Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Truth in "The Crown"

IntroductionEdit

The Crown[1] is a Netflix-original series that portrays the life of Queen Elizabeth II. This chapter analyses Truth in the episode ‘Aberfan’, which depicts the collapse of a spoil tip that killed 144 people, 116 of which were children, in the Welsh village of Aberfan in 1966.

 

Disciplinary ApproachesEdit

Historical ApproachEdit

There has been consistent enthusiasm for the British Royal Family, particularly our Queen Elizabeth II. Her reign of 68 years has been a source of stability. Amidst the Aberfan tragedy, the Queen’s position was relatively tenuous; declining colonial influence and successive economic crises put pressure on her public response to the Aberfan tragedy, particularly for the Welsh who were seeking ways to become more independent[2]. Nevertheless, the monarchy was viewed as having a necessary role in Britain’s leadership, and economic hardships did not erase pervasive loyalty to the Crown.

Historical Truth is presumed to be objective, and led by evidence; the moulding of Truth into a narrative directly contradicts objectivity. However, historical narratives make partial Truths more accessible, but in order for these to be valuable, we must acknowledge them as such and draw distinctions between Truth and narrative. During the 19th century, an approach to Historical Truth which focused on heroic individuals became fashionable, created by Scottish Philosopher Thomas Carlyle who stated, “The History of the world is but the Biography of great men.”[3] The Crown is a product of this ‘Great Man’ approach, constructing a narrative around the Queen. The show’s depiction of the Queen fulfils the theory’s assumptions that necessary qualities are innate in a predestined ‘Great Man’ and will arise when a leader is needed[4]. This is shown in the portrayal of the Queen’s ability to conform to different situations without becoming emotionally involved. Social Historians would contest this, stating that more evidence is needed relating to groups disenfranchised by this approach, otherwise Truth cannot be interpreted from the evidence presented. However, both approaches to Historical Truth involve the construction of a narrative, whether it be around an individual or a movement, and we should not devalue one source over another as Truth can be gleaned from both.

Film Studies ApproachEdit

To produce a historically accurate episode, The Crown’s research team relied on quantitative and qualitative evidence. The quantitative evidence constituted data about the Aberfan community, the events leading up to and following the incident, and the casualties. The qualitative evidence came from archival material (such as newspaper articles that commented on the disaster and the societal, political and royal responses)[5], biographical works about the royal family, consultations with historians about the incident, and interviews with the survivors[6].

Nevertheless, this plentiful and diverse evidence presented challenges to The Crown’s writer, Peter Morgan. He shared that the survivors’ recollections of the Queen’s visit to Aberfan contradicted the negative public response to her late arrival (which she also regretted in hindsight)[7]. Therefore, Morgan had to decide how to tell the story.

In the episode, the Queen’s response to the tragedy is presented as cold-hearted and it is strongly suggested that she only visits Aberfan to avoid bad publicity[8]. However, a survivor, Jeff, claims that she “showed outward emotion” and that she “shed genuine tears when a young Aberfan survivor handed her a posey”[9] (while in the show, after receiving the posey, the Queen fakes a tear[10]). The Mirror approach to Truth was not employed because the portrayal of the Queen in the show does not align with the qualitative evidence from the interviews with the survivors. What is the reason behind overlooking that qualitative evidence and thus, risking the historical accuracy of the episode? A possible answer is that The Crown is concerned with a larger Truth, presented through the Interpretative approach. Overall, the show focuses on the monarchy as an institution. Perhaps the Queen’s response is portrayed as unsympathetic in order to emphasise her duty as a monarch to present stoicism during a national crisis, which she fulfills exceptionally well. This could suggest that in order to fulfil her duty, the Queen has repressed a part of herself, namely, her emotional response to tragedy. The central themes in The Crown could be equated to Truths that are consistent throughout the show, and which the filmmaker chooses how to tell.

Behavioural Psychology ApproachEdit

The episode partly focuses on the differing duties between a Royal and the Prime Minister. Wilson – the then Labour Prime Minister – in The Crown encourages the Queen to visit Aberfan, which she resists and questions as it was not considered her duty. Wilson responds with “to comfort people”, which baffles her[11].

