Faking It: This Is How The Crown Recreated Buckingham Palace

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
After two seasons of The Crown, my routine is fairly well-developed. I watch a scene. I Google. I watch another scene. I Google again. Did Prince Philip (Matt Smith) really cheat on Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy)? (Maaaaybe.) Does the queen really have her own private train? (Yes.) Were the corgis actually that adorable? (Obviously!)
Let's be clear: The Crown is a work of fiction, albeit one based on true events. But the reason everything feels so real is because the show is a trove of detail — from the gold embellishments of Buckingham Palace, down to the minutiae of royal protocol that governs almost every aspect of the queen's life.
In any other context, this could all be excruciatingly boring. It's a testament to the show's creator and writer, Peter Morgan, that the 10-episode seasons, the second of which was released on December 8, feel like a naughty peek behind the curtain of royal life, rather than a history class taught by Ben Stein.
That binge-worthy narrative is built on the bricks laid by Morgan's crew and research team, who pore through the books, documents, and photographs that inform the end result. For Season 2, that meant delving into a timeline of historical events ranging from the Suez Crisis to the Profumo Affair. And then there's all the stuff we associate with royalty: the palaces, the yachts, the carriages, the gowns, and of course, the crowns.
The Crown presents a particular challenge because, unlike period dramas that take place before the era of television, there is actual, real-life footage of most of its major events. In other words, people will know if you get it wrong. Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones' (Matthew Goode) wedding, the focal point of Season 2's seventh episode, was the first-ever televised British royal wedding, and almost 20 million viewers tuned in. It's a kind of double-edged sword that on the one hand, provides ample resources for research, but is also a point of comparison for nosy viewers who want to do a little digging of their own.
So, what's it like to work behind the scenes of Netflix's most expensive and ambitious production? To find out, I spoke to some of the people responsible for making all the royal magic happen.
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Illustration by Richard Chance.
The Deep Dive

Research for The Crown is an arduous process. First, the research team, led by Annie Sulzberger, provides Morgan with the facts he needs to write the show.

Once the script is written, Morgan passes it on to Robert Lacey, the show's historical consultant, to ensure that the factual groundwork is there. "There's a factual basis for every episode, and we imagine after that," Lacey said at an event to promote his book, The Crown: The Official Companion, which offers in-depth commentary on the historical events portrayed in the show.

As an example of this meticulous process, Lacey points to the a moment late in the season where the queen meets Jackie Kennedy. Halfway through filming, someone noticed that the picture they had been basing the costumes on must have been printed in reverse. "They noticed a wristwatch was on the wrong side, and that a brooch was up there, that should have been there," he said. " That's the kind of attention to detail that goes on." (More on that episode below — it's a juicy one!)

Similarly, for major events, like the Queen Elizabeth's coronation, or Princess Margaret's (Vanessa Kirby) wedding, the research team will put together a moment-by-moment timeline, with as many corresponding images as possible. Those then go to the costume and art departments and set decorators so that they can match the visuals with as much accuracy as possible.

And when I say detail, I mean down to what we don't even see onscreen. In the course of her research, Sulzberger found out that Margaret wore a hairpiece to make her hair look thicker under her wedding tiara. This information had to be taken into account by the hair and costume departments while replicating Kirby's look for the wedding.

"Annie [Sulzberger] and her team give us amazing visual and written documents [that] give us the details, especially [on] costumes: what the dresses were like, what the shoes were like, what Tony wore," Jodie Caron, who works on the script team, explained. "And then, we do make some decisions that aren't completely fact. [For example] Tony Armstrong-Jones didn't actually travel to the wedding with his mother, that was a creative choice."

In the show, Tony stares out the window at the thousands of people lining the Mall to catch a glimpse of the royal couple on their way to Westminster Abbey. But actually, Caron explained that much of what we see is a small crowd, augmented with green screens to give the illusion of a mass of people.
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Illustration by Richard Chance.
How To Build A Palace

Nothing screams monarchy quite like a shot of Buckingham Palace, but the question of the royal residence was actually a major point of contention in Season 1. If you recall, Elizabeth originally wanted Clarence House, which she and Philip had just finished renovating when she was tapped to succeed her father, George VI, as her family's main private home. This would leave the palace to be used as a daytime office. This, of course, did not fly, and the family was forced to move into what has been the ornate seat of British royalty since the time of Queen Victoria.

