“The history of the monarchy in this country is a one-way street of humiliation, sacrifices and concessions in order to survive. First, the barons came for us, then the merchants, now the journalists. Small wonder we make such a fuss about curtsies, protocol, and precedent. It’s all we have left. The last scraps of armor as we go from ruling to reigning to…to being nothing at all. Marionettes.”
The Queen Mother’s speech comes at the end of the fifth episode of The Crown‘s second season, aptly titled ‘Marionettes’. The entire episode focuses on the delicate balance that the monarch, and Elizabeth herself, faces each and every day. She must be held in an air of dignity, of superiority, of divinity. And yet she must stay connected to her people. It’s a fine line to walk, and she relies on her advisers and her private secretary, Michael, to help ensure she remains diplomatic and respectful. But, as we see in this episode, her advisers do not always know best.
The events of this episode are sparked by a single speech, poorly and more than a little offensively written. The speech is one she is meant to give at a factory, to her hardworking people. And yet the tone is decidedly condescending. When her advisers are reading it over, making small edits here and there, one of the men suggests a change in wording. Instead of referring to the men and women as “average”, why not call them “working”. But when Michael thinks the speech is fine as is, this man takes it to the assistant private secretary, Martin. And as soon as he reads it, he notices the troubling tone. He brings his concern directly to Michael, but unfortunately, Tommy is also in the room as this conversation takes place. Both assure Martin that no one would ever dare speak against the Monarch. The British people adore the Queen, it’s what it means to be British. No newspaper will speak out against her because if they did, they would face the wrath and judgment of the Crown. Martin isn’t certain of this, but unfortunately, he’s outranked. And as it turns out, the Queen approved the speech herself. She did not read it, she simply asked if Michael thought it was satisfactory. And trusting his judgment, his approval was enough. This is a mistake she will not make again.
Before they depart on their journey, Elizabeth decides that a new and practical look is due, resulting in a much shorter haircut. And though she is a fan, Philip is certainly not. He can’t stop staring on the train, and eventually comes to ask her,
“I thought you were hoping for more children from me.”
Elizabeth looks up, rather confused, and confirms that she is. This spirals into a rather amusing conversation between the couple.
Philip: “Then why on Earth would you do something like that to your hair?”
Elizabeth: “What’s wrong with it? I thought it was tidy and…sensible.”
Philip: “Adjectives to stir the loins…it’s certainly very practical. But, if enlarging the family and enticing your husband to procreate is the goal?
Elizabeth: “It is.”
Philip: “Then you might take a look at Jayne Mansfield. Or Rita Hayworth.”
The jest is adorably amusing, but you can’t help but feel a little bad for Elizabeth! She looks at her reflection in the window with a fallen face. And while it’s true this isn’t her best haircut…well, Rita Hayworth is a lot to live up to.
When Elizabeth and Philip arrive, they make a splendid entrance, admiring the work the men and women do and saying hellos to everyone they pass. The impression they give is quite a good one. Until the speech. The entire thing is disastrously composed. Philip watches in horror, wondering the same thing we and the rest of the people are: how on Earth was this speech approved?
“We understand that in the turbulence of this anxious and active world, many of you are leading uneventful, lonely lives, where dreariness is the enemy. Perhaps you don’t understand that on your steadfastness and ability to withstand the fatigue of dull, repetitive work, depend, in great measure, the happiness and prosperity of the community as a whole.”
This speech, which is extremely naive, condescending, and offensive, is what sparks the events that will forever change the Crown. It’s what causes Lord Altrincham, a former politician and current journalist for The National And English Review, to write the shocking article on the Queen’s speech. He suggests (rightfully so) that the Crown needs to evolve as the times are. This is not the same pre-war Britain they used to live in, and yet the Crown still treats it as such.
Elizabeth is not unfamiliar with Royal scandals hitting the papers, but the headlines are always regarding someone else. Her sister or her husband, for example. It is unheard of that someone actually questions Her Majesty. But Altrincham does, causing so much commotion that he is invited to do an interview on Impact with Robin Day. Day was renowned for being unforgiving, and Altrincham can’t help but fear he’s walking into a trap. But his colleagues suggest he go. He’s already one of the most hated men in the country for criticizing the Monarch. If he can stay calm, collected, and make an intelligent case for why he wrote the article, he may gain support and, ideally, instill some actual change.
The most interesting thing about Altrincham is that, at first, he’s made out as some sort of villain. We want to dislike him. But he actually has many valid points. And as we find out, he’s not against the Queen or the Crown. He isn’t a revolutionary, his true intention is to ensure the survival of the Crown. But the only way it can survive is by changing, and that’s something the Queen’s advisers just haven’t caught onto yet.
During his interview with Day, Altrincham doesn’t just defend his point of view, but he defends the Queen herself. He says that he understands her task is a seemingly impossible one. “She has to be ordinary and extraordinary. Touched by divinity and yet, one of us.” Ultimately, her courtiers, he believes, are the ones in the wrong, and by extension, she is too. Because she is the only one who can fire them, since she is the one who hires them. If anything is ever going to improve, the change has to come from her.
The Queen watches this with anger, but she isn’t angry with Altrincham, she’s angry with herself. She knows he’s right. It is something she has struggled with since her reign first began. She doesn’t want to be something unwavering, something inhuman, and yet that’s what almost everyone expects her to be. And here comes along this man, who she’s never met, who thinks she would be so much better off actually being herself, at least partially. It’s quite an overwhelming situation.
The rest of the country seems to be taking note of what Altrincham is saying, agreeing with him wholeheartedly. So Altrincham is invited to the Palace to speak with Martin, the assistant private secretary. But when he arrives, it isn’t Martin he finds in the room, but the Queen herself. She is determined to hear his suggestions in person. And for this meeting, he has lowered them down to six. Three things the Crown should start doing, and three things they should stop. And though the Queen is rather taken aback at his confidence, she does listen to what he has to say. She even takes two of his suggestions.
The first is the decision to televise the Christmas speech, something that has never been done before. But this isn’t the first time this particular Monarch has strayed from tradition. It was Philip, after all, who insisted on televising his wife’s coronation, a move that proved to be very wise. And though she’s nervous reading the speech to her people, knowing they’re watching her, she does it with grace and dignity. And as a result, brings herself closer to her people.
The second change is the one that prompts the Queen Mother’s speech, quoted at the beginning of this article. It is the decision to allow ordinary, working British citizens, from all walks of life, to visit the palace and meet Her Majesty. It is a bold move, something quite unheard of. But it is necessary. It shows that everyone, not just nobility, is worthy of meeting the Queen, and that she does truly serve all her people, not just those with titles.
Change is never easy, especially with something as longstanding as the Crown. But as we know, things that do not adapt cannot survive. Altrincham, many believed, helped to ensure the survival of the Crown. If anything, he made Elizabeth realize that her closest advisers may not always know best. He made her realize that she should have more faith in herself and her abilities. And maybe, just maybe, a little criticism goes a long way.
For previous episode recaps of The Crown, visit our official Crown Page here.
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