Of all the characters in The Crown, it is Prince Philip who remains as much of a puzzle at the end of the 20th episode as he was at the beginning of the first. And I use the term “character” deliberately, for Peter Morgan’s drama is fiction—very good fact-based fiction, but fiction nonetheless. The writer-creator of the hit Netflix series effortlessly explores Queen Elizabeth II’s insecurities as a young monarch, reveals the feckless qualities inherent in the Duke of Windsor, and wallows in the prideful shallowness of Princess Margaret. Yet, as much as Morgan tries in the second season, Prince Philip remains defiantly unreadable and unknowable. As Winston Churchill once described Russia, the Queen’s husband is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
One can almost imagine Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, chuckling as he watches the new 10-part season and sees Morgan’s struggles.
Since his engagement 70 years ago to Princess Elizabeth, then the heiress presumptive to the throne, he has been in the public eye. With interests as varied as environmental conservation to business efficiencies, Philip has written more than a dozen books, has been involved in the creation of major organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, as well as the Prince Philip Designers Prize.
He’s walked a few steps behind the most famous woman in the world, yet he remains a puzzle. He is abrasive, yet kind. In The Crown, as he is travelling in the South Pacific on an extended voyage on the Royal Yacht Britannia, the ship is diverted to rescue a man found injured and drifting in the vast ocean. As the Britannia’s medical staff save his life, an office worries, “We don’t know who he is,” to which Philip responds, “He’s one of us.” He then insists that Britannia divert to drop the man off at his village on Tonga.
The clues in Prince Philip’s past
He is a man with an extraordinarily harrowing childhood, at least by royal standards. His family was exiled from Greece when he was a toddler (his father saved from execution by that Royal Navy rescue), and then, his large family imploded. His mother was confined to a mental institution, his father decamped to the south of France with a mistress and his five older sisters left home to marry German princes within 18 months of each other, the youngest only 16 when she wed.
With his family dispersed across Europe, Philip endured a nomadic life, albeit one that involved castles and palaces. He endured, dug within himself for reserves of strength he may not have known were there and eventually became a Royal Navy officer who was widely praised for his actions during the Second World War. It also left him incapable of understanding those who needed a different sort of childhood.
In The Crown, Philip tells his son, Prince Charles, that he can’t wear the formal uniform of a schoolboy in Eton College, a short hop from Windsor Castle, but instead must endure the more practical kit of the cold, foreboding Gordonstoun School, where Philip rose to be head boy. “When I heard I was going to Gordonstoun,” he tells Charles, I “felt as you did, wretched. I wanted to stay with my sister. This is not the real world. Who we are is not what we wear, it’s the spirit that defines us.”
Several biographers have dug into his life, especially Philip Eade, who revealed the prince’s turbulent early life in Young Prince Philip, and Gyles Brandreth, who got everyone to talk openly, on the record, about Philip’s relationship with Elizabeth, including those rumours of infidelity in Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Royal Marriage.
The rumours and speculation about the regal marriage are the through-line of the second season, starting with a darkly dramatic scene in the first episode:
Elizabeth: “The rumours still haven’t gone away. I think we both agree it can’t go on like this. I thought we might take this opportunity, without children, without distraction, to lay our cards on the table and talk frankly for once about what needs to change, to make this marriage work.
Philip: Who goes first? Stupid question. If I know one thing, by now, it’s that I go second.
Elizabeth: Stop complaining..[you’re] whining and whinging like a child…You’re lost in your role, and you’re lost in yourself…Divorce isn’t an option. Ever…So what would make it easier on you? To be in, not out?
Philip: Are you asking my price?
Elizabeth: I’m asking what it would take.
Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game of “Did he or didn’t he?” as Peter Morgan implies that Philip was a serial philanderer (helped by the real-life catting of his best friend, Mike Parker, that spawned salacious headlines around the world). But when viewers watch The Crown carefully they discover that Morgan has planted lots of innuendo, but never states, flat out, that Philip broke his vows. (In real life, there’s been no proof of infidelity. Brandreth’s research led him to believe that Philip wasn’t unfaithful. He likes talking to witty, beautiful women but never hurt his wife.)
Take for instance, his fancy of a beautiful blond Australian journalist. Intrigued, he arranges for her to interview him on Britannia, then is horrified as she digs into his political views, his fraught childhood and his family (his sisters were not invited to his post-war marriage as their husbands were all Germans, some committed Nazis). He shuts down and then storms out. “Don’t let my vanity get the better of me again,” he barks to Parker.
Whiplash portrayal of Prince Philip
The uneven portrayal of Prince Philip in The Crown is frustrating. The on-screen Philip is a sullen, resentful man, dominated by his scowls and angry glances. His heavy workload, independent of that of his wife, and his innovative creations (the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for one) aren’t mentioned.
One only gets a glimpse of him on duty with his more reserved wife, breaking the ice at receptions, making sure the flower girls get thanked. He is affectionate with his wife during her third pregnancy (Prince Andrew was born in 1960) then he flips into “bad Philip” mode.
Sure, Peter Morgan had to keep the plot moving along at a nice pace, but given how much time he devoted to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s relationship with his own wife, one would have hoped for a bit more nuance in regard to Philip.
Then, suddenly, at the end of the second season, Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship comes to a dramatic denouement. “I know exactly what my job is,” he tells Elizabeth. “Your father made it clear. You are my job. You are the essence of my duty. A liege man of life and limb. In or out.”
He gets down on a knee beside her, “I’m yours. In and not out because you’ve given me a title and we’ve come to an agreement. But because I need to be. Because I love you.”
Yet, after 20 episodes of a bad-tempered, gloomy Philip, this version 2.0 seems a startling reboot.
There is one moment that Morgan got right. It’s the very last scene of the second season. And naturally, it involves Philip becoming irritated at a photographer. There are swear words, and laughter. It’s very Prince Philip.