- Film And TV
- 09 Dec 22
Netflix mega-hit The Crown is back with its most explosive season yet. The star-laden cast discuss the show’s progression into the ‘90s, when the royal family were rocked by tragedy, scandal and public backlash.
The fifth season of The Crown recently arrived on Netflix, marking the first series to be released following the deaths of Prince Phillip and Queen Elizabeth. After a two-year break, Peter Morgan’s sprawling drama officially enters the scandal-ridden 1990s – and a new era means a fresh cast.
As Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) approaches the 40th anniversary of her accession, she reflects on a reign that has encompassed nine prime ministers, the advent of mass television and the twilight of the British Empire. Extra scrutiny has been placed on the potentially divisive nature of season 5, which was already finished shooting when the Queen died. While the stars are filming season 6 (likely to be the final outing), one cast member’s job is done.
“Spoiler alert, John Major’s not in season six, so I haven’t seen these guys for a long time,” says Trainspotting and Elementary star Jonny Lee Miller, who plays the Conservative Prime Minister. “It was almost a year ago that I worked on it. I was just thinking yesterday how that’s flown by. I’m really proud. When you’re asked to be part of a show that you think is so expertly done on all levels – high calibre across all departments – you’re just thrilled.”
The attention to detail from the costumes to the accents remains immaculate, while equal care is applied to hair and make-up.
“The team have done four series, so they know exactly what they’re doing,” notes Staunton. “We’re riding on their wave of success. I was doing a scene yesterday, and I cannot tell you the detail of even just giving me breakfast as the Queen. It’s absolutely extraordinary. No one sees it, but it’s got to be correct to the most miniscule of degrees. Of course, Peter Morgan investigates the emotional part. That’s another area.”
“It’s also very useful coming in and taking over a role with everyone at the same time, because there’s nervous energy,” says Jonathan Pryce, who plays Prince Philip. “Everyone is very welcoming. It would be difficult if you were the only one coming into a long-running series, where she was the same old Queen, but I was the new Prince Philip.”
“You’ve got this character to create on your own, which has been passed on,” says Lesley Manville, who portrays Princess Margaret. “You do the homework, but the layers come together in the last three or four months when you’re starting to shoot.”
“There’s an enormous, amazing research department which has every video, every interview, every question you ever wanted to ask about your character or the royal family,” says The Wire star and ex-Trinity college student Dominic West, who takes over the role of Prince Charles. “That’s a huge resource that you can only learn from.”
As Princess Diana, Elizabeth Debicki was arguably the cast member with the most daunting task. She had to inhabit a beloved public figure, whose tragic death resulted in an intense period of national mourning. Diana’s passing also forced deep introspection in the monarchy about their public image.
“I was definitely nervous,” admits Debicki. “We all were. The show does feel like an enormous responsibility, but we’re supported by a huge group of people who understand that pressure. It’s a huge challenge. For me, it took some time to understand that you’re bringing your interpretation to Peter’s interpretation of this person.
“But then, the people watching the show come with such attachment and memory. They have a sense of ownership over these characters in a way – not only from the people who have played them before, but also from their living memory and history. You have to leave space for that, it’s a dance between all those things. It’s a beautiful process, but also difficult and rewarding.”
Manville also pays tribute to co-star Timothy Dalton for his portrayal of royal equerry Peter Townsend. During episode four, the Countess of Snowdon is met with a blast from the past after Townsend’s arrival at a royal event.
“We had to spend quite a lot of time learning to do a nice little dance together, but it’s very sweet,” says Manville. “She’s going through a lonely chapter of her life. She’s transitioning into an older phase, which is difficult for her, because Margaret has always been glamorous and iconic. How do you pair all of that with this odd life on your own? Peter brings Townsend back in to serve a great purpose, it highlights what she could have had. But she gets animated, sparky and fun.”
Miller, of course, is best known for playing the peroxide-haired Sick Boy in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Almost three decades later, he finds himself portraying the famously dour Major – two more contrasting acting assignments are difficult to imagine.
“I did a lot of reading, obviously,” says Jonny. “I grew up in a very socialist, left-wing household. As a young man at the time, I thought we knew who John Major was. He got a lot of flak back in the day, but the more I learned about him, the more I began to like him. We have a lot of similarities.
“He’s from Worcester Park, I’m from Kingston. We both went to state grammar schools. We had theatrical parents. I learned a lot about the work that he did, and my respect for him grew massively.”
What are the biggest challenges of playing a royal?
“Holding it in,” replies Staunton. “It’s a wonderful acting exercise. When you’ve got the writing, the challenge is getting the audience to see what you’re feeling without showing it. Apart from John Major and Diana, royals are restricted with our behaviour. Peter Morgan is giving us a life inside of that confinement. That’s really satisfying to investigate.”
“Charles has one of the most scrutinised, publicised lives in the world, so it’s hard to know what people know about him,” Dominic West interjects. “Because it was about a divorce in this period and there’s always two sides, I suppose viewers heard one or the other. I hope everyone sees both perspectives and there’s a fair hearing. I like the guy. Inevitably you take their side and give them the benefit of the doubt. I hope people see Charles in another light.”
