WARNING: Contains spoilers for Season 3 Episodes 2 and 3! Yes I know the show is about historic events but some of them are obscure enough that some audience members might not be aware of them before watching… Also there are some liberties taken with history here and there to make a better story. Private conversations are dramatized on screen for which there are no records. This goes for every historical drama that I have ever taken the time to analyze, so I think it’s important to use them as entertainment and to generate interest in a historical topic that you want to learn more about, but be cautious about using them as sources of facts. Actual documentaries can be manipulated quite a bit as well. Both forms can be marvelous entertainment however. As a visual artist, practically every shot in The Crown is a work of art and the period costumes and sets alone are worth the time to watch. For example it’s kind of disappointing to find out that in real life Princess Margaret wore a pink dress with a modest neckline to the White House and not a low-cut bright red and white floral, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Enjoy!
Following is a paper I turned in yesterday for Media and Culture class, before grading.
Production Elements and Messages in The Television Series The Crown
The Netflix historical drama series The Crown tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign against a backdrop of historical events and personal relationships (The Crown). Reviewers consistently praise the high quality of the production (The Crown). I watched two back-to-back episodes of the current third season which featured stories of increasing seriousness and emotional impact to explore how production elements help to tell each story.
In S3 Ep2 “Margaretology”, editing greatly helps the narrative by beginning the episode with a flashback of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret as young girls. They discuss how younger sister Margaret, though by law she cannot be Queen because she is not the first born, actually wants to do the job, has more confidence in her natural ability, and might actually be better at being Queen. They decide to find out if they can switch places. Next is a scene from the show’s present day in which Margaret and her husband discuss her life as it is contrasted with how it should have been. Then the opening credits begin. Later in the episode, Elizabeth decides that she needs Margaret’s help with diplomacy with the United States and Margaret has success in charming President Johnson at a White House dinner. Margaret asks Elizabeth to give her more duties. Although the Queen is tempted, she is persuaded by her husband Philip that it’s safer for the monarchy and the country to keep things the way they are. The episode ends with flashbacks to the child Margaret intercut with the present day Margaret at similar dressing tables, looking devastated, showing that her feelings of not being able to achieve what she viewed as her potential are old hurts that won’t go away (Margaretology).
“Aberfan”, S3 Ep3, is a much more serious episode. Instead of dealing with the disappointment of one character whose personality is sometimes abrasive and not always easy to empathize with (Margaretology), “Aberfan” tells the story of a horrific 1966 mining disaster that killed 144 people, including 116 children (Blakemore). Before the opening credits, there are scenes of the Welsh town Aberfan in the rain (Aberfan). The camera slowly rises over the rooftops to show a view of dark hills surmounted by a mining operation that dwarfs the community. Next there are more scenes of the village, showing children at the end of a school day, being dismissed, walking home and going about their normal evening activities with their families. Considerable screen time is spent on the children and this sustained coverage lets us know their importance (Silverblatt et al. 169). We are also shown a canary in a cage in one of the mining families’ homes. The canary could symbolize many things. The little bird’s sweet chirping recalls the chatter and singing of the innocent children. It has little control over its own fate because it is in a cage, possibly bringing to one’s mind a symbolic cage of being born into a way of life built on dangerous labor with limited opportunity to escape. Canaries also remind us that mining is a hazardous profession due to their traditional use in detecting deadly underground gases (Eschner).
It’s not only raining in Wales, it’s also raining at Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth II is looking over her planner and writing the heading “Friday” as she plans her next day. This is not the only instance in which the disaster occurring on a Friday is emphasized (Aberfan). The Christian faith of the people of the village and of the Monarch is prominent throughout the episode, and Christian viewers watching would be aware that Friday is the most somber day in the Christian week because by scripture and tradition Jesus Christ was crucified on a Friday (Aglialoro). Before the teacher dismisses the children, he asks what tomorrow is. The first answer is Friday. The answer the teacher is looking for is that it is also the day when they are going to have an assembly for which they need to practice a song (Aberfan).
On the Friday morning, the tension keeps building when scenes of the disaster beginning to manifest are cross-cut with classroom scenes (Aberfan). Cross-cutting is a technique that shows events happening in different locations are occurring at the same time (Silverblatt et al. 171).
More than once during the episode we are shown the Queen’s arrangement of family photos in her sitting room, and she and the Prime Minister are each seen gazing at family photos as they contemplate events. Perhaps we are meant to remind ourselves that families are a near-universal part of human existence no matter what our life circumstances are. Even if we feel safe and secure in an imposing palace or a modest but cozy cottage, our loved ones can be taken from us at any time in ways we never expected (Aberfan).
