Wallis on Film: The Crown, Part One

As fans of The Crown eagerly await the release of the fourth season of Netflix’s hugely successful royal drama, we have a perfect opportunity for another installment of Wallis on Film. For those who haven’t yet seen the series, The Crown is a lavish portrayal of the life of Queen Elizabeth II and takes in some of the most important events of her reign. From her marriage in 1947 to her coronation in 1953 (and beyond), the show will eventually depict six decades of the monarch’s life and covers not only the major historical events she has witnessed but the private relationships she has enjoyed with family and friends. Written by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Audience), the series is based on accounts of life from behind the palace curtains but naturally much of the dialogue and interaction between the characters has been invented.

The Windsors watch the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Season One of The Crown.

In casting The Crown, Peter Morgan decided not to restrict himself to one company of actors who would be aged through the use of makeup. For the first two seasons, the Queen was portrayed by Claire Foy with Matt Smith as the Duke of Edinburgh and Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret. For seasons three and four these roles were taken by Olivia Coleman, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham-Carter. Another cast change was announced recently for the fifth and sixth seasons with Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce and Lesley Manville taking on the final incarnations of the royal trio. Because of this approach to casting, we have not one but two portrayals of the Duchess of Windsor to enjoy in The Crown. In part one of this installment of Wallis on Film, we’ll look at Wallis as portrayed by the actress Lia Williams in seasons one and two.

Alex Jennings and Lia Williams.
Alex Jennings as the Duke & Lia Williams as the Duchess.

From the outset, The Crown has become renowned for its attention to detail and before we explore the character of Wallis in the first season, it is worth mentioning the brilliance of the hair, makeup and wardrobe team who transformed Lia Williams into the Duchess of Windsor. She is beautifully attired in costumes which could well be the originals created for Wallis by Schiaparelli or Mainbocher, the famous centre-parted Snow White hairstyle is expertly recreated and the jewels just as glittering as those from the Duchess’ own collection. This Wallis is very much the Wallis we are most used to seeing on the pages of Vogue magazine from the 1940s and the Duke of Windsor (played by Alex Jennings) is equally picture-perfect. The slicked back grey hair and the bold prints cut from even bolder fabric are all neatly set into place with the pugs snuffling at his feet for good measure. Jennings and Williams give us the Windsors as we demand to see them; dripping with sartorial splendour.

This image of the Windsors is offered in stark contrast to the tweedy frugal world of the dutiful King George VI and his rather dowdy wife. The message from Morgan is clear; the Windsors represent a life of gaudy excess, the King and Queen (and by extension, their daughters) live a life of practical sensibility. The divide is further emphasized as the series goes on. With the death of King George VI, the Royal Family are plunged into shock and painful mourning for a man they clearly adored. Meanwhile, the Duke of Windsor is only concerned with his allowance on which he depends to fund his life of meaningless pleasure and endless fun. This is rather unfair because despite their differences and the clashes they endured, especially after the events of 1936, the Duke of Windsor had a great deal of affection for his brother. This is hinted at but never allowed to dominate. It is important that we see the Duke not as a member of the Royal Family with the same sense of loss but as an outsider driven by greed and resentment. He is petty and vindictive, his wife equally cunning and deceitful.

The Duchess as portrayed by Lia Williams in Season One of Netflix’s The Crown.

However, Wallis is very much a specter at the feast in the first season of The Crown. She is a springboard for David’s story rather than an integral part of it. There is no better example of this than the first time we see Wallis on screen but curiously, this is within the setting of a totally re-imagined event (and therefore, a totally inaccurate one too). It is the day of the Abdication and the former King Edward VIII is preparing to give a radio address to his former subjects to explain his decision, something his mother Queen Mary is deeply opposed to. With perfect imperiousness (and impeccably brought to life by Dame Eileen Atkins), Queen Mary begs the former King not to make the situation worse; “Nobody wants to hear from a private individual”. David looks at his speech and then to the lady to his left; Wallis. But on 10th December 1936, Wallis was nowhere near Fort Belvedere. She had left England for France a week earlier.

It is hard to work out what Morgan hoped to convey by making this alteration to history. Queen Mary only met Wallis once, and only then very briefly, at the wedding celebrations for the Duke and Duchess of Kent in 1934. After this time, the King and Queen were informed of the seriousness of the attachment their son and heir had formed with Mrs Simpson and refused to allow her into the royal presence. Further confusion is caused by the radio address made by the former King which actually came on the 11th December, a day after he had signed the Instrument of Abdication in the presence of his brothers. Wallis certainly had no part in the writing of the speech as suggested, though she did urge David to make one final appeal to his people via radio before his abdication.

