Shakespeare’s Henry IV was the first to utter, Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. The metaphorical weight of the monarchy is the central focus of the new Netflix series The Crown which follows the first years of the reign of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
However, in the first few episodes Britain is still ruled by George VI, a reluctant king plagued by a chronic stammer who filled the royal throne after his brother abdicated it to him to wed a divorcee. Jared Harris plays the king and it’s a testament to the actor’s tenacious talent as we see Harris infuse humility, grace, humour, and humanity to the royal role.
Perhaps he’s able to inhabit the role because he’s not transfixed by the royal figures in a way that holds them up high on a pedestal, but rather he’s more interested in the people behind the symbols. “I’m pretty sure they all scratch their bums when no one else is around just like everybody else does,” Harris says with a laugh.
The series was created by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) who penned each of the ten episodes of the first season combined with executive producer Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader) to create the Netflix original series.
Harris shares his excitement about working with the two on the project. “Peter and Stephen, right off the bat you know that you’re 90 per cent there. If they’ve figured out a way of doing it, then you’re in really good hands. Their attitude was that they wanted it to be to feel immediate and fresh. It wasn’t going to be that classically — you know — that upstairs, downstairs stiff upper lip repressed emotion thing, which is sort of boring, and a giant cliche as well. What’s entertaining about the series is taking that expectation and then there are times where they do need to present that to the public, but then you see behind it there are these incredible passionate people who are fighting for what they want in their lives which is what we all are.”
One could argue royalty was the original celebrity, with these figures looming large in the public’s imagination. I asked the London born actor what — if anything — about researching or playing the king came as a surprise. “One of the things we did talk about with him [George VI] is his really filthy temper.”
“He would get set off at the most innocuous things and only Townsend [the very same Townsend who would unsuccessfully try to marry the king’s daughter Margaret], his relationship with him, he was able to calm him down and bring him back to centre. There’s obviously no way you can see that in any of the footage. It just does not exist. And yet, everybody who knew him would say, ‘Oh my god!’ if you wore the wrong — some guy comes into some event and he’s got the wrong tartan on for the event and he gets bollocked massively by him. So that’s interesting in where’s that coming from and what’s that about? I didn’t see that in the script and when you do all the research, again it’s not there, so that was an interesting thing and also fun to do.”
There was even more fun to be had with the character with a particular scene that ends with a play on a woman’s anatomy and the letter “k.” “I was enjoying doing that limerick scene,” Harris says with a wide smile, “I get to swear like the sailor.”
One of the challenges about historical fiction is of course the inherent spoiler alerts. Stepping into 1947 England, most of us know George VI is not long for this world. Although the king kicks the bucket very early on, we still get some quality screen time with Harris via flashbacks, etc., not to mention some very emotional scenes with the corpse of the king.
Although Harris can’t take credit for playing dead. “It was a very expensive medical model that’s now in one of the teaching hospitals in London. It’ll be there long after I’m gone. Students poking and prodding at it.” Long live the king, I guess?
When talking about the experience on set, Harris is effusive, “I absolutely loved the experience. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and that has to do with the company and how Stephen wanted to work, you know. You try to take those experiences to the next job and you think how can I make this work? You just can’t. Unless the set up is the same, you can’t.”
It’s a pleasure to watch Harris work, and despite this particular show coming to an end for him, we will have the chance to see him in a very different kind of role as Captain Francis Crozier in the miniseries adaptation of the Dan Simmons novel, The Terror coming to AMC sometime next year.
The Crown will be released in its entirety Friday November 4th only on Netflix.