There’s a new Duke of Edinburgh in town as Tobias Menzies takes over from Matt Smith in the Netflix blockbuster. Interview by Siobhan Synnot
Has Prince Philip seen The Crown?” ponders Tobias Menzies. “If I had to bet money, I’d be very surprised if he had.” Whether the real Royal Family actually watch Netflix’s lavishly detailed drama about Elizabeth II has long been debated. Showrunner Peter Morgan has said the Royal Family is “very, very aware” of the series, but while Princess Eugenie has seen it, Prince William says he hasn’t. The Queen might be sneaking a look, but Prince Philip has apparently dismissed the notion of settling down to sofa surf through the monarchathon as “ridiculous.”
“I don’t think Philip would watch it,” confirms Menzies. “It’s a bit like an actor reading reviews – whether they’re good or bad, they are kind of annoying because there’s always something that puts you off. I imagine he’d find whatever inaccuracies we’ve committed to be irritating.” A pity, since the Duke of Edinburgh might find Morgan’s royal chronicles rather more agreeable than, say, the recent TV coverage of the Sussex saga; and whatever reservations the Prince might have about the authenticity of his family’s history, he might enjoy the sympathetic casting choices.
In the first two seasons, former Doctor Who star Matt Smith portrayed the Duke as a dashing navy man trying to find his place in an institution lashed with restrictive traditions. For Season Three, with the characters approaching middle age, Morgan opted to recast the show completely, rather than pile ageing makeup and prosthetics on 30-something actors. Olivia Colman is now a sterner edition of Queen Elizabeth than Claire Foy, with Helena Bonham Carter’s chaotically bored Princess Margaret replacing Vanessa Kirby. Menzies had his hair dyed medium blond, and shaved at the front to suggest the receding hairline of the older Duke, and immersed himself in archive footage and tapes to nail the Prince’s ramrod mannerisms and distinctive bonfire toffee voice.
Has he met the real Prince Philip? “Oh no,” says Menzies, cheerfully, “I haven’t met any of them. I don’t mind: a bit of distance is helpful, I think.”
Arguably The Crown goes some way towards rehabilitating Prince Philip from the modern perception of a consort with a gift for crusty political incorrectness, which the historian David Starkey characterised as “HRH Victor Meldrew.”
Menzies’ Philip is wry, complex, and often droll. In the first episode of the new series, he explains to Colman’s Queen that the House of Windsor reigns alternate between dull but dutiful sovereigns and dazzling flibbertigibbet figureheads: “For every Victoria, an Edward VII. For every George VI, an Edward VIII.” Naturally, the Queen wants to know where she stands in this vacillating lineage. “You are a dazzling cabbage.
Sorry.”Shot over seven months, with an average budget of £10 million per episode, a sum that would have many British feature film makers swooning with envy, The Crown is the most expensive show in television history – but it would be incorrect for Prince Philip and other non-watchers to assume it is brochure drama, repackaging the greatest hits of Elizabeth II’s reign. One episode reminds us of Philip’s notorious interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, where he draws public ire with some ill-judged jokes about the limits of the Royal Family’s budget: “We had a small yacht which we had to sell, and I shall have to give up polo fairly soon.”The new series also expands on the Prince’s relationship with his eldest children. Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) is clearly a favourite, a chip off the old block who amuses and exasperates her father by reflecting his stubbornness back at him. By contrast, Menzies spent very little time with Josh O’Connor, who plays the adolescent Prince Charles. Peter Morgan regards that relationship as distant, and on that point Menzies does not entirely agree.
“I think he was an engaged and concerned father, and I do try to bring a sense of that in our scenes together.” He does concede that some of Philip’s decisions, such as sending Charles to the bracing cold shower regime of Gordonstoun when his meek son was more inclined towards Eton, could amount to “slight bullying.”
Notable events to look forward to include the 1964 discovery that the Queen’s art adviser Anthony Blunt was a Soviet spy, Princess Margaret outdrinking and outshocking President Lyndon Johnson, the arrival at Buckingham Place of Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire), Prince Philip’s estranged mother, and the Duke’s misfiring attempt to remodel the royals for a new age.
“The Prince Philip we know now, and the Prince Philip we perhaps knew then are two very different men,” adds Menzies. “He was an outsider, coming into this very fusty, old-fashioned organisation. Over the years he’s done a lot to bring it up to date and modernise it. He’s been very influential on how that institution is run and how it organises itself – even though it may be hard to see now.”
So have Philip and the House of Windsor done enough to future-proof the Royal Family from charges of elitism, privilege, wealth, and inequality? “I think their survival is deeply woven into a sort of neutrality,” says Menzies. “The remarkable thing about the Queen is how steady and consistent she has been. There must have been things she profoundly disagreed with over the years, but you’d never know and therein lies their future, probably.
“I think there will be a real sea change if and when Charles takes over because he feels a more political figure. I think he’ll find it much harder to maintain the sort of anonymity the Queen has achieved. Going down a generation, William would probably be a safe pair of hands, he seems closer to his grandmother in the form of neutrality he seems to achieve.”
Menzies says he is not a natural monarchist, but found common ground with Philip’s resistance to public inspection: “I’m lucky I didn’t have his type of scrutiny but one of the things that makes me warm to him is to see him struggle and bristle under his kind of fame.” Menzies is also somewhat allergic to press intrusion, politely dodging attempts to draw out details he considers too personal and blithely admitting that he had no problem keeping The Crown’s secrets under wraps for the last year. “I’m highly forgetful and not the chattiest, so I can keep a secret pretty well.”
Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark might feel like an unexpected pivot for London-born, Rada-trained Menzies, who began his career as drug-addicted Frank Gallagher in Casualty before moving to the torrid toga saga Rome, in which he played Julius Caesar’s treacherous friend Brutus. Game of Thrones fans will know him as the slightly-hopeless Edmure Tully, the unlucky groom at the infamous Red Wedding, but it was the time-hopping fantasy adventure Outlander that made his name globally, with a Golden Globe nomination for his dual role of Frank Randall, dutiful husband, and his ancestor “Black Jack” Randall, responsible for some of the darkest torments inflicted on the series’ brawny hero Jamie (Sam Heughan).
When he signed up for the show Menzies says he had no idea that the books would translate into such an enthusiastic TV fanbase. Will he be back? He laughs: “Well there are no plans at the moment, but those time travel shenanigans mean that they can probably bring you back whenever they want.”
Series Three of The Crown is on Netflix now