For the past five years, a widespread reaction to nearly any British royal happening has been to wonder how “The Crown” would choose to tackle it on-screen. Such has been the impact of the show on curious American viewers, many of whom only had a passing familiarity with the Windsor family before creator Peter Morgan devised his own version of the royals to present to them.
So for a certain subset of Americans, the Prince Philip they were best acquainted with might have been the character from a popular Netflix series — granting the dramatization an outsized influence on his legacy this side of the Atlantic. From Matt Smith’s pouting newlywed to Tobias Menzies’ bitterly sidelined husband, fictionalized takes on the Duke of Edinburgh, who died Friday at 99, lent depth to a man otherwise largely defined by his family’s behavior and his own unfiltered, sometimes insensitive comments.
While the second season furthers Philip’s characterization by exploring his strained marriage with Queen Elizabeth II (portrayed by Claire Foy), the third dives fully into his backstory. Menzies explores the psychological effects of Philip’s family having been overthrown and exiled from Greece, only for his mother to later be diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a sanatorium.
In the most recent season, heavily focused on Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Philip seems to find it easier to bond with another outsider than Charles (Josh O’Connor), his own son and heir to the throne. Baked into the character’s psyche is lingering resentment at having set aside his own ambition for a lifetime of playing second fiddle. Speaking to Vanity Fair last fall about Philip’s mainly ceremonial role in the monarchy, Menzies noted that he “chafes at it, doesn’t necessarily find it comfortable.”
“The Crown” has been critical of Philip’s behavior, especially in Smith’s seasons. While accompanying his wife to Kenya, for instance, he makes a disparaging joke about a chief’s headdress, a nod to the actual duke’s habit of making off-color — and in this on-screen instance, racist — remarks. But one can argue the show is ultimately empathetic toward him; Smith, after all, claimed to “love Philip.”
The fourth season concludes with a conversation between Philip and Diana (Emma Corrin), who says to him, “Although we are both outsiders who married in, you and I are quite different.” He agrees with the assessment but, in addressing her frustration, adds that “everyone in this system is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider apart from the one person, the only person, that matters.”
The danger of fictionalizing a contentious figure lies in maintaining the delicate balance of writing a compelling character while acknowledging the truth of his real-life actions. While Netflix responded to those who find “The Crown” to be overly critical by expressing confidence viewers “understand it’s a work of fiction,” others might have watched with the dramatized quality in mind all along — if only because of how the show increasingly avoids the family’s role in perpetuating a harmful colonialist legacy.
In the Vanity Fair interview, Menzies characterized the duke as “a pretty complex person.”
“I felt like that was where to start — with someone who has quite a lot of emotion in him but has spent a lot of time not showing it and suppressing it,” he said of his on-screen portrayal. “That basic tension was the touchstone for me going into it.”