I started watching The Crown last night. Yes, I am a habitually late adopter of basically everything, but what finally prompted me was the trailer for the 3rd season. I’d heard that Gillian Anderson would be taking the role of Margaret Thatcher and that kind of sealed the deal, but also the trailer for season three is excellent. It helps, of course, that this upcoming season – which begins as the country prepares for the Silver Jubilee – occurs in my lifetime, with events that I remember. And I toyed with the idea of just watching the third season on its own, (It’s history after all, and fairly easy to fill in the blanks) but decided to go for it and try to get the first two under my belt before embarking on the third. So I did, and after watching the first two episodes last night I have some thoughts:
- John Lithgow makes a very good shrewd and curmudgeonly Winston Churchill.
- Queen Mary is a literal boss, and I love that Eileen Atkins has already played Queen Mary at least once before as well as Eleanor of Aquitaine, so she truly knows how to get her royal matriarch on.
- I am SO glad they portray Philip as the dick he is right from the get-go. The only unfortunate thing is that this entire series is based on real life because if it was fiction, you know he would get his comeuppance, but alas, he never does. And now he’s like, what, 95? Annoying.
- They sure do like to shoot things, those mid-century royals. Ducks, pheasants, whatever. Just shoot ’em all, all the time. “Want to go shooting? Of course you do, you’re part of this family now, we shoot things.”
- The monarchy is a helluva drug, you guys.
The other thing that struck me as I was watching is that although this royal family and royal extended-family has always been complex with its lineages as well as with its marriages that make the most sense politically and economically, is that even with all that background, all that history of ruling, it is still just an arbitrary group of people who hold enormous wealth and (now dwindling, it should be said) power, and it irks me beyond belief.
And by arbitrary, I mean of course hundreds and hundreds of years of being descended (sometimes but not always!) from the original arbitrarily designated person or people. Obviously I am reducing nearly 1500 years of history here, but if you do look into it, there’s a lot of “guy shows up and claims the throne and no one argues” or “guy shows up and claims the throne and there IS argument and possibly war, too” but I stand by my initial statement. Who were these people? Why them and not someone else?
I mean, I don’t often quote Monty Python, but when I do, it’s typically these lines from Monty Python and The Holy Grail:
Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony…You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
When I was just out of university I got a job at a museum downtown and was what was known as a historical interpreter. It was a pretty great job, one that actually kind of related to my degree, I’ll have you know, members of my extended family! Historical interpreters would take groups and individuals on tours of the house, imparting knowledge of the family who’d lived there, making note for visitors of various important parts of the house itself, the furnishings, what rooms were used for, what else was going on in Hamilton at the time, etc. I worked mostly during the holidays, and the house was very popular with school groups and organizations who loved to see it done up for Christmas. A giant decorated tree, the dining room table set for a big dinner, garlands and wreaths, that sort of thing.
Most of the time we had groups scheduled in advance and we would listen for the doorbell from the staff room/kitchen at the back of the house. There were usually three of us working at a time and when we heard the bell we would hurry to the front door and greet our visitors. It should be noted that women interpreters were in costume (uniform) dressed as upstairs maids, and any men on staff wore attire suitable for the male equivalent to that (I hesitate to say butlers, because I’m not sure that’s quite right, but something like that, anyway) so there was almost always an “Oooohhhhh!” from people at the door who were likely expecting normal-looking people, not these weird transplants from the Edwardian era. We were also meant to remain in character as best as we could throughout the tour and interaction with visitors, and that part could be a lot of fun. I was very good at deadpanning “I’ve always been here” whenever people asked how long I had worked there which mostly made them laugh but every so often a less humorous group would be unsettled by my joke. Occupational hazard. Everyone’s a critic.
When there were no groups scheduled we sometimes did a bit of research in the back, reading up on what was going on in Hamilton during the era we were to represent, thinking of other issues and events that we could potentially highlight during our tours so they didn’t get stale. The house was officially open all week and on weekends, and we didn’t get an awful lot of action during the week with people just dropping by, but it did happen.
One afternoon it was my turn to get the door when the doorbell rang and I smoothed down my apron and made sure my little bonnet was on straight and I opened the door. I was about to launch into my scripted greeting when a woman pushed past me into the hallway, dragging a large stroller with her. She wore a fur coat of indeterminate age and animal and there were large round circles of red blush on her cheeks. Her eyes were wild. She was taller than me and I would have put her at the time in her late 30s early 40s, and as she looked around the hallway for a place to park her stroller, I noted that it was filled with stuffed animals and one smallish baby doll.
I had already decided not to ask her to pay the entrance fee, but it turned out not to be an issue, because she began by introducing herself as the rightful heir to the house and she spoke in a sort of English accent that would, more often than not, slip during our time together, and she also told me that she was expecting to move back in any time now. I asked her if she would like to take a look around and she agreed after I assured her the stroller and baby would be safe in the hallway.
We headed upstairs and she regaled me with tales of her connections not only to the family who had lived in this house in particular but also to the royal family in England and possibly some others.
I tried to do a little bit of my official tour guide banter, but she was more interested in checking out the furnishings, ensuring they were suitable to her tastes and telling me more about her royal lineage, her claim to the throne and more. I was 23 years old and had a pretty good idea that I was dealing with someone not entirely based in reality, and felt it was better to just listen.
At the end of our tour, she thanked me and I asked her to sign our guestbook which she did in a flourish, taking up three full lines:
Mary Elizabeth Anne Rose III (Royal)
She collected her stroller and bumped it down the front stairs and I went back to the kitchen to my colleagues.
I think about her every so often, usually in conversations with friends about odd or interesting situations we’ve found ourselves in with various jobs, but I thought about her a lot last night after watching The Crown when that whole “one random person eons ago started something and look where we are now” concept kind of struck me.
In this case, the woman who visited that day back in 1990 was likely extremely far removed from the family who lived in the house where I worked, and even further removed from royalty of any sort, but, much like those ancient “kings” who showed up from Denmark or wherever and claimed the throne, because someone sent them, who is to say who gets to be what they get to be? There are probably people who show up to royalty-type things all the time claiming some kind of connection – modern-day Anastasia Romanovs if you will – and security gets called to oust them and their claims, yadda yadda. But all I’m saying is that a few hundred years ago, this kind of stunting could have totally worked, and probably did work, too.
People are born into the situations they are and it’s honestly just sheer luck of the draw whether you’re born a Windsor or a Hamiltonian playing dress up in a historical house giving tours to people at Christmas.
And, if you work backwards from the Windsors and you go back far enough into the past it all gets pretty muddied, anyway. In another reality or another time, it just might have been my visitor shooting all those ducks or marrying that dick Philip.
I’m grateful she was spared that last part, at least.