The Crown: The magnificent design of Netflix’s royal drama
The exquisite sets provide both scale and intimacy rarely seen on television
The Crown tells the inside story of Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign in the 1940s and 1950s, showing the personal intrigues, romances, and political rivalries behind the great events that shaped the second half of the 20th Century. The first UK Netflix original drama production, it aired to almost unanimously favourable reviews and has cost an estimated $130 million to make.
The Crown is a story which at its heart is about one of the most famous and wealthy families of the 20th Century and how they coped with extraordinary circumstances. “It’s the tensions of that family, their responsibility to the country, and their responsibility to God,” says director Stephen Daldry. “They are half us – half human, and half demi-gods, so it’s a fantastic subject to explore.” It’s a family saga but it’s also about the greatly-changed Britain these characters inhabit, in a still-austere, post-war world.
Shot across Britain in stately homes, churches, airfields, town halls and perhaps on your local street. Production also took place in Scotland and South Africa, and at both Elstree and Pinewood Studios. Oscar-winning and BAFTA-nominated production designer Martin Childs and his team built sets to recreate key interiors and exteriors of Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral and Downing Street. “The best you can do is to spend the money you’ve got in the best possible way for it to be seen on screen. So you build things from scratch that a) you’ll never get access to on location and b) you’re bound to need again,” Says Childs.
Special touches were used to portray the prevalence of decay. Britain was recovering from the war; there was no money for repairs of the bomb damage that had occurred. These exquisite and sumptuous settings were, on closer inspection, actually crumbling, with rubble, peeling wallpaper and large damp patches.
The ambition and epic scale and breath of The Crown is probably epitomised most by the enormous historical events that were the Royal Wedding and the Coronation, both feasts of pomp and spectacle, which revealed the extraordinary work of the creative art department and their incredible attention to detail. The Coronation was filmed in multiple locations, including Ely Cathedral and a purpose-built set in Pinewood Studios, and the team tried to be as historically accurate and authentic as possible.
The nuance and elegance of the storytelling shows us that the drama lies in the quiet, personal moments in private spaces. “There are the big public events that we all know so well, but also the other scenes….in the bedrooms, in the quiet places that you would never get access to,” says Daldry.
Meticulous and painstaking research allowed the portrayal of a bankrupt Britain in shades of brown and grey, juxtaposing the wealth expected by audiences with that post-war austerity: for instance, palatial rooms strewn with rubble. To allow for this “distressing”, Buckingham Palace, for instance, was filmed on two built sets and six locations, allowing for a blurring of the line between location and set.
The Cabinet Room is mainly a replica as is the Queen’s study at Wilton. Elizabeth and Philip’s private apartments were large built sets. Distinctly showing two rooms, each with a bed, separated by two dressing rooms. All four rooms are linked by a series of doors, with a landing, breakfast room and two stairs, and all these rooms being watched from the office of the Queen’s private secretary.
“No other production has spent so long in the Royal Family’s company, so I like to think we are able to bring a little bit more nuance to our depiction of décor than in, say, a two-hour feature,” says Childs. “All stories take place in a world outside the drama, and it’s important to show evidence of it, to have a set live and breathe, with some before and after.”
With one of the most accomplished productions designers working in the industry today responsible for this mammoth undertaking, Childs humbly reminds us that this isn’t his alone. “The whole project is a result of a coming together of all the various disciplines. We are all part of the storytelling process and while you have license to delight with a detail on the day of shooting its best not to surprise! Everything you seen on screen is the result of collaboration.”
The Crown allows the audience to enter a world we would never have access to or be invited into which Hans Zimmer, who wrote the music for the series, likens to a “modern, twisted fairy-tale.” It’s a sophisticated, universal story of love and loss told on a large canvas that is beautifully summed up by executive producer Suzanne Mackie, “It is both ambitious in its scale but very truthful in its intimacy.” Both visually and dramatically The Crown is television of the highest quality. We simply can’t wait for season two.
You can watch season one of The Crown on Netflix.
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