There was something odd about Netflix’s medievalist flick, The King – and I’m not talking about Timothée Chalamet’s English accent, because that was nothing short of iconic. I’m not even talking about Robert Pattinson’s French accent! (Which definitely was not iconic. Not even iconique).
No, there was something slightly odd – dare I say, icky – about feeling distinctly as if I was being transported back in time to the world of 70s nostalgia. Here is noble young Hal, all the coldness Shakespeare gave his character neatly forgotten; and on the other side of the battlefield… ah yes, there’s the walking Blackadder joke: lewd and depraved Dauphin Louis. And he gets duly kicked back across the channel back where he belongs, the sceptered isle defended from its pesky continental threat. It was all so “us” and “them”, so “the Western Front’s about as likely to move as a Frenchman living next to a brothel”, so completely irrelevant to the connected world we now live in – except that, of course, a French enemy and a glorified British past peddle very nicely the Brexit narrative.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years to our own Queen Liz and what do we see but Olivia Coleman’s bravely quivering face on our Netflix home pages, and as the show moves into the era that Brexiteers often hark back to as their (God knows why) Halycon days, one really might start to question why one is watching a show that tells the past through the eyes of the monarchy… one. As Callum Alexander Scott wrote in the Guardian, “it is well understood that Brexit is a project imbued with imperial nostalgia”, and The Crown is most certainly part of the “wave of nostalgic television shows” he sees emerging.
This nostalgia fuels “nationalistic pride” and “Brexit fantasies”; and it harks back not only to Empire days, but also, of course, THE WAR. I mean, we talk about American self-mythologising, but has America ever produced a show so cloyingingly self-congratulatory as ‘The Great British Bake Off’? What is the Declaration of Independence to the Declaration of “we potter around the countryside in Cath Kidston shirts and whisper witty jokes to each other and that is all”? If that is not the crème de la crème (sorry) of British self-delusion, then I don’t know what is.
The UK has this image of itself as the brave English King set against evil France. We’re Hal, and the whole time we were in the EU we were looking moodily around at Belgium, Germany and Spain like “I know you all, and will awhile uphold the unyoked humour of your idleness.”
But herein we do not imitate the sun – if we are being wondered at, it’s not because we’ve broken Brexit TV through any base contagious clouds. It’s because Theresa May asked for about 70 extensions and seesawed onstage to ABBA at her party conference. I mean does anyone actually know what’s going on over here?
Don’t get me wrong. I would love nothing more than to watch a show about some World War One privates who go to France and blow up the Dauphin and then come back laden with that sexy British PTSD (although of course, no sex please) so they can have tea and cakes and slap each other on the back with tears in their eyes, mumbling things like “stiff upper lip” and “get your stinking chin up, you barmy old codger” (?). That said, I can’t help but think that if we do have another referendum and end up crawling back to the EU with arms outstretched, Donald Tusk will simply yeet us with an “I know thee not, old man.” Touché, we shall have to say.
By Isobel Macleod
This appeared in CG Issue 70