Keep Calm and Carry a Crown

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Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret in The Crown. (Netflix).

Battling the flu over Christmas and into the New Year, I abjured all narcotics save one—the Netflix original series The Crown.  In nine individually packaged hour-long doses the first season provides many of the benefits of much stronger medications without most of the side effects.

With just a wave of the remote control, and without a prescription, the patient is transported into a numbed, sometimes happy stupor.  Physical discomfort is blunted by the sumptuous distractions that drift across the screen: the grand staircase of an ersatz Buckingham Palace; the Scottish Highlands; late colonial subjects arrayed on the tarmac of a Kenyan landing strip to be mustered by a young, vigorously obtuse Prince Philip; the nude wood and beige leather of the royal plane’s cabin; Wallis Simpson’s décolletage; a vintage bi-plane gliding down onto Essex fields; Churchill’s cane and whisky glass; the oaken interior of the Archbishop’s Palace and the episcopal purple cassocks that glide through it; a charging bull elephant; dogs; horses; and everywhere the twisting clouds of cigarette smoke. Only Elizabeth II doesn’t indulge the habit.

The main message of the show—weirdly comforting for a viewer with a hacking cough—is that tobacco was a mighty sword of anti-colonialism: it killed Elizabeth’s father and sister (Margaret is the most glamorous on-screen smoker among the Windsors and their courtiers), and it took its toll on her first prime minister, the stroke-addled, booze-befogged Churchill.  Elizabeth forced her husband Philip to give up the “disgusting” practice, otherwise it would likely have claimed him too.

The Crown will inexorably colonize the time from the 1950s of the first season right up to the tabloid now of William and Kate and the lesser rest. Once that territory has been conquered, the series will turn its hungry gaze backward, at some point sighting the first Elizabeth in its viewfinder.  That’s when we’ll meet tobacco man Sir Walter Raleigh and see Elizabeth I smoke a pipe of the Virginian leaf. Just before his execution in the Tower of London, Raleigh will pronounce a surgeon general style curse on the royal house that will come into full deadly force only four centuries later. Instead of the flashbacks of season 1, there will be flash-forwards to Prince Harry having a rebellious go at some weed. In his wild youth—as opposed to his regal maturity—Harry was probably unaware that Elizabeth I had ordered the cultivation of cannabis in England back during her reign.

Throughout the course of The Crown’s meanderings music provides the occasional garnish not from within the world of the royals but from the periphery of the soundtrack: a scrim of portentousness is deployed to help aggravate the conflict between love and duty; or a galloping bit of techno-inflected minimalism is charged with animating lifeless plot-points like whether Elizabeth will be able to have the personal secretary she really wants rather than the palace insider who’s next in line. The main creative challenge of The Crown is giving texture and tension to an institution that demands unbending, lifeless composure from a now-powerless monarch. Music can do little to aid in this impossible task.

The main, perhaps only, purpose of the wearer of the crown is to mark the passing of time, and the occasional loop of energetic electro-orchestral sound can’t raise the intensity. That’s all for the good for anyone taken to his or her sickbed. Even at the coronation staged halfway through the first season, The Crown does not let loose the roaring cannons of English musical pomp that should be sending their salvos down the length of Westminster Abbey and out across the nation and the world.

The only time the august traditions of British monarchic music are alluded to comes in the powerhouse minute of the opening credits.For a streaming self-medicator like myself listening to this is like trying to get into a childproof aspirin bottle: its forceful, finicky, goal-oriented. The pills inside aren’t opioids, but often there’s at least a touch of urgency in the exercise.

Netflix spent a cool hundred million on The Crown, making it the most expensive t.v. series in history. A fair chunk of change must have been tossed in the direction of the composer of this credit sequence soundtrack, the vibrantly prolific Hans Zimmer. Across his career he has given us the Orffian shock and awe of batman’s Dark Knight, the epic poundings of The Gladiator (Zimmer’s best work has been with the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony) and the sober, god-fearing harmonies that strive for justice in Twelve Years a Slave—to cite just three of his 150 soundtracks.

Even in this globalized world of entertainment, it is fitting that a German, even one long resident in Hollywood, should be called on to usher in each episode of The Crown. Whether they like to admit it or not, the Windsors are a Teutonic clan that gained the British throne in 1714, as Netflix will instruct us in some future season.

Zimmer makes clever connection to that past with his musical prelude—a miniature, minimalized reworking of a masterpiece by another German transplant. Handel was commissioned to compose four anthems for the 1727 coronation of George II, the most famous of which is Zadok the Priest. Its undulating ostinato strings, crescendoing softly towards a massive choral entrance were heard at the anointing, the most sacred moment of the coronation service, as we are reminded several times in The Crown. It is at this point that god and monarch are united, the divine right of kings and queens sealed by holy oil. Oddly, we never get the introductory Zadok riff or the resounding entry of the chorus in the series. If there was suggestion of it during the unexpectedly modest Netflix staging of the event, I must have dozed off for a moment—easy to do given the slackness of the goings-on.

Zimmer’s updated, truncated version of Handel’s Zadok, begins out of character, with poised woodwinds reflecting on the meaning of the British monarchy as ingots of gold become molten and morph into the crown drifting timelessly above a black background. A Zimmer cymbal shimmer shakes this reticence into vigorous Handelian action, the original transformed into a minor mode, both more ominous and more antic. Against these rippling figures troubled by harsh accents a spare melody moves up and down, trying to pull away from its mooring and head to new harmonic realms in search of catharsis or even a one-off outburst of real conviction.  But like the monarch herself, the music cannot escape from its own claustrophobic world of solipsistic obligation.

No sublime musical utterance pierces the painkilling haze. It’s precisely what the doctor ordered: keep calm and carry on.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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