Look. I love Netflix as much as the next binge-watcher. I'm guilty of consuming shows that I didn't even realize I cared about until I was nine episodes deep. But I don't usually re-watch any of them.
"The Crown" was different. Many of my friends told me to watch it because of my love of all things British. They know me well; I truly don't know why I didn't watch it sooner. Because I came to it relatively late in the game, I ended up watching both Season 1 and the new-ish Season 2 in about a week. One single week.
The Royals Who Charmed Me
As someone who was fortunate enough to spend four years in that little nation called Britain, I'm a huge fan of the accents, the proper way to prepare your scone (it depends on where you're from, actually), and all the other charms and eccentricities that Bill Bryson outlines in his hilariously accurate "Notes from a Small Island." Including the monarchy.
In my first year there, I felt my American-ness very strongly. I think my freshman wisdom told me I needed to defend my country, especially when it came to things like how to pronounce (and spell) aluminum, or oregano, or basil.
I remember getting in a heated discussion with an English friend about the monarchy.
"What's the point?" I asked with the unfortunate American bluntness I had begun to call my own. "Is it just so you can put someone on your coins? What does the monarchy actually do?"
I'm not sure I realized at the time that I was asking one of the most diehard royalists I would have the pleasure of meeting in my four years there. I don't remember the actual words Martin said, but I remember leaving the conversation feeling chastened. And fully assured that Britain would have nothing to live for without its endearing monarch.
My respect for the royals deepened as time went on, culminating in an actual royal-spotting in my fourth year. My name was chosen in a lottery system of students vying to be part of a small audience during Prince William and then-fiancee Kate Middleton's February 2011 visit to their alma mater. I don't have pictures of the occasion, but I remember seeing the two of them exchange a few words with several students and thinking "they're just like us!" They then proceeded to go around town shaking hands with "commoners," which was documented in photos like these: https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/william-and-kate-visit-st-andrews.
The town was abuzz afterwards with how kind and down to earth they both seemed. There was a rumor (sorry, rumour) floating around that Prince William had started out as an art history major with his posh friends, leading the university administration to relocate the entire art history department to the prettiest seaside building on campus before his arrival. He then surprised everyone by switching to a geography major. You don't get much more down to earth than that! Geography majors loved to tell that story. And art history majors (including Kate! sorry, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge) loved their building.
Why is it that we idolize the monarchy, yet rejoice in any shred of proof that they're just like us? Has it always been this way, or was there a time when Britain looked to its monarch not for reality, but for transcendence?
The answer, of course, lies in "The Crown." And editing. I promise.
Saving the Monarchy From Itself: Lord Altrincham
If you haven't watched "The Crown" yet, I must warn you: spoiler alerts below!
If you have watched Season 2, you probably remember Episode 5, Marionettes. In it, magazine owner Lord Altrincham criticizes Queen Elizabeth and her entourage for sounding "priggish," removed from the middle classes, and unwilling to embrace the modern age. I had never heard of this before, and as I did throughout my binge-watching of "The Crown," I Googled the accuracy of this occasion. Sure enough, Altrincham really did criticize the queen, starting in 1953 but not gaining an audience until 1957.
In real life, the monarchy did end up making several modernizing changes around that time, including televising the annual Christmas speech. Perhaps we have Altrincham to thank for the fact that we can all wake up 5 hours earlier than normal to watch televised royal weddings while drinking English breakfast tea!
At the end of the episode, a post-script read:
Why exactly were Altrincham's actions so needed at this time? In 1956, the queen visited a Jaguar car factory, where she gave a speech to its workers. That much is true, but the next part is according to the show, not necessarily fact (especially since we know that Altrincham had been making critical remarks as early as 1953). In the show, however, it's the aloof tone of this very speech that serves as the trigger for Altrincham's critical remarks about the monarchy.
Leading up to the speech, there's a scene in which a young staff member suggests an edit to the queen's upcoming speech, written by her private secretary. The young man's suggested edit, according to the show, was to change:
"the upward course of a nation’s history is due, in the long run, to the soundness of heart of its average men and women"
"the upward course of a nation’s history is due, in the long run, to the soundness of heart of its working men and women"
See the difference? The young editor was suggesting a subtle wording change to show the dignity of the working classes. The private secretary, of course, ignores this advice and gives the speech to the queen to deliver that fateful day at the car factory.
The interchange between the editor and the private secretary was probably a bit of historical fiction, but this didn't stop my editor's heart from swelling as I watched it.
"This is why you always need a second pair of eyes!" I exclaimed to the TV screen and my dog as I watched this scene play out. The sad point that the show makes, whether intentionally or not, was that even with a second pair of eyes, not every edit you suggest will make the cut. Often, this is for good reason; whoever is reviewing your edits likely has more organizational background and context, and may choose to reject an edit because they know that their audience connects better with this word, vs. that word. It's when writers choose to reject edits based on personal preference, rather than the considerations of their audience, that you run the risk of an Altrincham tearing your speech to shreds.
As someone speaking from both sides of the fence, I sympathize with writers and editors alike. The beauty of an editor is their objectivity and ability to look at something from a lay perspective (in this case, from a "working man's" perspective). But as writers whose beauty is found in our choice of words, we recoil from William Faulkner's warning to "kill [our] darlings." Each word is too precious, too sacred.
Here's what I took away from this likely fictional scene: it's very hard to edit our own work. Although I would argue that writing and editing both carry the same weight, this does not make them synonymous. They are separate tasks that should be carried out by separate people whenever possible.
But I'm a communications team of one!
I hear you out there, my fellow writer-editors. Maybe you're a team of one, or you don't have the budget to outsource the editing component. Don't lose hope. Here are a few tried-and-true tricks for when you're wearing both the writing and editing hats (or fascinators, if we're still talking about royal weddings):
Make a cup of tea. Sorry, I couldn't resist. But I'm also serious. When we're writing, we can get so engrossed in our own words that we lose that crucial objectivity. Get up from your desk, stretch your legs, make a cup of tea or take your dog outside. Come back to your work refreshed.
Go to bed. I know this isn't always possible when you're on a tight turnaround, but if you're able to, try and finish up your writing a day early. Sleep on it, then come back to it not just with a few minutes' worth of perspective, but a whole night's worth. You'll be surprised by the new typos you catch.
Phone a friend. This one's also dependent on timing, but if you're able to, send what you're working on to someone you trust. If they're strapped for time, just run that tricky sentence that's been stumping you by them. When you're not working in an office, you lose the ability to call out to your cubicle mate "what's another word for 'recoil'?" — but don't let this stop you from asking around your freelance network. There are so many Facebook groups and email lists I'm a part of that pose these sorts of questions all the time, and I'm continually impressed by how quick people are to help each other out.
- Read it out loud. It sounds simple, but this one is actually really difficult for me. I've always been more comfortable reading and writing than speaking, so even when I start to read my own work out loud, I usually end up trailing off somewhere around paragraph 2 and then speed-reading the rest. Don't be like me! When you really take the time to read your whole piece out loud, you'll notice those places that sound a little awkward, or stuffy, or (heaven forbid!) priggish.
Whether you're the one suggesting the edits or the one reviewing them, I hope you'll think of Lord Altrincham the next time a word rubs you the wrong way. Don't brush it off or tell yourself it's only one small word. Follow your gut, and who knows ... it may be the difference between removed and relatable.
What was your favorite part of the show? Let me know in the comments below! (Spoiler alert still stands.)
Want more? Check out my other posts about editing: