestrated by the media, right? There's so much agency given to the royal family, which they have. But also - and I remember watching the CNN documentary, "Diana," where it says that all of it was a media circus. We don't even get that social commentary, but we just get this weird history lesson we didn't ask for, over and over again.
YOUNG: Yeah, because I think they spend so much time focused on what's happening inside of these castles that we don't get a sense of how it's being received by the general public, and so it just feels like them arguing kind of over tea, as opposed to, like, a national scandal.
MEINZER: I'm fine with them arguing over tea. And frankly, I mean, a lot of the stuff they're arguing over is so petty, but that's what makes it enjoyable to me. I've always referred to them as the world's longest-running reality show. It's been centuries of divorces, beheadings, cheating - you know, the whole thing - and just plain pettiness and hierarchical nonsense. Give me all of it. I want it. Give it all to me.
WELDON: It seems like what you're all speaking to is something that is baked in, that is in the bones of this show. Before I get there, I just want to say that every time the show comes back, I worry that they're going to have trouble finding the very specific groove, the very specific rhythms, the very specific voice the show has, especially when you get a whole new cast. But, man, few minutes into Episode 1, Liz and Mags are out whale watching, and Liz says, it's a stinky minky (ph). And I'm like, we're back, baby. Look at that. Look at these posh idiots being stuffy and self-satisfied. That's what I'm here for.
But I think what we're all reacting to is the show is kind of hamstrung because it lacks a clear point of view. Its thesis, its argument, is that Elizabeth is stolid, dutiful, dependable. That is not dynamic viewing. So what they've done in the past, over and over again, is they've kind of dragooned Elizabeth into these big world events, which the real Elizabeth had nothing to do with, and tried to demonstrate how her stiff-upper-lip-iness (ph) somehow saved the Commonwealth. That's the formula for the show.
That gets harder and harder to do when we all remember this history, and we remember all this for ourselves. So the show, I think, recognizes that. That's why the pivot from Elizabeth to the much more juicy scandals of Charles and Diana - but it's still trying to thread an impossible needle. We do get that phone call between Charles and Camilla. We get the feminine hygiene product. We get to see Charles all over the place, being this selfish, grasping, you know, kind of impatient-for-power bore, and he's treating Diana like crap. But that same episode ends with Charles shaking his groove thing on the dance floor with a bunch of underprivileged kids while this out-of-nowhere PSA about The Prince's Trust...
MEINZER: Terrible, yep.
WELDON: ...Comes out of nowhere. Now, I want to say, both of those things can be true. You can show both sides of a character, many different sides of the character, but when you pile them on top of each other like that, it's almost like it's Peter Morgan apologizing to Prince Charles by going, (imitating British accent) oh, sorry, old bean, had to show the Tampax bit. No hard feelings, please.
That's - it's struggling with itself is the vibe I get.
YOUNG: It surprises me that the firm, I guess, as it were, were so adamant that we know that this was fake because I think that this season in particular is so much more sympathetic to Charles than he deserves - a lot of that coming down to Dominic West's performance. I think that was an extremely generous casting.
CHOUDHURY: Oh, that is a huge compliment.
MEINZER: And he's also too good looking to play him. Let's just...
YOUNG: Yes. I was thinking about - I've forgotten the actor's name who played him in the last season, but I think that he had a sense of, like, that timidity that I think we've kind of all seen demonstrated from Charles of that kind of, like, striving for more, but kind of knowing that you can't step out of place. Whereas I think that Dominic West plays him as striving and confident and right, to be honest. And that kind of conflicts with, I think, the popular image of Charles. And then that makes it hard to kind of buy into.
There was one point in which I said out loud to my screen, like, stop making me like Charles. Like, I don't like this because I think that they are so complimentary of him in this season that I think they should be promoting it themselves. Like, it's basically a PSA for how Charles is the best thing that ever happened to the monarchy.