Color and Lighting
Margaret is consistently shown wearing livelier and more colorful fashions than her more conservative older sister in the “Margaretology” episode. As Margaret arrives at the White House, the facade of the building is well lit with warm light in contrast to gray Buckingham Palace, suggesting that the older, struggling country might find the hope and help it seeks from the prosperous younger nation. The light could also symbolize Margaret coming out into her natural if not traditional place in the spotlight at last (Margaretology). In a scene where Margaret asks the Queen for more public duties, the sisters are both wearing green as Elizabeth and Margaret get little digs in at each other about what they envy about each others’ lives (Margaretology), an example of exploiting associations that different colors have in our culture (Silverblatt et al. 171).
When Prime Minister Harold Wilson visits the Queen to tell her about her sister’s lively if not outrageous performance at the White House dinner, using humorously understated phrases such as “less than discreet” and “a little off-color”, they are in the Queen’s sitting room which as usual is softly lit with a color palette of muted grays and pastels. The Queen is expecting to hear bad news during this private conversation with her Prime Minister and the subdued atmosphere fits his hesitance and embarrassment as well as her reluctance to hear the inevitable. Gray tones can signify discomfort (Silverblatt et al. 172) and dim lighting can indicate something hidden (Silverblatt et al. 176). While Margaret is proud of her turn in the spotlight, the Queen and Prime Minister would prefer not to bring her behavior out into the open. The sitting room scenes are intercut with incidents from the previous evening’s dinner that had been relayed to the Prime Minister through the British Ambassador. The dinner party scenes are full of bright flowers in warm tones that complement Margaret’s coral-red and white-flowered dress as she wins over the first couple and their guests who follow the President’s lead in appreciating Margaret’s cruder type of charm. Margaret is even verbally compared to a color film as opposed to one in black and white as her husband reads to her a newspaper account of their earlier, socially successful visit to San Francisco (Margaretology).
In the episode “Aberfan”, at the beginning before the credits we see a wide view of the village with the coal tips and mining operations in the background. It’s early morning and the light from one of the cottages near the foot of the dark mass that threatens the town shines through the windows. The house looks like a nostalgic little model in a holiday display or toy train layout. Since this dwelling is close to the base of the coal tip, it’s possible that it represents one of the homes that got destroyed in the disaster. The light could symbolize the life that is about to be snuffed out like a little candle flame, consistent with several possible meanings of light including life and innocence (Silverblatt et al. 176). Later in the episode candles are prominent as lighting for emergency use, in the mortuary and in the chapel (Aberfan).
Lighting is used in dramatic ways throughout the whole episode. The dark hills and rainy, gray weather combine with the dimly lit interiors of the humble buildings in the village to create a suitably somber mood, appropriate for grief, mourning and death (Silverblatt et al. 176). Light is used constantly throughout the whole episode to enhance and what the viewer is seeing and feeling. Vehicle headlights, lamps, flashlights, spotlights, flashbulbs, the sun and beams of light all play a part in the composition of scenes. Prime Minister Wilson looks shocked at several points in the episode and flash bulbs going off in his face emphasize his distress even more (Aberfan).
At the end of the devastating funeral service for dozens of children, some beams of light barely get though the gray sky as the mourners sing a hymn. This light could represent several things. It could be the mourners comforted slightly by the thought of the children’s souls being lifted up to God. It could be comfort from God or the funeral assemblage or both, however feeble, giving a tiny bit of hope to the community that they can live through this catastrophe. During the funeral scene, we are shown close-ups of Philips face. Perhaps the light is Philip’s thoughts as he becomes enlightened on how best to advise the Queen on how to help the community heal.
Shapes and Connotative Images
There are occasions in the “Aberfan” episode where Elizabeth is contemplating what actions she should take while she is shown backlit in profile. This technique is perhaps intended to bring to mind the iconic image of the monarch on coins and stamps as she decides how to live up to the duty that her idealized image represents. Shape and light are again used together in the Aberfan cemetery. The graves of the children are arranged in a cross shape. We also see a cross in focus behind the Queen’s head when she prays alone in a chapel (Aberfan). Both the profile and the cross could also be considered connotative images that bring up associations in the intended audience (Silverblatt et al. 189).
Scale and Relative Position
Scale is used effectively in “Margaretology” when Margaret sees by her sister’s attitude that the answer to her request to have more of a public role is no. There is a picnic taking place on a hill in front of a castle. Margaret’s position as well as the camera’s is downhill from the picnic, suggesting she is dominated by the institutions that control all their lives and is forever subordinate to her sister. In a flashback when the young Margaret is being scolded for daring to ask courtier Alan Lascelles (Alan Lascelles) if she and her sister could change places, Lascelles is shot from approximately her eye level so he looks exceedingly stern and intimidating while the young Margaret is comparatively powerless (Margaretology).
In “Aberfan”, the ominous mountain of coal is repeatedly shown looming over the village and the people, emphasizing their vulnerability (Aberfan).
Angles and Movement
In the beginning stages of the Aberfan disaster, the tension is enhanced by diagonal shots of ore cart tracks, lift cables and structures. The mountainside itself forms a diagonal angle as the coal slurry starts to slip down and toward the town (Aberfan). Diagonal lines and movement are associated with the triangle shape which is more active and unstable than squares and 90 degree angles (Silverblatt et al. 178-179).
