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The Crown and British imperialism: Captivating TV show whitewashes history

Durga M Sengupta | Updated on: 7 February 2017, 1:21 IST

It can cost a lot to even pretend to be royalty. As much as $130 million, going by Netflix's new series created by Peter Morgan, The Crown. Despite the grandeur of the set and story that chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth, the reigning British monarch played by Claire Foy, the show doesn't lose sight of subtleties that help us get an insight into the minds of the queen and her family.

The queen's troubled relationships with her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), husband Prince Philip (Matt Smith), her idolisation of her late father King George VI (Jared Harris), her grudging respect for prime minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), all subtly unfold, with utmost sensitivity to the crown.

It becomes, then, a responsibility for the show to extend that sensitive portrayal of its characters to the time it is situated in, namely, the fag end of British imperialism. But on that account, it turns a blind eye.

The Crown appears to side with a British aristocracy that mocks indigenous people in their colonies, villainesses or ridicules those who supported the cause for the colonies' freedom, and humanises white supremacists as old tired men.

The show doesn't offer the colonised individual's perspective, with very few lines uttered by indigenous people. And in those few lines they deliver, they are more objects and less subjects, barring a scene with a Kenyan king. Perhaps that sort of representation will change in future seasons, with the plot moving towards the Suez Crisis, but so far, it has been The Crown's greatest failing.

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Giving away India

Throughout the first season of The Crown, there's that underlying reality of British imperialism collapsing. But barring a scene with a young Gamal Abdel Nasser (Amir Boutrous) and the impending Suez Crisis, the show breezes past the tension that must have arrested the British Empire at the time.

Queen Elizabeth II, who appears deeply troubled by her lack of knowledge of politics and other worldly matters in the show, enough for her to appoint a tutor, doesn't seem threatened by 'insurgents' in the Commonwealth Nations she visits. Prince Philip even less so.

After news of the king's death reaches the couple in Kenya, where they were on a tour, they're shown to rush back. The parting shot is one of their plane taking off as a young Kenyan boy mourns for their loss with a song and a tear that beautifully rolls down his face.

This sort of picturisation is problematic, to say the least. It not only exoticises Kenya in 2016, but by adding such elements, it's as though the show advocates in favour of the white man's burden.

The other problem, of course, is that it puts down key players who sympathised with the nations that sought independence from Britain.

Philip's uncle, Lord Mountbatten, Governor General of pre-Independence India, is repeatedly ridiculed for having given India away. He is portrayed as over-ambitious, a man celebrating the potential of 'Mountbatten' becoming the name of the future royal house. He is referred to as a man "cuckolded by Nehru, no less", and derided on account of that by the Duke of Windsor, erstwhile King Edward VIII (Alex Jennings).

Prime minister Clement Attlee, responsible for the legislation that finalised Indian independence, is shown as an unpopular, unimpressive man, who sees opportunity in the great smog bringing Churchill down, despite his socialist leanings. But history knows that never happened.

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Grandpa Churchill?

The Crown's greatest victory lies in how beautifully well rounded its characterisation of a public figure like Winston Churchill has been.

Right from his shrewdness in gaining media attention at the right time, to his disgust at the famous Sutherland Portrait, later burnt, which he made known in Parliament, Churchill, the man makes for fascinating television. And The Crown has greatly capitalised on it.

Artist, writer, politician and soldier, the timeline of The Crown and Churchill's life meet shortly before his 80th birthday. At first, one senses a critical eye on the grand old man, what with his hunger for power and constant derision of people.

But the show quickly turns all of these traits to his advantage by turning him into a young mind trapped in an old man's body. Suddenly, Churchill rushes to the aid of his young secretary Venetia, a completely fictional character put together to show Churchill capable of selfless compassion.

He snubs the queen, and is later shown bowing to her wisdom. He snubs then foreign secretary Anthony Eden for eyeing his seat, and later desperately calls out to him for help, before suffering a stroke.

It would be foolish to say Churchill wasn't all of these people. He is known to have been a devoted husband to his wife Clementine, for one. But to show him, a man who history says can be blamed for the death of about 3 million people in the Bengal famine in 1943, as a victim of age alone, is a bit unfair.

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As the then secretary of state for India, Leopold Amery wrote, "Winston may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country."

"Apparently it is more important to save the Greeks and liberated countries than the Indians and there is reluctance either to provide shipping or to reduce stocks in this country," wrote Field Marshal Sir Wavell, later viceroy of India, in an account.

These accounts make it perfectly obvious that Churchill's decisions were questionable enough to not deserve such a positive portrayal on popular television today. Especially not one where he'd end up reminding one of their grandfather.

Besides, the man openly hated India. The land of "beastly people".

First published: 13 November 2016, 12:13 IST
Durga M Sengupta @the_bongrel

Feminist and culturally displaced, Durga tries her best to live up to her overpowering name. She speaks four languages, by default, and has an unhealthy love for cheesy foods. Assistant Editor at Catch, Durga hopes to bring in a focus on gender politics and the role in plays in all our interactions.