CHOUDHURY: Another impossible thread is, you know, you show all this and it is, for all of us - for most of us, it's fantasy, right? Like, these are gates which I will never be able to go into, perhaps. So - and then, at the end of every episode, to pull a, look, they're just like us - that is where I get very frustrated, saying, are you showing me something that is so fantastical that can't be touched, or are you showing me something about my neighbors? And they are trying so hard.
WELDON: Yeah. Now, Cate, you mentioned this already, but this season does arrive at a very awkward time for the royal family - for Charles, in particular. And you've got people like John Major and Judi Dench - she comes out and she Denches (ph). She comes out and condemns the show for being what it is, what it has never pretended not to be. What do you guys make of this season kerfuffle around what is real and what is not?
MEINZER: I think that every time they speak out to condemn the show, they bring more viewers to the show.
MEINZER: And we are not dumb. And I think that Dame Judi Dench, in particular, in her letter that appeared in The Times protesting the show, essentially threw Americans under the bus and said, audiences outside the U.K., in particular, don't know fact from fiction. And it's like, yes, we do, Dame Judi Dench. We do. We know that this is not a documentary, and that's why the people playing all of the characters change every two years, 'cause it's not a documentary. These are clearly actors who are dramatizing something. And, you know, I'm sure Netflix is loving it. They keep getting more and more articles written about them. Every time one of these folks says, don't watch the show, more people are watching it. So, you know, good on Netflix. Enjoy all the additional viewers that you're getting out of all this.
CHOUDHURY: Yeah. And it's a strange and funny thing to say because some of us have had that history for 200 years. So, yes, we know what we are watching. Don't tell us we don't know. We know these people better than our histories because that's what we've been taught in school.
MEINZER: Yeah. And I also just want to say one more thing. The most revealing and possibly the most incriminating details that are on this show came from Charles himself, from his book that he worked on with Jonathan Dimbledy (ph). They came from Diana's own mouth. So anything they're mostly upset about actually came straight from the horse's mouth, not from Peter Morgan making it up.
WELDON: Right. Let's talk about that episode that focuses on Mohamed Al-Fayed - Mou Mou, as he's called. He is depicted as this wildly successful Egyptian businessman who is somehow obsessed with the British aristocracy. To me - your mileage may vary - to me, there was a note of condescension in that portrayal, but I ended up really liking the character. What did you guys make of the detour into Mou Mou land?
CHOUDHURY: It's a very interesting study on postcoloniality (ph). And we've - at least when I was growing up - I was very young when Diana passed away, but I remember we were obsessed with her. And that season, we got haircuts like her, we had dresses like her. And this is in India, which was under British rule for 200 years. So there is something very - of course there's condescension because at the end of the day, the characters are being written by someone who hasn't lived that reality. Like, the lazy thing to do it is dismiss it as Anglophilia, right? But the more complicated idea is that postcolonial behavior of this obsession with the royal family, this obsession with the oppressor, as it were - it's not nuanced, but I liked how it veered into that territory about why. Why are we so obsessed? Half of the world was colonized by them. Why are we so obsessed with and by them?
YOUNG: Yeah, I think, actually, for me, what it made me dwell on is the fact that, in the wake of Dodi and Diana's death, there were a lot of conspiracy theories, obviously, about what happened and whether or not the royal family was involved. And my understanding is that Mohamed was part of kind of keeping some of those rumors alive. He was convinced that they had something to do with it. And to me, that episode kind of set the stage for why he would have those resentments to begin with. I think the - delineating how he wanted to be perceived by the royal family and the way that they intentionally kind of kept him at arm's length, despite the incredible effort that he went through to court them and to become part of the inner circle. And so I can see how that treatment from them, because of his outsider status, would then lead him to feel as though they might have had something to do with the death of his son and his friend.
