When art is generous, so is the audience. A few days ago we began watching The Crown, the elegant new Netflix series about the reign of Elizabeth II, and episode two offered a scene so interesting I generously read more into it than it could possibly contain.
We’re back in 1952. Princess Margaret is playing a grand piano and singing, and her father, King George VI, who is dying of lung cancer and knows it, stands at the piano and chimes in. It’s the old Rogers and Hart standard, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
I’ll sing to him
Each spring to him
and then Margaret affectionately gestures, pointing a finger beyond her father to remind him that they’re not making music alone. There’s a sudden change of perspective and we now see that the piano stands in a drawing room, and that Margaret is playing not simply for her father but also for a considerable audience of seated nobs. The king turns toward this audience he’d become oblivious to and the song continues:
And long for the day that I’ll cling to him
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I
Which isn’t what Lorenz Hart wrote.
. . . And worship the trousers that cling to him. . .
This show expects us to know that! I marveled. If we don’t, no harm done, really, but if we do . . ! If we do, we understand the show is slyly telling us the king and Margaret are naughty soulmates, each wickedly aware of Hart’s racy lyrics. And what is the princess saying when she points? Not this time, pop. We don’t want to shock the guests.
This is an awful lot to read into a brief scene without a word of dialogue. But The Crown had earned the benefit of the doubt. In an episode and a half it had already shown how subtle it can be, how it can be carried along silently by gestures and expressions.
But to be honest, after I watched the drawing room scene a few more times I had to admit my reading was a stretch. Even before Margaret reminded her father they had company she’d been singing the PG-rated version of the lyrics. “Couldn’t sleep / And wouldn’t sleep / Until I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep” had become “. . .When love came and told me I shouldn’t sleep” (a line that makes no sense), and “He’s a laugh, but I love it / Because the laugh’s on me” became “He can laugh, but I love it / Though the laugh’s on me.” (These are standard changes, “Bewitched. . . ” being perhaps the most bowdlerized song in the tin pan alley canon.)
I’d made the scene out to say more than it could when what it did say was substantial enough. Simply put, the king is dying and Elizabeth is traveling the empire in his stead. But it’s Margaret he’s nuts about in the goofy way of fathers and the apples of their eye, and when she plays the piano his troubles go away, The moment’s sweet, it’s poignant, and it’s a sketch we’re invited to fill in with whatever our imaginations provide. I guess I provided a good reason to congratulate myself for knowing Hart’s original lyrics.
Early reviews lavished praise on The Crown, a project written by Peter Morgan, who hopes to eventually devote a season to each decade of the queen’s reign. Matt Zoller Seitz of New York magazine offered an inevitable criticism, saying that the focus on setting and character crowded out “many of the larger questions that should be asked in a story that’s about the inevitable decline of an empire and a royal family’s increasingly marginal role within it,”
But the margins can be the perfect spot to watch things happen. I give you Boardwalk Empire. In any history of Prohibition and its gangland kingpins, its Al Capones and Lucky Lucianos, of what consequence are the wheelings and dealings of the treasurer of Atlantic County, New Jersey? Yet Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in Atlantic City was the show’s gateway to Capone in Chicago and Luciano in New York, not to mention J. Edgar Hoover and Warren Harding in Washington. As powerless as the queen might be, she’s a gateway to everything. She goes everywhere, meets everyone, and reviews all state papers; and in her conversations with her prime ministers she can bring up any matter that Peter Morgan might want to say something about.
Besides, the queen isn’t powerless, and Morgan understands that. She is the head of state, divinely chosen if you will. And because she is, no one else can be. This is the power to deny power. In less than two months’ time Donald Trump, like it or not, will become head of state of the USA. If the thought makes you gag, consider Britain. Even the most powerful of prime ministers is merely a politician, and with no disrespect to flag, nation, or monarch can safely be derided as a grubby, lying dimwit.