Perhaps it’s because it is about a period of history that more of us remember, perhaps it’s because it covers more disputed ground; either way, this series of The Crown has been its most controversial yet. There has been particular outcry about the royal Netflix drama’s depiction of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s relationship. But Tobias Menzies, who plays the Duke of Edinburgh, says getting hung up about blame and accuracy is beside the point - it is fictional drama, there for our enjoyment.
“It is an act of creation,” he says in his baritone voice, sounding far less clipped and repressed than his character. “Actually in many ways it does an amazing PR job for the Crown but that is secondary – this is a show about people. It has the caveat that we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. Peter [Morgan, the writer] is going on what he thinks is interesting, but he does have some pretty good instincts and good connections.” Anyway, Menzies thinks it is healthy to question the monarchy. “It allows people of lots of different political stripes to be able to engage in ideas and interrogate what it is like to live inside this arcane institution. I am not a monarchist and I am proud of what the show does. It treads a delicate line, being quite apolitical to investigate relationships inside all the pageantry - although being apolitical is challenging when you get to Thatcher.”
Menzies bleached his dark eyebrows and was kitted out with a dirty blonde wig to be Philip, who is 58 at the start of this instalment (Menzies is 46). He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in the previous series, taking over the mantle from Matt Smith. “I know him but he just wished me well and said I would have a great time,” says Menzies. “We didn’t talk about it much, which is quite English of us, quite Prince Philip and reserved”.
Like many of us, Menzies has learned about the royal family through watching The Crown. Diana’s death was the first royal story he remembers. “Before that I wasn’t very engaged. I hadn’t thought of Prince Philip very much prior to coming to do the show. A lot of people in the royal family are just part of the furniture.”
After reading up, and watching some YouTube clips though, Menzies decided that the Prince is “a pretty interesting person”. “He’s provoking at times, not scared of an opinion but there’s a real energy to him, a kind of heat. He’s an odd contradiction – one of the most well known faces and voices in the world yet he doesn’t give much away.”
Unlike Denis Thatcher, and now Doug Emhoff, the husband of US Vice President elect Kamala Harris, Philip is portrayed as being uneasy with having a wife in power. “Kamala and her husband are an interesting parallel,” says Menzies. “Philip was set for a garlanded career in the navy and then it is all blown apart and he goes into an institution that is very constraining. It can’t have been that comfortable living such a ceremonial life. He is clearly someone who likes attention but by season 4 he is getting on with it.”
In this series, we see Philip’s lovingly competitive relationship with his favourite child, Princess Anne (“a chip off the block who doesn’t seem to suffer from the more sensitive aspects of say, Charles’, personality” Menzies says), him growing into his role as support act to the Queen, and vetting Diana. Then there is his relationship with Prince Andrew. “That is a very unedifying story,” says Menzies, with a wry smile. “Maybe not one that has completed yet.”
There hasn’t been any feedback from the royal family about whether they watch the show? “I think Philip prefers documentary and facts,” says Menzies. “I can’t see him sitting down and watching a show about himself.”
Menzies likes to immerse himself in the characters he plays, verging on being a method actor. He watched an interview from 1984 on YouTube repeatedly to get Philip’s voice right, as well as studying how Matt Smith had approached the role, “his work was a fantastic resource, to see the physical and vocal choices he made.”
He got the role from just one audition, “which will irritate people,” he says apologetically, and is paid less than Olivia Colman, after what he diplomatically calls “a complication with the previous cast that caused some ructions”. In 2018 Colman’s predecessor Claire Foy discovered she was earning less than Matt Smith. Netflix has since apologised. “It seems to be a fair division now,” he says. “Olivia brings arguably a much larger audience to the show, she is much more well known than me, and that is reflected in our pay, it is not something I have any problem with. It would be weird if she wasn’t. I think the industry is on a journey with this and seeking to get better. It’s not going to be fixed overnight but there is greater transparency, maybe that is useful.”
Despite doing some convincing hunting, shooting and fishing in this series, Menzies says he “doesn’t run with that crowd”. He doesn’t think Philip would want to be friends with him on those grounds, “he would see me as a blow in, I don’t know my way around a gun, before this I only held one once, clay pigeon shooting.”
His mother, a teacher, and father, a BBC radio producer and writer, divorced when he was young and his mother moved from London to Kent with him and his brother. “My mother is pretty left wing,” he says. “Thatcher was the dominant character from that series in my childhood. I’m waiting to see what my mother thinks once she watches it.”
Menzies has spent lockdown in Kentish Town, where he lives alone, running on Hampstead Heath and volunteering via the NHS app. He is also an ambassador for WaterAid - the government is matching public donations to its Future on Tap appeal until 4 February, to bring clean water to thousands of families around the world.
The Crown finished filming in March and he hasn’t worked since then but in January he is due to start shooting the second series of Aisling Bea’s This Way Up. He plays the attractive father of the main character’s pupil. “I am quite excited to see what Aisling has written for us and looking forward to working again,” he says. “If I didn’t know I was a workaholic before I definitely know it now. Work and the rhythm of work keeps me on the straight and narrow and I have really missed it. I have also missed a lot of the cultural life of London, all the stuff I go to see a lot, concerts, theatre and dance. A lot of my social life is built around that. In that respect it’s been a psychologically challenging year to keep oneself afloat. I have been trying to negotiate what has been a very strange time.”
He is concerned about the impact that Covid has had on the future of his industry. “I am in a position to be able to sit it out for a bit but I worry about young actors. I think back to myself coming out of drama school. I didn’t have savings as I went from job to job, doing a lot of regional theatre and I don’t know what those young actors will be doing. The danger is there will be a huge loss, a whole tranche of young actors are not coming into the industry as a result of all of this. It’s a challenging time, particularly for theatre and sometimes it feels like the government is not giving a huge amount of guidance as to how theatre gets back.”
It feels to Menzies as if “the arts are not top of the government’s to-do list”. He has considered the point: “On one level you could argue the rhythm of this government’s response to the coronavirus is often a little slow. I understand the challenge and I get that it is unprecedented times. It is not a job I would want to have, being in politics. I hope the big fund in place for the arts continues because I think the cultural life of this country is fantastic, worth supporting and also stacks up even from a purely financial position.”
I wait until our time is nearly up to asks the most controversial question. Has he come across any of the theories that Prince Philip is dead? “You are guilty of peddling a conspiracy theory,” he chides. “I am fairly sure he is not, he seems alive to me, he is made of strong stuff.”
The Crown is now on Netflix