MEINZER: Yeah, I felt like it was an unnecessary detour. I don't think they needed to dedicate an entire episode and a half to his story. I do think his story is fascinating. I do think it is quite interesting how he became fixated so much on trying to be aristocratic that he actually hired Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson's valet, Sydney Johnson, which is a real story. He really did that. He did eventually rescue all of their possessions and artifacts and essentially make a museum to Edward and Wallis. He did, as Cate was alluding to, have a plaque put up in Harrods to Princess Diana and to his son. He was very obsessed with this world. And I think, yeah, that would be a fascinating story in and of itself. Do I need it to take up this much space - 15% of the season of "The Crown?" No. I don't need it to have this much...
MEINZER: ...Real estate. I just don't.
CHOUDHURY: It was interesting to see how Blackness plays into the plot, and only in that episode. Like, you know, how is a Black man becoming the face of royalty for an Egyptian Muslim man? I mean, you're right. You're right, Kristen - maybe not as a part of this show, but I think that interesting interplay of race and colonialism and royalty is interesting to look at, but not necessarily as a part of this series.
WELDON: Yeah, I understand why it was there on paper, which is - you know, we spend so much time inside this family. It's good to remind ourselves that there's a world outside this family that is looking in on them and, you know, admiring them because they don't get the peek inside them that we do. It did go on for a long time. And I think it's probably building to something. I hope, Cate, you're right that it's building to something in the last season 'cause otherwise it is a big detour for not a lot of payoff.
MEINZER: I do think that the queen is finally getting some of the just comeuppance she deserves from Margaret this season - Margaret, with her seething rage, which she has always had. And to see the queen now granting divorces to 3 out of 4 of her kids, all of whom are divorcing with cheating as part of the dissolution of their marriages - and Margaret, she wasn't given the same chance. The queen is letting her kids do whatever they want. Why didn't you give this to your own sister? Why didn't you, back in the day - when I was in love with Peter Townsend, why didn't you let me follow my love? And look what happens when you force everybody to do what you want. And, you know, 3 out of the 4 marriages, they fall apart. Very few of us are lucky enough to be with the love of our lives like you, Elizabeth. And it's just not fair. And I loved seeing some of that rage come out in Margaret. And that maybe the queen is tradition, maybe she is steadiness, maybe she is a fixture, but she really sucks at being a human with people who love her and who she supposedly loves.
YOUNG: Yeah, I think the thing that was most fascinating to me about the season is the idea presented through Charles that in order to remain relevant to a contemporary citizenry, that the monarchy has to shift into being something that is less divine and more commercial, essentially. And I found that fascinating because I think most people kind of understand that, like, a monarchy that rules by divine right is kind of an outdated concept. But I think in terms of what they represent and the central Britishness that they keep emphasizing is that they're less heads of state and more figureheads or mascots. And I think that once we kind of frame them specifically in that light, one, we get a monarchy that can actually be functional and serve a purpose in society, but also frees up the actual royal family to, like, have more human lives and not have to maintain this, like, distance of divinity that is required of them because they are, you know, anointed by God to oversee all of these people.
CHOUDHURY: But also, if you're so divine and so distant, then don't touch my money. Like, you know, I loved how, in this season, they're constantly talking about - they're on public money all the time. To do what? To save a yacht. And this is when the country is going through repression. I mean, I don't know. My postcolonial rage just comes up over and over again through the season.
WELDON: I hear you. I mean, like, the argument the show is making, again, is the monarchy is Britain; Britain is the monarchy. And because the show is making that argument, it comes through again and again and again, even when we, the audience, don't buy it any longer.
WELDON: But that's what it's going to keep doing. That's what Season 6 is going to be about.
YOUNG: Or, in my dreams, Season 6 is Diana's revenge. And then - no, no. It's not going to happen.
WELDON: We want to know what you think about "The Crown." Find us at facebook.com/pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Kristen Meinzer, Bedatri D. Choudhury and Cate Young, thank you for being here.
YOUNG: Thank you.
CHOUDHURY: Thank you.
WELDON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and Chloee Weiner and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides our theme music, which you are boogying out to like a bunch of Prince Charles. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow when we will be talking about "Atlanta".
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