After the popular and critical acclaim of the multi-Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA award-winning first two seasons of The Crown, the long-awaited Season 3 has a lot to live up to. With an aged-up complete change of cast, it was always going to take a bit of getting used to. However, the cast announcements for Season 3 all sounded very encouraging – fresh from an Oscar win for playing a Queen in The Favourite, Olivia Colman has stepped into the sensible sturdy heels of Claire Foy as Liz. Tobias Menzies has taken over from Matt Smith as Prince Philip and Helena Bonham Carter has become the new Margaret, after Vanessa Kirby. Josh O’Connor and Erin Doherty are playing the now-adult Royal children Charles and Anne. Season 3 spans the early 1960s to the early 1970s, which as we all know was the time of Swinging London – The Beatles, Mary Quant, Carnaby Street, Mini Coopers, The Italian Job, sex, drugs and rock n roll. So, it should certainly make for a lively season, no?
Well…not quite. Of course, the Royal family live in a closed-off alternative universe to the majority of the population and the real-world events that infiltrate the palace tend to be national disasters or of a political nature. Peter Morgan always intended the relationship between The Queen and her Prime Ministers to be the focal-point of The Crown and Season 3 opens with Elizabeth’s beloved Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) passing away. The two PMs who feature in this season are Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), who Queenie initially suspects of being a communist spy before defrosting and becoming surprisingly affectionate towards – and Ted Heath (Michael Maloney), who barely makes an impression. The only hints of the ‘flavour’ of the decade come via Margaret and her photographer husband Tony (Ben Daniels, taking over from Matthew Goode) and through Anne, who has ‘fun’ with Andrew Parker-Bowles (Broadchurch’s Andrew Buchan). The Swinging Sixties this ain’t.
The biggest flaw of this season, which did not stand out as glaringly in the previous ones, is the ‘standalone’ nature of the episodes which makes it feel extremely disjointed and prevents any real connection with the characters or their development. There is no sense of a strong through-line or story arc and unfortunately, the biggest victim of this is Colman’s Queen. The beneficiaries of this design are Helena Bonham Carter’s Margaret, who gets two highlights of the season (Episodes 2 and 10) and Josh O’Connor’s Charles (Episode 6, and to a lesser extent, 8-9). While Episode 3, focusing on the Welsh mining disaster in Aberfan is affecting, the ending in which a forced connection is made to the Queen and her emotions feels ham-fisted and cringey. Episode 4, focusing on Prince Philip’s Mummy issues is good, but the other Philip-centric episode (7: Moondust) is unbearably dull, as is Episode 5, which focuses on Charles Dance’s Mountbatten.
The script and direction feel more unnatural and forced this season. Morgan is desperate to draw unsubtle parallels between Charles and Camilla with both Margaret and the fact that she was not allowed to wed her love Peter Townsend and also Edward VIII (now played by Derek Jacobi) and Wallis Simpson (now Geraldine Chaplin). A correspondence and friendship between David (as Edward VIII is known) and Charles is played up, with Charles constantly comparing himself to his great Uncle. Moments of significance or portent are overplayed into drawn-out tableaus which seem only to exist to be edited into trailers. The most glaring example is Charles looking back at his family at David’s funeral, as they stand lined up like The Usual Suspects. Constant close-ups of Colman doing her best stoic face are not giving us the insight that Morgan seems to think they are. You will find yourself longing for a Margaret or an Anne to burst in and add some life to proceedings.
On a more positive note, Episode 6 follows Prince Charles being taken out of Cambridge for a term and sent to Aberystwyth University to learn Welsh for the speech he will be making at his investiture as the Prince of Wales. The piecemeal nature of the series means that Charles has not been referred to in any of the previous episodes of the season, let alone seen, so we have to quickly get to know and care for this character. Luckily we have an actor of the calibre of O’Connor (God’s Own Country, The Durrells) to take us on this journey. O’Connor’s height is used to great effect and he uses physicality to portray Charles feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is constantly hunched, looking up apologetically at the reluctant lecturer Edward Millward (Mark Lewis Jones) who has been given the task of teaching the Prince of Wales Welsh, despite being a staunch Plaid Cymru Welsh-nationalist. The episode is an excellent two-hander between these two actors (O’Connor and Jones) and Millward gradually warms to Charles, perhaps gaining some sympathy for his predicament by the end. Between this and the amazing episode 9 of season 2 (Paterfamilias, which deals with Philip and Charles’ times at Gordonstoun), it is hard to imagine the audience not feeling some stirrings of care and feeling for Charles. O’Connor conveys Charles’ awkwardness, shyness, loneliness and feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. He does this through facial expressions, gesture and only the smallest of nods towards Charles’ gritted-teeth, strained way of speaking, which O’Connor only deploys on certain words. This showcase episode is an acting tour-de-force and will hopefully be part of next year’s Emmy conversation.
Surprisingly, Morgan chooses to focus on Margaret in the season finale but it is definitely the strongest episode, after Episode 6. It features the final disintegration of her marriage to Lord Snowden and her attempted affair with a younger man, Roddy (Harry Treadaway). Colman excels in her scenes with Bonham Carter and there is a particularly heart-breaking scene between the sisters in this episode. Over-all, the season does not give Colman (an amazing actor) much to do. Elizabeth is getting on much better with Philip this season, which may explain some of the lack of conflict-filled scenes to sink her teeth into. Her young children, Andrew and Edward barely feature (which is perhaps for the best, considering the current scandal involving Andrew). Those of us who were looking forward to seeing the initial sparks of the Charles and Camilla romance will be left disappointed, as so much seems to happen off-screen. We see her eyeing him up at the infamous polo match, they have a sweet first date involving an exploding card and the next minute, we get a brief glimpse of her in Charles’ bath, implying the relationship has become physical. We are given almost nothing that would make us invest in them as a couple, which will presumably play a big role in Season 4 and beyond, once Diana comes into the picture.
So, all-in-all, an uneven season which comes as a disappointment after the calibre of the first two. I feel somewhat sorry for Colman, who has not been given the same quality of material to play with as Claire Foy. The undoubted strength of this season has been the supporting players, (especially Bonham Carter and O’Connor) and it feels slightly wrong that the limelight has shifted so much from The Queen herself. It will be interesting to see where it goes in Season 4 and let’s hope that Colman gets more of a chance to shine.