'The Crown' ignores Canadian role in fight against apartheid

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Commonwealth heads of government lunch with Queen Elizabeth II, Jun 6, 2012. Image: Adam Gasson/Commonwealth Secretariat/Flickr

Watching streamed television seems to have become a national obsession during this time of pandemic and isolation, and, given that we shouldn't be socializing in person, it promises to become even more important during the holiday period.

Not everybody is doing it, of course. Some have vital work to do. Among those is an infectious disease doctor I know. He is way too busy for such distractions as Netflix or CBC Gem. Yet even he feels, a bit, like he's missing out on something. 

My own favourite streaming series is not one of the biggest, worldwide hits. It has nothing to do with chess, for instance. It is The Eddy, a U.S.-France co-production, centred on a jazz club in the immigrant, working class Ménilmontant district of Paris. 

The Eddy has a lot of music, mostly jazz, but it is not a musical. It is a moody mystery/social-political drama series, which takes time to develop the characters and allows the narrative threads to play out at a languorous pace. That's fine with me; I'm patient. 

As for the music in The Eddy -- it is extraordinary. Almost all the actors who play the parts of musicians are, in fact, musicians. The long musical performances, full of extensive improvised solos, which form a central part of The Eddy's action, were recorded, live, on set. That is almost unknown in filmmaking.

The series is multilingual. The characters speak their own languages, which include English and French, as one would expect, but also Arabic, Polish and Croatian. 

To folks like me, who come from bilingual or multilingual environments (mine is the city of Montreal), the series feels refreshingly real. The Eddy does not have non-English speakers talking to each other in accented English, which is the conventional Hollywood way of depicting "foreigners." 

Most important, The Eddy is well written and directed, with sensitivity to the variety of cultures it portrays. 

Canadian content and the biggest budget drama of all

There are some worthwhile Canadian offerings, as well, such as The Sounds, a Canada-New Zealand co-production that adroitly pulls off an almost ridiculously far-fetched plot; and the brilliant, daring and quirky CBC sketch comedy show, Baroness Von Sketch

The Baroness is finishing its life as an over-the-air show, but is available for streaming on Gem, as is The Sounds.

Like so many others, I couldn't resist the most hyped, expensive and elaborate series of them all: the British production The Crown

If you've resisted all the hype and have not seen it, this series tells the story of the current British monarch's reign, going back to the early 1950s, the final years of her father George VI's life and time on the throne.

As I watched The Crown, I far preferred its occasional evocations of socio-political events to its excruciating portrayals of the royals' sex lives. The latter were very much in the category of too much information.

One of the early episodes I appreciated depicted the massive London smog attack of 1952, which killed somewhere between six and 12 thousand people. 

Winston Churchill, who had been defeated by Labour's Clement Atlee right after the Second World War, had returned to power at this point, but was well past his prime. Churchill dismissed the thick, toxic haze that was literally choking Londoners as nothing more than "the weather". 

Atlee barely appears in this series, by the way. He did not lead Britons during the war against Hitler (although he was in Churchill's cabinet), but historians generally consider him to have been one of the most consequential prime ministers in British history. Among Atlee's many lasting achievements is the British National Health Service (NHS), on which Canada's and many other countries' universal health coverage schemes are based. 

A later episode of The Crown depicts the behind-the-scenes (but ultimately unsuccessful) plot hatched by newspaper magnate Cecil King to unseat duly elected Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. King wanted to replace the socialist leader, whom he accused of having too close ties to the Soviet Union, with an interim government headed by the Queen's uncle, Louis Mountbatten. 

In this case, a mature Queen Elizabeth is shown to have more humane and democratic instincts than a good many members of her own family and entourage.

Experts in history have lots of quibbles with the series. 

In general, they do not like the way The Crown dramatizes private conversations, of which there are no records and about which none of the participants have ever spoken. The creators of the series would not have much of a drama, however, if they could only rely on the public record. 

To the writers' credit, where the actual words of real people were available, and where they were relevant to the storylines, they used them. 

Among the scenes in the series that did not happen as depicted on screen, and that drew much criticism, is one where officials of both Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street rush to a newsagent to pick up copies of the Sunday Times. That newspaper had just published a long and detailed report on the rift between the Queen and Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Critics say both the Queen's administration and that of the prime minister would have had subscriptions to the Sunday Times, and thus the paper would have been delivered to their offices. Probably true, but who really cares about that minor detail?

