You know what a biopic about Queen Elizabeth totally needs? An episode that’s almost entirely about Winston Churchill getting his portrait painted.
Elizabeth’s whole story here was relegated to the minutae of racehorse breeding and more Prince Philip being a douchebag fratboy asshole while we spent ages with Churchill, watching him give painting advice to a professional artist (dilletante-splaining?), and then throw a tantrum when he doesn’t like how the painting turns out. Because–OMG!–it actually portrays what he really looks like.
Maybe I’ve misunderstood what The Crown is supposed to be. I was under the impression this was supposed to be the story of Queen Elizabeth II. And, to a lesser extent, the story of the people around her, inasmuch as what’s happening with them ties in with the crown, and duty, and all that. But Churchill’s story here doesn’t connect with anything to do with Elizabeth. We’re just watching two completely separate stories, and so this episode just didn’t gel properly. It was beautifully shot and acted, but really didn’t seem to work.
And don’t get me wrong: of course Churchill should be part of this narrative. He was a towering figure of the 20th century, and a very important figure in Elizabeth’s life and the early years of her reign. It only makes sense that he’d play an important role here. But Churchill has his own films and biopics. Loads of them. They can (and have!) cover this period in his life. I just wish this programme would focus. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m here for Elizabeth. Let her have her moment!
So let’s start with her. Elizabeth finally gets to spend some time in her comfort zone: the stables. She inherited a love of horse racing from her mother, and she has a very promising stallion, Aureole, whom her manager thinks they should retire and put out to stud. Her manager is Lord Porchester, future Earl of Carnarvon (which means he lives in Highclere Castle, better known to many as Downton Abbey). ‘Porchy’ has been very tight with the royal family since forever, and at one point he was floated as a very suitable mate for Elizabeth. Alas, she had eyes only for Philip, though god knows why (other than looks) so Porchy missed out. Don’t fret, though, he’s got a lovely horse-crazy fiancee and is still tight with Elizabeth. So much so, that when he comments on the fact it took him three hours to get through to her by telephone, she immediately gets him a direct line.
Horse racing is not a passion Philip shares with his wife (though he is still very horsey–he’s a champion carriage driver). Elizabeth’s clearly disturbed by the amount of time Philip’s spending out partying with his playboy pals, so she tries to involve him in the process by taking him to witness Aureole’s first wedding night. Philip basically just acts embarrassingly the whole time, hooting like, well, the fratboy I called him above, and Elizabeth is clearly mortified. To cap it all off, he whines about Porchy getting a direct line, when his own request for a similar allowance for his BFF Mike was refused. He seems to forget that Porchy’s direct line was ordered by the queen herself, and when the queen says: ‘I want a direct line for this person’ it happens. Prince Consort? Not so much. You’d think Philip would use this as another excuse to complain about his emasculation, but instead he surprises us and hints that he thinks his wife is having an affair with, or at least carrying a bit of a torch for, Porchy.
Fed up, Elizabeth slaps on a smile for Porchy and the other people hanging about, then gets into the car with Philip and has a real screaming match (which we don’t get to hear, but we do get the follow up, which I’ll get to in a moment).
Churchill’s off at his country estate, getting ready to celebrate his 80th birthday. As a gift, the joint Houses of Parliament decide to have his portrait painted by Graham Sutherland. Sutherland seems a slightly odd choice, since he was a modernist and Churchill is…not. Indeed, Churchill immediately complains about the choice, declaring that Sutherland must be a socialist because…he likes to create modern art? I don’t know, Churchill’s being odd here.
But the portrait will be painted, and Sutherland (played by Stephen Dillane, AKA Stannis Baratheon AKA Thomas Jefferson) manages to bond with Churchill over their love of painting and the tragic loss of young children. Churchill thinks they’re besties, but when he unveils the portrait at a special ceremony in front of Parliament (and in front of TV cameras) he’s horrified to discover Sutherland has not portrayed Winston as a strong, bulldog-ish leader, but as a frail, ageing man, slumped in a chair. (In reality, this is not the first time Churchill saw the painting. Clementine had taken a photo of it earlier and shown it to Winston, who rejected the painting and refused to have it at the ceremony. He was persuaded to unveil it anyway, and used the occasion to embarrass and insult Sutherland.)
Churchill hates the portrait, and he summons Sutherland to his home to yell at him. Sutherland pretty much tells him that ageing sucks, but there’s nothing he can do about it. Churchill just needs to accept the fact that he is, in fact, getting older. It’s a wake-up call for Winston, who realises he is too old to lead anymore. He tenders his resignation to Elizabeth, is replaced by Eden, and Clementine has the portrait burned (though it’s made to appear, here, that it was Winston who ordered the portrait burned, and Clementine was upset about it. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.)
Elizabeth wants to mark all the work Churchill’s done and floats the idea of renaming London Airport for him. Her mother rejects the idea and suggests that Elizabeth instead make Winston have her over for a fancy dinner at Downing Street, which apparently is a big honour.
Unfortunately, said dinner party occurs right after Elizabeth’s and Philip’s big fight. While they’re getting ready, she dismisses the servants and goes into full-bore Queen Mode, coolly telling him that Porchy is a good friend, and yes, there were many people who thought she should marry him, but she has only ever and will only ever love Philip. She finishes by asking if he can honestly say the same of her. His silence, as they say, speaks volumes. I’d just like to point out that in this scene she, dressed in a gorgeous, glittering gown, with her tiara and jewels, back straight, head up, looks absolutely magnificent while he, slumped against the bed like a sullen teenager, in court dress of breeches and shiny shoes, looks ridiculous. Like a boy being given a dressing-down by mummy.
The dinner goes forward. Elizabeth gives a speech in which she praises Churchill for his assistance and for always being an able and willing support and advisor to her, which she hopes he will continue to do. She looks very pointedly at Philip as she says this, and he finally mouths, ‘I’m sorry,’ but I think it’s going to take a LOT more than that at this point, Philip. You have messed up and you deserve every lambasting you get. Get. It. Together.