But since The Crown is based on actual people, Morgan and his team couldn't shoot in the real palace, because, you know...the queen still lives there. So, in order to get a sense of the place, they did the next logical thing: "We went on tours," Sulzberger said. "Like any other members of the public — and they had no idea why we were there."

Although the actual residence counts 775 rooms, including 52 bedrooms and 78 bathrooms, the Buckingham Palace we see onscreen is actually made up of six or seven sets, the use of which depends on what room the queen finds herself occupying in any given scene. Formal areas like the throne room, or the huge, ornate corridors that we see Elizabeth pacing through are shot in Lancaster House in London. "Those are the very grand rooms with gold leaf," line producer Eve Swannell explained. "When we went to Buckingham, Palace and went into the throne room, I was astonished at how similar it felt!"

You can thank set decorator Martin Childs for that. Still, as Sulzberger pointed out, the idea isn't so much to match the interiors of the palace exactly so much as to get a sense of the grand rooms. "The atmosphere has to feel right," she said.

Fans of British movies and TV might recognize some of the other locations, with have appeared in some classic scenes. The audience room, which we see when the queen meets with Anthony Eden and Harold McMillan throughout the season, is filmed at Wrotham Park, otherwise known as Mark Darcy's family home in Bridget Jones' Diary. The exterior shots of Buckingham Palace, on the other hand, are actually showing Waddesdon Manor, which also had a starring role in Downton Abbey, as Haxby Park, the ginormous house Sir Richard Carlisle buys for Lady Mary before she ends their engagement.
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Illustration by Richard Chance.
Oh, The Places You'll Go

Since, despite what fairytales would have us believe, queens and princesses don't live out their existence in palace towers, Swannell and her team have to recreate a number of well-known landmarks and locations in England, and around the globe — and sometimes, it's a lot harder than it looks.

Consider the first two episodes of season 2, which take viewers from London to the royal yacht Britannia, which carries Prince Philip to the tropical beaches of the South Pacific, Australia, and Antarctica, on his royal tour.

For the latter, Swanell says they used a quarry filled with fake snow to fake the footage for the home video that Philips sends back to Elizabeth and the children. The beach scenes, on the other hand, were shot in South Africa.

But it was actually the Britannia itself that took the most work to recreate. Believe it or not, that is not a real ship. "We built a little boat that went out to sea [and] had a corridor on it, like a sort of railway," Swannell said. "We built the deck, we had two main sets, [and] then we shot on a warship in London called the HMS Belfast." Add in the special effects, and you have the vessel that Prince Philip spends much of the early part of the season on.

Margaret's wedding, on the other hand, was shot at Ely Cathedral, as a stand-in for Westminster Abbey, which is where major royals traditionally get married. (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, by the way, are breaking with this custom by choosing to hold their wedding at St. George's Chapel, on the grounds of Windsor Castle, instead.)

According to Lacey, the same 11th century cathedral was used to shoot Elizabeth and Philip's wedding, and the coronation, in the show's first season. "It's the same architecture, same style, [as Westminster Abbey.]"
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Illustration by Richard Chance.
Embracing Royal Protocol

For those who think being royal means total freedom — think again. The British monarchy is governed by a series of rules and customs known as "protocol." This determines everything from who sits next to the queen at dinner, to how many paces her consort (in this case Prince Philip) must ensure remain between them in public.

Perhaps the most dramatic episode of the season is "Dear Mrs. Kennedy," in which America's best shot at royalty — the Kennedys —  come to Buckingham Palace for a banquet. Things are unsteady even before their arrival; Elizabeth, who, though the same age as Jackie (Jodi Balfour), feels threatened by the attention the First Lady is getting for her beauty, intelligence, and style. But shit really hits the fan when Elizabeth gets word that Jackie has been badmouthing her and her palace to whoever will listen. (We know this, by the way, because Sulzberger's team found a diary by photographer and royal insider Cecil Beaton, which described the First Lady as being less than complimentary about the palace decor.)

In the show, the queen's entourage is amazed by the sheer lack of attention the Kennedys have for royal protocol. And though Sulzberger admits that a lot of this was embellished for dramatic effect (Jackie didn't actually curtsy — as a non-British citizen, she wasn't required to), there is one thing that definitely happened.

"President Kennedy did break royal protocol by speaking to Elizabeth before being spoken to, and that was reported in the press," she said. It turns out that as a rule, mere mortals cannot address a monarch unless they do so first.

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