I don’t know if I like it, but it sure sounds dramatic: music and The Crown

C’est le ton qui fait la musique.
— French saying

For the longest time, I avoided Netflix’s The Crown, even though I’d mostly heard good things. I knew that they had a strong cast and that the creative team had been involved in films and series I’d liked (though not exclusively – I enjoyed Peter Morgan’s work on, say, The Damned United, but I was decidedly less keen on Bohemian Rhapsody, even if he was responsible for the story rather than the script). My main problem was this: my interest in the Royal Family is, let’s say, minuscule, and I’m no big fan of the British monarchy and the culture it’s a part of. There’s simply not much appeal there for me, especially if part of the attraction seems to lie in enjoying the aesthetics and the iconography, the sheer nobility of it all.

Then this little pandemic happened, my wife and me started spending much more time at home, and there are only so many good HBO series to enjoy, so I guess we started watching The Crown. Personally, I blame Olivia Colman. How could I not be more interested, knowing that she’d be in it before long?

So far we’re watched the first 1 1/2 seasons, and while there’s a lot to enjoy there, from the performances to the production values, I’ve still not quite overcome my fundamental lack of interest in the individuals and the institution that the series is about. I find it reasonably entertaining, some episodes more so than others, and it is definitely interesting for the historical backdrop, some of which I wasn’t at all aware of before, but I am in no position to provide an assessment of The Crown as a whole. I don’t think I ever will be. In key ways I’m not who the series is aimed at.

Which doesn’t keep me from having opinions especially on one particular point, however. One thing that keeps me from liking The Crown more than I do, other than the whole monarchy thing, is that I don’t think the series has a particularly good grasp of tone, and that’s in spite of tone being a large part of what it does. Some of The Crown is historical drama, grand and regal, yet striving for an intimacy by means of its characters. (See pretty much any scene involving Jared Harris’ George VI for examples of this.) Some of the series aims to be much more of a comedy of manners, satirising the culture and the institutions depicted. Sometimes The Crown aims for lush travellogue, sometimes for marital drama. (Who’s Afraid of Elizabeth Regina?)

And all of this is fine – but then there is the almost omnipresent music, which pretty much knows one mode only: dramatic pomposity, tinted with a slightly mournful pathos. Is a scene about the Prime Minister about to lead the country into a misguided war, driven by his bruised ego? Dramatic, moody strings and brass. Is it about Prince Philip being a racist, sexist oaf? Bring out the dramatic, moody strings and brass yet again. Do we want a scene that satirically skewers some pompous upper-class twit? You guessed it: cue another dramatic, moody orchestral piece. Practically the only times that this isn’t the modus operandi are when some period-appropriate piece of music is chosen to give a scene a distinctly different, specific flavour. Otherwise, though, it’s overtime for the dramatic, moody orchestra.

Perhaps the makers of The Crown try to use the soundtrack and its single, dominant tone to give the series a consistency that it doesn’t really have otherwise. Its unifying principle is its focus on Queen Elizabeth II, her family, her court, and the cultural and historical context of her life, but in terms of genre and tone The Crown is quite fluid – which doesn’t have to be a problem, but some people in the audience might be taken aback by being asked to care about the personal problems of the monarch one episode and then, in the next episode, laugh at their unworldly ways and their blithe ignorance of what life is like outside the palace walls. The Crown‘s original soundtrack serves as something of a unifier, but it is a bit like cheap soy sauce: everything starts to taste the same. More than that, even, the soundtrack by Rupert Gregson-Wagner (whose work ranges from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Postman Pat: The Movie to Hacksaw Ridge and Hotel Rwanda) sometimes undermines what the individual episodes are aiming for. Everything is given a flavour that’s epic and dramatic in equal parts, with a melancholy undertone – which simply seems mismatched much of the time, because that is not what The Crown‘s storytelling is, at least not consistently. Is this what the show’s producers want The Crown to be, or how they want it to be perceived, as grand and prestigious at all times?

An orchestral soundtrack can amplify any tone a film or series aim for. It can make the emotional tenor of a scene all the more effective. Manipulative or not, a good soundtrack just works. But sometimes it ends up being acoustic soy sauce – and you’d think that the Queen would have a thing or two to say about that.

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