A big miss on the 'military-industrial complex'

This writer did notice an annoying anachronism in an early episode, which shows an extremely young Queen Elizabeth anxiously anticipating a dinner with newly elected U.S. president Eisenhower. 

Fretting about having to converse with the new U.S. president, a man many years her senior, the Queen asks an aide what Eisenhower's interests are. Elizabeth admits that hers are mostly confined to dogs and horses. The aide answers: "Eisenhower is very concerned with the military-industrial complex."  

Now, it is true that Eisenhower famously coined that phrase -- military-industrial complex -- but that happened about eight years after the Queen's conversation with her aide in The Crown

On the eve of leaving office, in his farewell address of January 1961, the only military general to become a U.S. president during the 20th century warned Americans about the excessive power of the military establishment and its close allies in the business world. It was a power, Eisenhower warned, that could endanger Americans' "liberties and democratic processes." 

It was a memorable speech, almost shocking, coming from a Republican president and former military leader to boot. To this day, that speech is frequently quoted. We still remember the speech as the first occasion when anyone publicly uttered the exact words: "military-industrial complex." 

That phrase has subsequently become part of the lexicon. In the early 1950s, however, an aide to Queen Elizabeth would have had to have supernatural knowledge of the future to have mentioned it. 

Canada's role at the 1985 Commonwealth meeting

The Crown never mentions Canada, but it does deal with the Commonwealth, especially in an episode built around the Commonwealth heads of government meeting of 1985, in the Bahamas. 

At that time, all of the Commonwealth's member governments, including Canada's, headed by Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney, had agreed to impose sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime. All, that is, except for the British government led by Margaret Thatcher. 

South Africa had withdrawn from the Commonwealth 25 years earlier, after the other members expressed sharp disapproval of its apartheid system. Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker played a key role in those events. 

The Crown's episode on the 1985 meeting shows Margaret Thatcher speaking disdainfully about the Commonwealth and its mostly Black and brown members, and candidly alluding to Britain's significant economic relationship with South Africa. 

The Queen, on the other hand, wants Britain to go along with the majority. In the program, Elizabeth is shown working with other leaders, Commonwealth secretary-general Sonny Ramphal, and, mostly, her own press office, to come up with wording to a sanctions resolution that Thatcher could accept. 

The television show portrays the entire negotiation over South Africa as one about language, involving nobody else but the Queen and Thatcher. The other Commonwealth leaders remain, unnamed, far back in the shadows.

That narrative might have served the dramatic purposes of The Crown's creators, but it is not at all what happened.

In real life, Canada and its prime minister played a crucial role at the 1985 Commonwealth meeting. Brian Mulroney was the one who brokered the compromise deal, softening the sanctions sufficiently so that Thatcher could be cajoled into agreeing to them. 

The television series suggests the final 1985 measures were merely symbolic. That is also not true. 

Commonwealth leaders, including Thatcher, agreed to, and implemented, a significant set of sanctions that had painful consequences for South Africa.

They banned government loans to the South African government, trade missions to South Africa, and sales of computers that could be used by the South African security forces. As well, they forbade government and private sector co-operation with South Africa on oil, nuclear and military technology.

The Commonwealth members also collectively called on South Africa to free Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, and to lift its ban on the African National Congress, Mandela's political organization. 

None of their demands were realized overnight, but five years after the Bahamas meeting the Apartheid government did release Mandela. And four years after that South Africa had its first-ever free election with universal adult suffrage for citizens of all races.

The producers of The Crown did not see fit, in even the most passing way, to acknowledge Canada's -- or anyone else besides Queen Elizabeth's -- role in those momentous events. 

But Nelson Mandela did, on more than one occasion. 

One more suggestion

If, rather than the big, hyped series, you want to look back a few years to stream something else Canadian, you might consider the 2011 film Monsieur Lazhar, which won an armful of awards, including what was then called the Genie, for best Canadian film of the year. 

This Quebec production was directed by Philippe Falardeau. In an understated, honest and touching way, it tells the story of a North African refugee who becomes a substitute teacher in a Montreal elementary school, after the regular teacher has committed suicide in her classroom. 

Every scene in this film rings true. And -- a small point, but significant for me -- Monsieur Lazhar is the only film I have ever watched that includes a scene at a Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) hearing. 

That's all from me, in Ottawa, for a while. 

Best wishes of the season to all of you. Stay safe and hope to see you in the new year. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Adam Gasson/Commonwealth Secretariat/Flickr

 
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