Does The Crown still glitter? Some - and I count myself among them - were sceptical about how compelling a partly fictionalised Windsor family saga would be, only to have those expectations thoroughly upended in a sumptuous, well-observed and surprisingly moving survey of Britain and its monarchy between 1947 and 1955.
This second series of Peter Morgan’s blockbuster has, in some senses, a tougher brief. With neither the element of surprise, nor the inherent drama of austerity, postwar rebuilding and towering presence of Winston Churchill (memorably played by John Lithgow) to sustain it, what could Britain in the late Fifties and early Sixties have to grip an audience - especially an international one?
This confident opener turned a dilemma into a strength, mining lesser-known events and figures with rewarding results.
Not, however, before an opening swerve that tends to be the preserve of far less ambitious shows. Elizabeth and Philip are under siege, their marriage in crisis and the press scenting blood.
“It can’t go on like this,” says the Queen, and frank talk duly ensues. Incessant complaining, “prison”, even divorce are mentioned. The body language isn’t promising. Could the series be poised to address Philip’s long-rumoured philandering?
Not yet, no. First, that gimmick: a flashback to five months earlier. Irritating, but at least the pay-off is immediate and comes as a relief after the claustrophobic confrontation, with the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh resuming their sparky, flirtatious relationship (complete with implied active sex life) of series one.
Words that would have been sharp and brutal in the earlier scene are playful here – there’s laughter in the language and light in the scenes. What on earth has gone wrong? Clearly, there is plenty of road to travel first.
With the Queen’s marriage teetering on the brink, her nation and its government aren’t doing brilliantly either. Running alongside the domestic drama, and sometimes overshadowing it, was the geopolitical and Westminster picture.
Given tacit support by Macmillan (Anton Lesser, watchful, enigmatic and absolutely typical of mostly faultless casting throughout this series), Eden (Jeremy Northam, once again the epitome of the smooth, cocksure political operator) launches an ill-advised offensive against “petty hoodlum” Nasser as the Suez Crisis enters high gear.
He meets little resistance from an Elizabeth distracted by the discovery of a brooch bearing a picture of a ballerina in her husband’s luggage.
Neither husband nor PM are allowed such a let-off again. First, there’s Philip discovering a pointed message - “Always remember you have a family”.
He looks chastened, but five months at sea is a long time. A curtailed royal visit to watch the dancer in question suggests unfinished business here (although oddly, she is never mentioned again).
Eden, looking like a schoolboy caught with his hand in the sweet jar, gets a dressing-down for his illegal collusion with Israel and France from a queen who has done her homework, nudged along by Greg Wise’s Mountbatten. She grants her assent for airstrikes, albeit reluctantly.
In the meantime, there is careful laying of groundwork for future developments: Margaret (superb Vanessa Kirby), still resentful of her sister’s marriage veto; Michael Parker (Daniel Ings), Philip’s Private Secretary, courting the wrath of his redoubtable wife Eileen (Chloe Pirrie); a passing mention of a “sinister osteopath” foreshadowing Stephen Ward and the Profumo Affair.
It’s a very effective opener, with the customary careful attention to detail and occasional spectacle, while sensitive lighting enhances the sense of a gathering storm.
But once again, it’s the performances that impress above all: it would be easy to take Claire Foy for granted, so comfortable is she now in this role, but she makes the impossible - bringing the unknowable to life - look easy.
Matt Smith, too, has seldom been better. If the scripts do them justice, we could be in for another memorable series.