After the Queen did visit Aberfan, a scene depicts Wilson and the Queen confiding in each other about the fronts they put on to satisfy public expectations. The Queen is portrayed as emotionally void, and whether this is true or not, it brings up an important discussion about what the public requires from the monarchy and its government. Wilson reveals that he was Oxford educated, doesn’t like beer, and prefers cigars over pipes “but cigars are a symbol of capitalist privilege”[12] which interferes with his appeal to voters. He comforts the Queen’s inability to have genuine outward emotional responses by stating that “no one needs hysteria from a head of state…the truth is, we barely need humanity”,[13] suggesting that a Queen must be stoic to fulfil her civic duty. Robertson states that “In Stoicism, the passions, or irrational emotions, are conceived of as emotionally charged cognitions…and are, therefore, susceptible to disputation.”[14] This is a representation of a Social Constructivist approach to truth. Here Morgan gives the Queen and Wilson certain character traits for the audience, so they can understand why and how they make decisions. Whilst characterisation is integral to producing a drama, and this demonstrates a logical understanding of these roles, a Truth here has been created that nobody, other than those depicted, can confirm.

EvaluationEdit

The Crown approaches Truth in the episode of ‘Aberfan’ through its focus on royal and political response. Whilst being more realistic than other episodes, with respect to the tragedy it depicts, the show is a historical drama, not a documentary, and with that comes necessary compromises. From a historical perspective, the show mainly uses the Mirror approach to Truth to depict historical events that reflect reality. However, this is complicated by the ‘Great Men’ perspective which the show employs, conveying explicitly one viewpoint to the detriment of others. From a Film Studies perspective, the show may be seen to use an Interpretive approach, presenting a logically constructed Truth based on historical data without fully reflecting historical reality. The show also uses the Social Constructivist approach to Truth as it conveys real people as characters for an audience to get to know through their language and social context. This allows the viewer to sympathise, blame and praise those characters for their actions, and develop opinions on the historical and political figures depicted. The Truth of these real people that the show represents, however, is one that cannot ever be truly known by the public, yet is necessary for the makings of a successful drama. It is here that Truth can, (and in some ways, must) be influenced by the creators of the show.

SourcesEdit

  1. Morgan P. The Crown. [Internet]. Netflix; 2016 [cited 2020 Dec 2]. Available from: https://www.netflix.com/search?q=the%20crown&jbv=80025678
  2. Flewelling L. Welsh Language and Nationalism in the 1960s and 70s [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2020 Dec 12] Available from: https://britishandirishhistory.wordpress.com/2016/03/02/welsh-language-and-nationalism/
  3. Carlyle T. The Hero as Divinity in: Heroes and Hero-Worship. 1840. p. 34.
  4. Villanova University. What is the Great Man Theory? [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2020 Dec 12]. Available from: https://www.villanovau.com/resources/leadership/great-man-theory/
  5. Samuelson K. How The Crown Uses Real History to Make Drama [Internet]. Time; 2016 [cited 2020 Dec 4]. Available from: https://time.com/4542526/the-crown-netflix-queen-elizabeth-history/
  6. Carr F. True story behind The Crown's Aberfan episode, as told by the survivors: "I had nightmares for years" [Internet]. Radio Times. 2020 [cited 2020 Dec 4]. Available from: https://www.radiotimes.com/news/2019-11-18/the-crown-aberfan-real-life/
  7. Thorpe V. How filming the agony of Aberfan for The Crown revealed a village still in trauma [Internet]. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media; 2019 [cited 2020 Dec 4]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/nov/17/television-drama-the-crown-portrays-aberfan-disaster
  8. Morgan P. The Crown. [Internet]. Netflix; 2016 [cited 2020 Dec 2]. Available from: https://www.netflix.com/search?q=the%20crown&jbv=80025678
  9. Hallemann C. How Queen Elizabeth's Reaction to the Aberfan Mining Disaster Became Her Biggest Regret [Internet]. Town & Country. 2019 [cited 2020 Dec 4]. Available from: https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/tradition/a29309363/queen-elizabeth-aberfan-mining-disaster-reaction-the-crown/
  10. Morgan P. The Crown. [Internet]. Netflix; 2016 [cited 2020 Dec 2]. Available from: https://www.netflix.com/search?q=the%20crown&jbv=80025678
  11. Morgan P. The Crown. [Internet]. Netflix; 2016 [cited 2020 Dec 2]. Available from: https://www.netflix.com/search?q=the%20crown&jbv=80025678
  12. Morgan P. The Crown. [Internet]. Netflix; 2016 [cited 2020 Dec 2]. Available from: https://www.netflix.com/search?q=the%20crown&jbv=80025678
  13. Morgan P. The Crown. [Internet]. Netflix; 2016 [cited 2020 Dec 2]. Available from: https://www.netflix.com/search?q=the%20crown&jbv=80025678
  14. Robertson D. The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy. 2nd Ed. Abingdon: 2019. [cited 2020 Dec 12] p.1. of Chapter 5. Available from :https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=qXzADwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT6&dq=behavioural+psychology+stoicism&ots=OJU5Lm6FE1&sig=irKrv5isL8puUrAuIwltSr9-ubY#v=onepage&q=behavioural%20psychology%20stoicism&f=false