Watching ‘The Crown’ With Britain’s Anti-Monarchists: ‘I Feel Queasy’
LONDON — On Monday evening, Finna Ayres and Matt Turnbull met in Ayres’s London home to do something their friends would have found shocking: watch the latest season of “The Crown,” Netflix’s show about the ins and outs of Britain’s royal family.
Ayres, 80, a retired architect, and Turnbull, 35, a brand strategist, are members of Republic, an organization that wants to abolish Britain’s monarchy in favor of an elected head of state. Neither were fans of the show, but had agreed to watch the new season as an experiment.
The evening ahead was such a potentially unsettling experience that Turnbull had brought two packs of beer with him. “If I’m going to sit through a hagiography for the royal family, I need to be lubricated,” he said.
Turnbull, left, brought two packs of beer with him to watch with Ayres. “If I’m going to sit through a hagiography for the royal family, I need to be lubricated,” he said.Credit…Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times
Within minutes of the first episode, Dominic West, playing Prince Charles, appeared onscreen. “I do like him,” Ayres said, before calling the actor “dishy.”
“I wish he hadn’t sullied his reputation by playing Prince Charles,” she added.
Ayres and Turnbull kept up similarly jokey commentary for the next half-hour, until they came to a scene in which Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) meets John Major (Jonny Lee Miller), Britain’s prime minister for most of the 1990s, and asks that the British taxpayer fund the refurbishing of her yacht. As the scene unfurled, Turnbull put his head in his hands, then started watching through his fingers. “Oh, God, I feel queasy,” he said.
As it began looking like Major might accept the queen’s demand for financial assistance, Turnbull said that he felt angry. “This is exactly how I imagine the royal family to be!” he said, adding that the royals cost Britons hundreds of millions of pounds a year. The show was “making my skin crawl,” he said. Not long after, he went to the kitchen to grab another beer.
Since “The Crown” debuted in 2016, there has been a steady increase in support in Britain for abolishing the monarchy and replacing the institution with an elected head of state — from 17 percent of the British public in 2016, to 22 percent this May, according to IPSOS, a polling company.
Pauline Maclaran, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has written a book on the monarchy and consumer culture, said that there had not been any academic studies looking at whether “The Crown” had contributed to that change. But, she added, there was anecdotal evidence that the show had altered some people’s perceptions of the royals. The show’s early series portrayed Queen Elizabeth II — who died in September — as relatable, Maclaran said, and many young people had told journalists that they warmed to her because of it.
But, Maclaran said, the show’s portrayal of Charles has been more complicated — especially given his tumultuous relationship with his first wife, Diana — and that might have turned some people against him. The new series “couldn’t have come at a worse time” for the new King Charles III, Maclaran added.
This season of the show has certainly fueled concern in Britain about the accuracy of the portrayal of the royals. Last month, Major, the former prime minister, told the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday that the show was a “load of malicious nonsense” for implying that Charles had lobbied him to back the queen’s abdication. The actor Judi Dench heightened that criticism by writing to The Times of London to say that the show’s fictionalized scenes were “cruelly unjust to the individuals and damaging to the institution they represent.”
In that climate, British republicans, as anti-monarchists are also known, might be expected to be cheering the return of “The Crown.” Graham Smith, the chief executive officer of Republic, said that he felt the new series could be beneficial to his movement, especially when it portrays the royals as cold and out of touch. His organization now has 4,500 paying members, he said, and some of the newer members had told him that “The Crown” was the reason they joined. He said that complaints about the show’s accuracy were “special pleading” from royalists.
Smith said that growing support for republicanism had more to do with recent scandals involving the monarchy, including accusations of sexual assault against Prince Andrew and the stormy exit from the royal family of Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan. Those events eroded respect for the institution, Smith said.
The blanket media coverage of the Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in September, Smith added, has also made some people question why a death in one family was elevated above others. In the month of the queen’s funeral, donors gave Republic 70,000 pounds, or about $82,000, which Smith called “a significant sum” for a relatively small organization (last year, Republic got £170,000 in total donations).
In interviews before watching “The Crown” on Monday night, Ayres and Turnbull described their own journeys to republicanism, neither of which hinged on a TV show. Ayres said that she could date her views to one specific event in the 1970s, when Queen Elizabeth II’s mother visited her children’s school. The school marked out specific areas for teachers, parents and cleaners, Ayres said, so dividing everyone by status. Then, Ayres noted, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002, “tottered around” for 15 minutes and left.
“It was obscene, the divisions it caused in our community,” Ayres said, with the Queen Mother “being protected like a precious object.”
Ayres became a republican that very day, she added. She has since collected numerous anti-monarchist pamphlets, many of which detail the cost of the monarchy, and also has a series of satirical postcards making fun of the royal family (two hung on the wall of her bathroom).
Turnbull said that his conversion to republicanism was more gradual, as he came to believe that it was wrong to elevate one family above others. “At school, we were told democracy is the most important value in our society, and then our head of state isn’t elected,” he noted. The reaction to Diana’s death in 1997 increased those feelings, he added. Turnbull’s mother cried longer for Diana than “for some family members,” he said.
As the pair watched excerpts from the show, their emotions swung wildly. When they reached an episode called “The Way Ahead,” which portrays Charles as a prince struggling to modernize the monarchy and establishing a nonprofit to benefit young people in deprived areas, Ayres seemed stunned. “This is naked propaganda!” she said. But during another scene when Charles addressed the Queen as “Mummy,” Ayres burst out laughing. “None of my children have called me mummy since they were 10!” Ayres said.
This season of “The Crown” is the first to feature plotlines that heavily question the monarchy’s existence, with Charles and others fretting about its relevance. The final episode even begins with a clip from a 1997 British television special, “Monarchy: The Nation Decides,” in which viewers called in to vote to keep or abolish the monarchy (some 2.6 million votes were registered with 34 percent of callers saying that they no longer wanted the queen to reign over them).
In the episode, Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) is shown repeatedly calling into the show herself to vote for the monarchy’s abolition. As Diana voted, Ayres laughed. Yet Turnbull seemed surprised.
“Did this really happen?” he said, referring to the televised phone vote. He hadn’t realized that 25 years ago, British TV was openly discussing whether the country should become a republic.
Despite these pleasant surprises, asked if they would watch “The Crown” again, both had a simple answer: No.
Ayres added, “I’ve better things to do.”