Perspectives on Culture

In England's Dreaming: The Crown and the British Heritage Industry

Sam Wetherell, December 2017

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on June 2, 1953. Netflix’s drama <span style="font-style: normal;">The Crown</span> depicts the first years of her reign. The Science Museum/Flickr Commons/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0Last year, walking through a quiet, cobbled neighborhood in West London, my girlfriend and I noticed that something around us had changed. The people had disappeared, and we were suddenly surrounded by vintage 1950s cars and replica gas streetlights. It became apparent that we had wandered onto a film set. When a man emerged, carrying a large piece of equipment, my girlfriend asked what they were filming. He told us in an American accent that he couldn’t say, so she asked him what it rhymed with. He hesitated, eventually blurting out, “the . . . brown?” Netflix’s high-budget costume drama The Crown, which depicts the first few years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, was to return for a second season, and we were accidentally among the first to find out. As historian Patrick Wright observed in On Living in an Old Country, there are moments when “the whole of British society” feels like it is “frozen over in an arresting display of the past.” This was one of these moments.

The Crown is one of many recent movies and TV shows that dramatize the lives of Britain’s aristocratic elite. Downton Abbey, a soapy narrative about a declining interwar aristocratic family written by a Conservative member of the House of Lords was, of course, explosively popular in Britain and the United States. This past fall, meanwhile, saw the release of Victoria and Abdul, an all-star comedy about a friendship between Queen Victoria and an Indian servant.

Unlike many of its predecessors, The Crown has been praised for its irreverence and its historical accuracy. Rather than a proud war hero, Churchill, nearing death, is staggering and corpulent—wheezing and slurping, his jowls wobbling in rage. King George VI, meanwhile, is foulmouthed, stammering, and grumpy. The politicians and aristocrats are trapped by cruel formalities, confounded by a changing world that they fail to understand while they chain smoke in shabby drawing rooms.

While the show’s individual facts may be correct, however, its overall story rings false, not because of what it depicts but because of what it leaves out. In the second episode, Elizabeth, not yet queen, travels to Kenya with her new husband, Phillip. Kenyans are portrayed as a homogenous, fawning mass, inseparable from the landscape. Indeed, throughout the show, Britain’s collapsing empire is nothing more than a pretty canvas on which the emotional drama unfolds. The trip to Kenya took place in 1952, the same year that witnessed the first flares of the four-year Mau Mau rebellion among Kikuyu Kenyans. This uprising against imperial rule would instigate a wave of brutal repression from the British, culminating in the internment of an unknown number of civilians—possibly hundreds of thousands—in a network of concentration camps.

It is, of course, correct that none of these latent tensions would have been visible to the royal couple, who would have remained in a bubble of white advisers and black servants throughout their trip. Yet with almost no reference to the impending violence and instability of the British Empire in the early 1950s, millions of viewers across the world are invited into the bubble to join the royal couple, and to see the empire only through their eyes.

With almost no reference to the empire’s violence and instability, millions of viewers are invited into the bubble to join the royal couple.

More worrying, perhaps, is the dynamic that motivates The Crown’s plot. In the arc of the first season, the new queen struggles to find a role for herself in the world. As a woman surrounded by men, she is learning to wield and command authority—over her henchmen, her sulking husband, and the ever more cantankerous Churchill. In a familiar trope of TV drama, the queen comes to grips with an institution that she eventually grows to master. We root for her because she is good at doing her job, just as we root for Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men or George Clooney’s character in ER.

It is worth reflecting on what that job was, and what it still is. In the first episode, we see Elizabeth’s dying father passing on a few words of wisdom about managing the affairs of state. Gesturing to a box of government files, he says, “Everything they want me to know they stick on top. Everything they’d rather I didn’t know . . . they tuck away at the bottom.” In a subsequent episode, Elizabeth, now queen, summons the aging Churchill to his office to rebuke him for his poor handling of the great smog that paralyzed London in 1952, killing thousands. With cabinet rivals circling for his job and his approval ratings falling, the queen is preparing to ask him to consider resigning, only to lose her nerve at the last moment. In the next shot, Churchill, phlegmy and rotund, boasts to his wife about his lucky escape and his ability to manipulate the young queen.

In these scenes, the show urges us to feel a solemn tenderness as we watch George VI’s tutorial and to side with the queen against Churchill. But many reviews miss the fact that in these scenes we are to sympathize with an aristocratic and unelected head of state—one that is still in power in Britain—attempting to override democratically elected representatives.

The endurance of the monarchy in Britain is an open political question, but it goes unasked in The Crown. Why? Since the 1980s, “heritage” in Britain has grown into a segment of the economy like automobile manufacture or fishing—it’s common to hear about the heritage “industry” or “sector.” Within national communities, the past always works in service to the present. British history, however, is not—or at least is not just—a flawed mythology conjured to produce a cohesive body politic. It has become a brand.

In museums and stately homes, in classrooms, and in television shows like The Crown, history has a macroeconomic job to do. Its role in Britain is to bring in tourists, to create neatly packaged cultural products, and to regenerate towns and cities. Even Britain’s instruments of government, the royal family, the sclerotic House of Lords, and the hollering Commons, are becoming part of the heritage industry. Under these circumstances, major constitutional questions have come to be drenched in a mawkish hue as it becomes harder each day in Britain to meaningfully connect the past with the present.

Those of us teaching British history in the United States, or even in Britain, often find ourselves acting as a countervailing force. Our students arrive expecting juicy details about the affective lives of royals and aristocrats. Violence is not Amritsar but Jack the Ripper, the Industrial Revolution is not Manchester but the Hogwarts Express, and the empire is not the Mau Mau but a princess and her husband watching hippos graze at night from their tree house. I am teaching an undergraduate course at a British university that analyzes the history of decolonization and the migration of former colonial subjects to Britain as an interconnected story. My students, all freshmen, freely admit that they are far more familiar with the story of the American Civil Rights Movement or the Vietnam War than they are with the history of British nonwhite migration or decolonization. These aspects of British history, integral as they are to understanding contemporary life, aren’t incorporated into the heritage economy.

Elizabeth is learning to wield authority—over her henchmen, her sulking husband, and the cantankerous Winston Churchill.

There are, of course, a number of movements led by historians inside and outside the academy to push back against Britain’s nostalgia complex. Perhaps the most compelling is the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project led by Catherine Hall, a professor at University College London. Hall and her team have traced the money the British state paid to slaveowners to compensate them after emancipation for the loss of their “property.” In doing so, she has built a vast database of those who owned slaves and traced the path of their fortune through time.

With the ends of industry and empire, and its imminent departure from Europe, Britain is a country unsure of what to do with itself. Tens of millions have been conjured from the earth to live in cities whose purpose is increasingly unclear. One possibility is that history—no, heritage—will plug this gap. Would it not be ironic if, after playing a singular role in the creation of the modern world, Britain’s future will be to rebrand itself as a giant museum of ancien regime memorabilia for the world to holiday in? A place where castles and palaces, ghost tours and dungeons allow the world’s middle classes to escape from the drudgery of industry and bureaucracy? If Britain is becoming one giant costume drama, then perhaps this is why, during our walk in London last year, it took so long to realize that we had wandered onto a film set.

Sam Wetherell is a historian of Britain and the world at the University of York, UK. He received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and was recently a visiting professor at Columbia University.


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