In the pivotal, wordless slow-motion scene where Margaret experiences profound disappointment in “Margaretology”, even though there is a festive picnic in progress, all that can be heard in the soundtrack is wistful music and the faint sound of blowing leaves. Elizabeth and Philip walk past her, leaving her behind in actuality as well as symbolically (Margaretology). The combination of unnatural movement and unnatural sound help give focus to what the character is experiencing internally (Silverblatt et al. 184, 198).
“Aberfan” begins ominously with the sounds of rain, thunder and threatening mechanical noises. The noises continue subtly through a scene of children in a classroom. There are sequences of children practicing singing for a school assembly. The purity and sweetness of those sounds is in contrast to the menace that looms over them, accompanied by poignant background music. It’s significant that the children are practicing a song containing the lyrics “All things bright and beautiful”, reminding us that they are pre-eminent among the bright and beautiful things that are about to be lost (Aberfan).
In the palace, the Queen is shown writing in her planner while thunder is in the background, suggesting that she will somehow be affected by what is about to happen even in her solid, imposing residence (Aberfan).
When the Prime Minister speaks to the bereaved community, the sounds of cameras are conspicuously loud. We also hear prominent shutter clicks when the Queen dabs her eye with a tissue, reminding us that we are witnessing an important moment. The Queen was moved by Philip’s account of the mourner’s singing instead of using their anger and grief as fuel for a disturbance. She listens to a recording of the hymn at the end of the episode and finally is able to shed a tear (Aberfan).
Manifest and Latent Messages
In these two episodes of The Crown, most of the concepts are examples of manifest messages, clear and obvious to the viewer (Silverblatt et al. 11). I did find a couple of possible latent messages, that is meanings that are hinted at or unintentional (Silverblatt et al. 11). In “Margaretology”, it’s not stated out loud by anyone that Princess Margaret might have hit it off with President Johnson mainly because their personalities were similar and it’s likely she would not be able to repeat her diplomatic success in other situations with more genteel people (Updergrove). If one was not already familiar with Johnson’s reputation, some hints were given earlier by showing Johnson doing things like having a meeting while urinating and making crude remarks. The viewer can connect the dots and add to the clearly stated reasons why the Queen and her consort are hesitant to take more chances (Margaretology).
As the Queen exits an Aberfan home where she has expressed personal condolences to selected representatives of the community, she is photographed dabbing at her eye with a tissue. Near the end of the episode the Queen confesses to Prime Minister Wilson that she was not really crying and feels “deficient” because she is not able to cry at sad events like others do. The manifest message is that the Queen feels shame that her photographed suggestion of crying was not real and that the mourners deserved better. In preceding parts of the episode, there are many discussions among various players about how to manage public outrage over the disaster for the benefit of one political party or another, the Coal Board, the Monarchy, or the establishment in general. Since both the Prime Minister and the Queen are portrayed as at least somewhat principled and not solely acting in self-interest, a possible latent message is that the Queen felt obligated to fake the scene in order to create photographs that would both comfort the bereaved and help protect institutions that she is charged with preserving (Aberfan).
The creators of The Crown take already compelling subject matter and increase the emotional impact of this drama series considerably by indulging in careful and thoughtful detail in the production.
“Aberfan.” The Crown, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Benjamin Caron, Netflix, 2019.
Aglialoro, Todd. “Three Benefits to Abstaining from Meat on Fridays-Even After Lent.” Catholic Answers, 2019, www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/three-benefits-to-abstaining-from-meat-on-fridays-even-after-lent. Accessed 3 December 2019.
“Alan Lascelles.” Everipedia International, 2019, everipedia.org/wiki/lang_en/Alan_Lascelles. Accessed 3 December 2019.
Blakemore, Erin. “How the 1966 Aberfan Mine Disaster Became Elizabeth II’s Biggest Regret.” Maven, 2019, www.history.com/news/elizabeth-ii-aberfan-mine-disaster-wales. Accessed 3 December 2019.
Eschner, Kat. “The Story of the Real Canary in the Coal Mine.” Smithsonian.com, 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/story-real-canary-coal-mine-180961570/. Accessed 3 December 2019.
“Margaretology.” The Crown, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Benjamin Caron, Netflix, 2019.
Silverblatt, Art et al. Media Literacy: Keys to Interpreting Media Messages. Fourth Edition. Praeger, 2014.
“The Crown.” IMDb.com, Inc., 1990-2019, www.imdb.com/title/tt4786824/. Accessed 3 December 2019.
Updergrove, Mark. “Cruel to Be Kind: LBJ Behind the Scenes.” The Alcalde, 2012, alcalde.texasexes.org/2012/02/cruel-to-be-kind-lbj-behind-the-scenes/. Accessed 3 December 2019.
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