Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce Reflect on the “Underlying Truth” of This Season of The Crown

jonathan pryce and imelda staunton
Imelda Staunton & Jonathan Pryce on The CrownNick Thompson

When King Charles greeted the crowds as he returned to Buckingham Palace for the first time after his mother's death, one woman was so overcome by emotion that she kissed him on the cheek. It was a moment that epitomized a shift in the public's relationship with the royal family—and its new monarch.

“A woman grabbed him and kissed him,” actress Imelda Staunton remembers over Zoom. “You think, ‘Ah, something's already changed.’ They're more available to people.”

In the latest season of The Crown, Staunton takes over from Olivia Colman to play an aging Queen Elizabeth, a monarch waning in popularity and grappling with the same questions the royals of 2022 are facing: How does a centuries-old institution engage with the public? And, to put a finer point on it: is the British monarchy even still relevant?

jonathan pryce and imelda staunton
“It’s one of the major questions in series five: is the monarchy still relevant?” says Jonathan Pryce, who plays Prince Philip. “It’s an issue that continues to the present day—and I think with the passing of the Queen, it’ll all be reexamined.”Courtesy of Netflix

Premiering today, just two months into this post-Elizabethan age, new episodes of the Netflix drama mark the first major depiction of the Queen following her death in September at the age of 96, but Jonathan Pryce, who takes over as Prince Philip from Tobias Menzies, notes that storylines weren't adjusted following her passing. “Our work is done. We can't change anything about season five,” he tells me.

“What will be different about it is how the audience perceive it. They'll be informed and educated in a different way, and we'll be looking at the Queen in a different way. While watching the story unfold, all sorts of things will be happening in the audience's mind about how they feel about the Queen now that she's passed. It'll take on a whole new aura I think, for the good. People will want to see it.”

Staunton agrees, suggesting that fans of the monarchy will “take great comfort” in watching The Crown this fall. Seasons one and two saw a surge of viewers right after the Queen died, she says. “People wanted to watch anything to do with her. I think the fan base already would've been excited about this coming up but now, I think it's going to be tenfold.”

queen elizabeth ii and prince philip, duke of edinburgh atte
The real life Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at a banquet in 1995.Tim Graham - Getty Images

Similar to his on-screen wife, Pryce is the first actor to play Prince Philip since the royal passed away in April 2021. “We should be so lucky to be considered a piece in their legacy,” he says confessing that he has long been a fan of The Crown and “secretly” always hoped he'd get the call to play the Duke of Edinburgh. “I think we're a very small part of the greater picture. If I thought we'd done a disservice to either of their memories or their personalities, I'd be very worried. But I know that we haven't because I know there's a truthfulness to what we've done.”

Exactly how “truthful” (or not) The Crown is, has been at the heart of critiques of the show since it premiered in 2016, but calls for a more explicit label declaring each episode fiction have only grown louder as the show becomes more popular—and the story creeps closer to the modern day. Pryce is quick to defend the series, calling it an “epic,” and comparing the way it handles history both to Shakespeare and to the 2019 film The Two Popes, which earned Pryce an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Pope Francis. “You've got a two hour film based on a meeting between Benedict and Francis that never took place, but everything they say is valid because it's taken from something they've written or they've reacted to something else somebody else has written, and it's concocted into dialogue and thoughts,” he explains. “That's the same thing that informs The Crown—the underlying truth of the situation.”

the cast of season 5 of the crown
“It is this extraordinary family that belongs in history, “It’s from another time and yet it’s functioning in today’s society,” Jonathan Pryces says of the monarchy.Keith Bernstein

There was always going to be increased scrutiny of this stretch of The Crown. As the Netflix series enters the '90s, it chronicles a low point for the royal family, or to borrow a phrase from the Queen, a decade horribilis. Elizabeth's children’s marriages are failing, her own relationship is crumbling, and her castle is quite literally on fire. Writer and creator Peter Morgan leans in to the conflict, dredging up moments the real-life House of Windsor would almost certainly prefer to stay in the past: Princess Diana’s devastating Panorama interview, Prince Charles’s admission of an affair and cringeworthy phone sex scandal, the suggestion of Prince Philip's infidelity. Even Sarah Ferguson’s toe-kissing incident gets a mention.

“I love that this [season] is a difficult time in the monarchy's life and that Peter doesn't shy away from that,” Staunton, who initially found portraying the Queen to be “sensational and terrifying in equal measure,” says. “I think this tumultuous time, it makes for a very dramatic piece of work.”

But Queen Elizabeth’s death seems to have inspired a new fervor of condemnation for the series in recent weeks. Dame Judi Dench (who, it should be noted has portrayed both Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria on screen) suggested that the series “seems willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism.” A spokesperson for Sir John Major, (who is played by Johnny Lee Miller this season), called storylines fabricating the Prime Minister's confidential discussion with members of the royal family “damaging and malicious fiction.”

Like Pryce, Staunton feels that the show stays "true to the essence” of these figures, even when it imagines private conversations—and she emphasizes that creator Peter Morgan has a real fondness for the people in the royal family. Inherently, by depicting these cultural icons in their everyday existences as mothers, sons, friends, and employers, it humanizes them in a way pure documentary cannot.

“Peter has been writing about the royal family a very, very long time. From Helen Mirren, through to The Audience, through to The Crown, he has a great love for this strange institution. His examining of their extraordinary lives—it's so thorough,” she says. “Yes, they're a strange family if you want to think that. But they are also people who've done this job day in and decade out and century in and century out and let's just tell this story. No one has a problem with making another film about Henry VIII.”

the crown
Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce take on the roles of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in season five of The Crown. Here they are standing in the ashes of the Windsor Castle fire of 1992.Keith Bernstein

Following the death of the Queen, production on the last chapter of The Crown took a pause, with a source at Netflix describing the suspension as “a mark of respect” for Elizabeth II. Staunton was surprised by how much the monarch's passing affected her emotionally, and while the world has said a final goodbye to the long-reigning Queen, the actress isn't ready to close the book on her character Elizabeth just yet.

“I haven't really thought about bringing the show to a close,” she says. “I will really miss being her, but there is a long way to go.”

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