But The Crown is a drama series inspired by real events and so discrepancies like this are not uncommon. They range from quite big inaccuracies such as these to smaller, pretty inconsequential errors such as depicting the Duchess of Windsor smoking. Whilst it doesn’t detract from the plot in any way and would only really irritate nit-pickers (like myself!), Wallis actually abhorred smoking because she disliked the mess and smell that came with it. She had smoked as a rebellious schoolgirl back in Maryland but by 1936 she had taken against the vice and often complained (though somewhat playfully) about the Duke’s 60-a-day habit.

Whilst most of the dialogue is invented by the writers of The Crown, one scene includes a letter written by the Duke of Windsor to his wife in 1952 following the death of King George VI. It is presented almost verbatim, full of resentment and bitterness towards the Royal Family and offered as proof of the Duke’s calculating personality. This letter was never intended for public consumption (it made it’s way to the public domain via Maître Blum and Michael Bloch) but it would be disingenuous to suggest that it was an anomaly, neither can one pretend that Wallis would not have approved of David’s approach to “take revenge” and “drain the royal coffers”. But the motive for this is never really explained and I feel this is a missed opportunity.  

The Duke seeks advice from an old friend; Winston Churchill.

Long before he met Wallis, David had written indiscreet letters to friends and former lovers such as Freda Dudley Ward full of harsh and spiteful comments about his parents and siblings. The somewhat unpleasant nicknames and the unforgiving judgements about his relations were not the result of his relationship with Wallis, rather they were part and parcel of the Duke’s personality and established behaviour. His motivation may well have been revenge against his family for the slight he considered they had upheld against his beloved wife but from Wallis’ point of view, the response to such a letter would have been far more complex. Wallis’ greatest fear in life was that the Palace would eventually cut off the Windsors’ allowance and force them to live in poverty as penance for their great sin. As someone who had a terrible and longstanding fear of public humiliation and deprivation, Wallis would absolutely have considered financial security to be her biggest concern in 1952. Whilst this may seem unfeeling, it is also worth bearing in mind that Wallis never had a relationship with her brother-in-law beyond a few afternoons spent together at Fort Belvedere before 1936.

This is the best example of why the Wallis in season one falls a little flat. She is devoid of any complexity or even personality (which the Duchess had in abundance) and is essentially a one-dimensional villainess. Fortunately, the second season finally offers Wallis a voice and Lia Williams is given a chance to really explore her character a little more. For the first time, we see the Windsors in relation to each other rather than in relation to the Royal Family and this gives some brilliantly funny scenes set at Le Bois which are clearly drawn from the memories of those who were lucky enough to be entertained by the Windsors in Paris in the 1950s. The image of the Duchess trying on a pirate costume for a fancy-dress ball is deliciously camp and the sight of a delighted Wallis playing cards with her friends offers a glimpse of Wallis that everybody who met her speaks of with fondness; her sense of fun.

The Windsors in fancy dress for a party at Le Bois.

But all is not well for the Windsors. The Duke has become bored with his lifestyle and tensions between the couple are on the rise. There is a particularly brusque exchange between them during their costume party scene in which David bemoans his lack of purpose in life; “A life of pleasure really does have its limits”. Wallis knocks back her champagne and retorts; “Try a life spent with you”. Even close friends of the Windsors such as Aline, Countess of Romanones spoke of moments such as these becoming more regular at this time. The Duke was becoming not only more petulant and sullen but more obsessive than he had ever been before. Wallis could not even have her hair styled at a salon without David insisting on accompanying her and when she did try to get a few days away with her girlfriends outside of Paris, David would inevitably arrive soon after consumed by longing for her.

Morgan suggests that the reason David’s petitions for an official post were rejected can be found in a series of top-secret documents known as the Marburg Files. This is something that I want to explore in more detail in a future post but as with much of The Crown’s more controversial storylines or themes, much of the script is based on speculation rather than fact. Our last view of Alex Jennings and Lia Williams in their roles as the Windsors comes at a card game set in a gloomy atmosphere of crushing defeat. But when contrasted with the somewhat ridiculous birthday party scene in which the Windsors give a celebration complete with cake and balloons for their pug Trooper, there is something rather poignant to be found amid the inaccuracies.

Is the Wallis of Season One and Two of The Crown the Wallis we recognise from other sources or depictions? Well, yes and no. The characterisation is a little sporadic and Wallis goes from decorous prop to key player and then fades into the background again. Lia Williams gives a wonderful performance; the Duchess of Windsor aesthetic is magically recreated with all the splendour Wallis surrounded herself with. But this is a Wallis without wit and without personality, both of which were very much her calling card. It feels that an opportunity was missed here and it makes one wonder why she was included at all when so much of her story was told on her behalf by other characters. Let us hope that Duchess in Season Three will capture a little bit more of what was so uniquely Wallis.

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