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A tour of ‘The Crown’

A visit to the sets reveals how the TV series about the British royal family, now in its third season, gets its props, clothes, wigs, nails and architecture right

A scene from ‘The Crown’ featuring Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth.
A scene from ‘The Crown’ featuring Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth. (Photo: Netflix)

"You are going to see some real royal activity alongside pretend royal activity," said a member of the Netflix crew. It was a cold November morning last year, and we were meant to arrive and assemble at Lancaster House—the set of The Crown—a stone’s throw from the actual home of the crown. Instead, we were directed across the dewy grass of Green Park, made to meander through the crowd of tourists circling Victoria Memorial, and huddled together outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in anticipation of witnessing the Changing of the Guard. I was among the approximately two dozen members of the international press, from Taiwan to Turkey, present in the former centre of the British empire—phones at the ready.

At the time, I remember finding this global allure of the fictional and real crowns intriguing, if not also a little troubling. This idea of illusion, the authentic in friction with artifice, would follow me for the rest of the day.

Inside Lancaster House, we walked past banisters covered in bubble wrap and climbed the grand staircase sealed with plastic. Fragile, please handle with care. Shortly after, we were seated in a room with the ongoing filming being screened on a TV. We settled in—as we would for a Netflix binge. During the course of the day, members of the cast and crew would appear and disappear, spilling on-set stories and secrets—all that “behind-the-scenes" stuff. The action of season 3, set between 1964-77, and treading more historical ground than the preceding ones—from the Aberfan disaster of 1966 to the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969—was being filmed in this pretend palace.

And it is a make-believe, makeshift palace. The Buckingham Palace we see on screen is composed of “three levels of grandeur", said locations manager Pat Karam. Lancaster House, Wilton House (Salisbury) and Wrotham Park are then joined up—never jarringly, of course—with some studio sets. On screen, a character walks through one door, but in reality, in all likelihood they are in an altogether different house. Balmoral, too, is a combination of two estates in Scotland. Their Sandringham looks nothing like the Sandringham, he added. Call it convenience, or creative licence.

“We are not making a documentary. And while the feeling is that events have some sort of accuracy, it’s not always necessary that locations are exact replicas," Karam said. He remembered the ethos of earlier seasons, where director Stephen Daldry wanted to focus on the “feel of the place" they filmed in, not necessarily mimic reality. While no one had nitpicked or complained so far—he’s certain some architectural students are horrified—Karam was also aware of audience expectations around a big-budget period drama: “It still had to be set in a world that people were going to believe."

And if believability is what you are aiming for, why not bring on board someone who had worked at the royal household at St James’ Palace for 33 years? “Sometimes you have to pinch yourself… it feels almost real," said Major David Rankin-Hunt, protocol adviser on The Crown. He looked for the little details. He read, edited and refined scripts with the writers and researchers. He coordinated with the costume department on getting the war medals right (turns out you do get the odd letter from viewers saying something was done wrong). He passed on tips on procedures for receptions and courtesies, the queen’s “tell-tale signs", notes on mannerisms and body language—everything that’s “seemingly unimportant, and yet adds authenticity to the story".

Back then, he had held various appointments, from registrar at the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to administrator of the Royal Collection, overseeing ceremonial events of national importance.

His former senior colleagues enjoy the show. When asked about the real royals, he said each generation brings a breath of modernity. They must move with the times, and evolve.

Doubles and drama

Things have changed with season 3. The royal family has come of age, and aged—so their actor counterparts have been replaced to reflect this. Helena Bonham Carter, who succeeds Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, spoke about how it’s a “hard thing to inherit". It’s like pursuing “a double ghost"—that of the real Princess Margaret, and “then the actress who’s delivered an award-winning performance"—and being twice removed from reality. But Bonham Carter kept herself in character by checking on her nails: “Every time I have a doubt of where I am, I look at my nail varnish. This morning I arrived with 1976 nails, and this is 1964."

From taking care of nails and wigs to wax-based foundations and greying hairs, Cate Hall, hair and make-up designer for the latest season, spoke about her team’s “commitment to authenticity". For her, like for Major David Rankin-Hunt, it’s the tiny details that really “communicate the character". “You want to use the artifice to create the character," clarified Hall, “but not demonstrate said artifice". They are rebuilding a world based on authenticity and the last thing they want is to “alienate audiences"—to say, “we are making it all up". Shooting in high definition is, therefore, tricky.

“It looks like a documentary, but it is a drama. Some bits are very accurate and others are incredibly massaged. It treads a fine line. You are watching, and you go, ‘Ah! Did that really happen?’ And some of it did, some of it didn’t," said Ben Daniels, who plays Lord Snowden.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (permissions from the palace have been easy to secure—and so far, there has been no cause for concern). The series is consumed by revisiting and recreating history, and archiving the British monarchy in a way, but is also self-aware about the pretence and popularity. Its palace is a patchwork. The spirit of the show is a sort of portmanteau—simultaneously true to life and a trick.

“The crown is not just an ornament to be worn," a character says in the second episode. The crown is a metonymy, a figure of speech where one representative term stands in for something else. With The Crown, too, one thing is always also another.

Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD in literary prizes at SOAS, London

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