Britain’s Prince Philip, who died at age 99 on Friday morning, left an indelible mark on the royal family and the U.K. during his time as Queen Elizabeth II’s husband and partner.
While Brits are familiar with Philip after more than half a century of royal engagements, and for his occasional media blunders, many Americans have come to “know” the prince mainly through Netflix’s “The Crown,” which premiered in 2016 and depicts the long reign of his wife the queen (Claire Foy and Olivia Colman).
Portrayed by Matt Smith (“Doctor Who”) at the series outset and Tobias Menzies (“Game of Thrones”) in Seasons 3 and 4, the portrait of Phillip “Crown” painted was often less-than-flattering if eventually sympathetic.
Prince Philip dies: Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, was 99
In Seasons 1 and 2, Smith’s Philip is an unlikable villain. He has a near-constant scowl, is often cruel to Elizabeth, jealous of her power and fame, and cold to their children. He mocks her famous haircut, accuses her of infidelity (or, at least, unfaithful urges), and whines about what he perceives to be his impotence in the family and government.
The series also implies he’s connected to one of the U.K.’s most outrageous government scandals, the 1961 Profumo affair, in which powerful men were introduced to prostitutes at parties thrown by a man named Stephen Ward. It also implies that on his 1956 world tour, Philip was unfaithful to Elizabeth, and that as a young boy his parents blamed him for the tragic 1937 death of his sister, Princess Cecilie, and her entire family in a plane crash.
In Season 3, as Menzies takes over the role, Phillip is portrayed as a softer man struggling with middle age. He comes to terms with his mother, a princess who chose the life of a Greek nun, and his own feelings of failure, best illustrated in an episode where he becomes obsessed with the 1969 moon landing. He is shown as more loyal to Elizabeth and an involved father to Princess Anne (Erin Doherty).
In Season 4, Phillip and Elizabeth take a backseat to the younger royal drama, as Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) is introduced to the series, and the season is consumed with her and Prince Charles’ (Josh O’Connor) relationship. Upon meeting Diana, Phillip is a staunch supporter of her as Charles’ bride. As their marriage crumbles over the episodes, Phillip is among the royal family members who lobby to keep the couple together, although in a stirring scene in the Season 4 finale, he and Diana are portrayed in harsh conflict with each other over her role in the monarchy.
Although “The Crown” often portrays Philip in a negative light, the series gives him credit for helping modernize the monarchy by making the decision to televise Elizabeth’s coronation. It also suggests that Philip was crucial to Elizabeth’s success as a monarch even if it took him significant time and effort to accept his role as a subordinate.
So will “Crown” viewers remember an accurate portrait of Prince Philip? It’s impossible to say. We will never really know the inner workings of the royal family, among the most private public figures anywhere. Their popularity relies on a sort of amiable distance. You see photos of their fashion, their weddings and their children, but you don’t really know much about them on a deeper level. They’re completely agreeable because they’re so bland.
It’s that unknowability that makes “Crown” so addictive. Royal watchers are hungry for any information we can find about the Windsors, and the series offers exactly the kind of soap opera and uptight British antics viewers expect. Philip is often depicted as a villain because the story needs one.
Series writer Peter Morgan (who also scripted Helen Mirren’s “The Queen”) offers what you might call “informed speculation” about what goes on behind the palace walls. It’s impossible to fact-check the portrayal of Philip beyond a surface level. When USA TODAY spoke to a royal historian about the accuracy of the second season of “Crown,” he said that Philip wasn’t part of the Profumo scandal and didn’t cause his sister’s death. But he couldn’t comment on the character of the man.
“Crown” is not yet done telling Elizabeth and Philip’s stories. There are many years left in Elizabeth’s reign for the show to dramatize, and two more confirmed seasons to come on Netflix. Oscar-nominee Jonathan Pryce will take over the role in Season 5, alongside Imelda Staunton as Elizabeth and Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret. The “Crown” version of Philip has time to evolve, and our memory of him may yet change.
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