“It reinforced my feelings about the royals,” Pryce laughs. “It made me aware of the kind of man Prince Philip was behind the headlines. He spent most of his life getting bad press as a grumpy, irascible person who said all the wrong things in the colonies.”
West had to grapple with portraying a father on screen while his real life son, 14-year-old Senan, took on the role of Prince William. Timothee Sambor also shines as Prince Harry.
“It was very moving, actually,” reflects West. “Senan had never acted before, because Covid stopped school plays. He had this amazing innocence that was extraordinary to watch, as well from the fact that, obviously, he’s my boy! It’s very difficult when you act with children to have physical closeness.
“That wasn’t a question with him. When it was a more emotional or difficult scene, you were slightly split in your head. I’m talking about your mum, but not your real mum. That bit I found difficult.”
“I love my kids on the show,” adds Debicki. “We were so incredibly fortunate with the casting for the boys. For a lot of them, it’s their first or second job. They’re so smart, generous and kind. I’m just so much happier when they’re on set with me, and as soon as they go I miss them. I always text our casting director and say, ‘Thank you for finding these kids’, because it’s such an important part of the story.”
Another core aspect is set design and wardrobe. Production designer Martin Childs and set decorator Alison Harvey used a mix of research, historical imagery and personal memories.
“You go to some amazing stately homes. Halfway through a scene, you realise that it’s a real Rubens painting behind you!” Manville laughs. “Having said that, some sets are built and the level of detail is pretty spectacular.”
“When I watched it, I couldn’t work out how they got those shots of the front of Buckingham Palace,” says Pryce (spoiler, they’re not real). “I got to see Windsor Palace for real and had a bit of a look around.”
Amy Roberts, head costume designer, and Sidonie Roberts, associate costume designer and head buyer, leaned towards melancholic colours after research.
“With Sid and Amy, they’re so brilliant at creating the costumes,” enthuses Debicki. “It is a really deep and fundamentally psychological conversation you have, about accessing these people in the way the writing does. What made Princess Diana so interesting and iconic with her fashion choices, is that she brought the private into the public sphere, which is such a non-royal thing to do. It was very transgressive.
“It was really satisfying to tell that part of the story. We got to imagine who Diana was behind closed doors. Like Dom was saying, there’s this enormous archive we can jump into. Some of the things I was pulled to the most were often little snippets, footage that never made the news. There’s no voiceover or agenda, it’s just raw footage. As an actor looking to access the character, it’s these little off moments.
“It’s hard to explain, but how somebody opens the car door and why they do something with their body is fascinating to me.”
“The hair, make-up and clothes were huge for me,” says Staunton. “I’d never done anything where that is such an important factor. The world knows what they look like – there’s that responsibility. For the Queen, who stayed the same all the time, that’s what people admired about her. She didn’t try to be trendy or move with the times. She didn’t alter for them.”
Movement coach Polly Bennett also trained the actors in body language.
“We worked on simple things to do with posture,” says Pryce. “When Philip shook hands, he came in with a sweep. It’s a very generous movement towards people. Un-Trump-like.”
“Philip shaking hands is interesting, because Charles doesn’t reach out. I kept being told, ‘No, you’re the future King, they come to him’,” West recalls, bemused. “It’s very much an absorption. I’m quite outward and all over the place, and Charles is more contained.”
“We worked on a walk for John Major,” Miller recalls. “I don’t think we get to see much of his walk in the end. I had read in his autobiography about a bad car crash he got into in Africa, and his knee had been knocked. We looked at that, and it informed his walk.”
“You’re thinking about what these people are feeling,” Lesley adds. “The great thing about our scripts is that it absolutely, with a microscope, hones in on what any of these characters are emoting. They come to these events with their own lives ticking away underneath. It’s great to be able to tell the really personal and private stories and to humanise them.”
“Especially as an outsider now and as a viewer, and fan of the show, I think that’s what Peter does so generously and empathetically,” Jonny emphasises. “With real class. The audience is always connecting with that. It’s about understanding what that life might have been like.”
“I think the public connects with the mystery behind the grandeur,” suggests Dominic. “We saw it at the Queen’s funeral. Nowhere else in the world does theatre like that.”
Naturally, Elizabeth’s death has led to questions about how the new series of The Crown will be perceived.
“I think it’s bound to affect their perception of what we do,” says Pryce. “I’m confident that the numbers will grow even bigger. After the Queen died, the viewing figures went up 500% for the previous series of The Crown. I think people will, and I don’t want to sound pompous, but they’ll gain a bit of comfort from seeing her embodied again.”
“People queued and queued for the funeral,” says Staunton. “They felt such huge respect for someone who kept her promise.”
“It reflects where our society is at with the lack of trust in politicians,” Pryce muses. “The same thing happened with Diana’s death, the public came out in huge numbers. Seeing the queues for the Queen, they’re saying, ‘This is the person we want to lead our country.’”
“The public really admired this woman,” Imelda nods. “Here we are celebrating a person who did the job. Not anything outside the job or around it. With her connection to horses, they have blinkers and they just plough onwards. That’s what I feel she always did.”
• The Crown season 5 is out now on Netflix.
- Film And TV
- 30 Nov 23