The Crown and British imperialism: Captivating TV show whitewashes history

Durga M Sengupta @the_bongrel | First published: 13 November 2016, 0:13 IST
The Crown

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 Crown

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