September 29, 2023


Arts Eternal

The real Prince Philip: Netflix has a version, but how close is it to the truth?

It is a moment when Prince Philip — or at least an imagined version of him — seems to be reckoning with his lot in life.

The husband of Queen Elizabeth is in awe of the astronauts who were part of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and they have dropped by Buckingham Palace to meet with him.

  • We’re collecting your condolences, memories and reactions to Prince Philip’s death — and your questions as well. Send them to [email protected]. We are reading them all and may use some of them in our special coverage. 

But it does not unfold as the Duke of Edinburgh — or a version of the Duke of Edinburgh as imagined by the Netflix drama The Crown — expected.

Philip wants, it seems, to have a deeply intellectual conversation with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins about their experiences during those few heady days in July of 1969.

And then the actors playing the astronauts start talking about troubles with the water cooling system during the Apollo mission. And wondering about what it’s like to live in a palace. Is there really a bagpiper for an alarm clock?

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” actor Tobias Menzies offered up in his portrayal of the middle-aged Philip. “In reality, they were just three little men.”

Philip died April 9, 2021, at age 99.

WATCH | A look back at the life of Prince Philip:

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, husband to Queen Elizabeth and Britain’s longest-serving royal consort has died 2:51

Reputation for ‘outrageous’ statements

Outside palace walls, it is impossible to know what those who live inside are thinking.

But many have tried to imagine it, particularly through various dramatic portrayals for television, movies or the written page.

The portrayals of Philip pale in number compared to those of Elizabeth, but his appearance in Season 3 of The Crown drew attention from observers.

“Phillip, as played by Tobias Menzies, seems like a superhero … a no-nonsense but admirable guy, much more sympathetic than conventional wisdom about the man,” said TV critic Bill Brioux.

Season 3 of The Crown covers the years 1964 to 1977. In this Dec. 19, 1965, file photo, Prince Philip, right, and Queen Elizabeth are surrounded by their family. From left, Princess Anne, Prince Edward in the pram, Prince Charles between his parents and Prince Andrew with his father. (The Associated Press)

Philip, he said, is someone who’s been known through news reports over the years, often for verbal outbursts.

“Often he would say things about how we’re overtaxed or the royals, we’re down to our last 100 polo ponies. He would … be heard to say things that seemed to be outrageous to a lot of people,” said Brioux.

“In [Season 3], we see a little bit of that but we also see a guy who is much more of a manager. You see him coming home and asking for the Queen, asking people where is she and they’re going: ‘Who do you mean?’ and he says: ‘Who do you think I mean?’ He’s funny.”

And he’s serious, too.

WATCH | Mourners in London share memories of Prince Philip:

People in the streets of London recalled memories of Prince Philip following his death Friday. 0:52

‘Higher regard’

At one point, The Crown version of Philip talked with clergymen who are housed on royal grounds. He’s dismissive of them.

“But then he went back and apologized. He said, ‘I had it all wrong. I’m here to learn,’ and from what we read at the end of the episode, he did in fact meet every week with these guys throughout his life,” said Brioux. “I never knew that.  That’s very interesting so [yes], I came away with a much higher regard of Philip than I went in.”

For his part, Menzies told the Los Angeles Times he read about Philip a lot, and found him “quite a hard man to pin down,” which made him interesting to play.

“I always feel that one’s job as an actor when playing a role is to advocate as much as one can from inside and make that person understandable to a viewer.”

Menzies, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Philip, took over the role for the third and fourth seasons from Matt Smith, who held it through the first two seasons of The Crown.

In an interview with Variety, Smith said that he felt there was “sort of misconception and a preconception about him, which reduced him a bit.” 

“And actually all the research I did found him to be brilliantly funny, very clever, very popular. In the royal house he’s the most popular of all of them.”

Smith said there was a lot he could identify with when it came to Philip: “the competitiveness, the sporting nature, the battle, the defiance and the maleness.”

WATCH | Why the Crown is being criticized for portrayal of the royals:

Season 4 of The Crown has proven popular with viewers, but because it is based on relatively recent history it’s facing more criticism for distorting real-life events. 2:16

‘Big surprise’

Critics took notice of the portrayal by Menzies, who’s had roles in Outlander and Game of Thrones.

“The big surprise of the new series of The Crown is that Olivia Colman isn’t the best performer in it,” began a 2019 review in the Times of London, where critic Carol Midgley found Menzies “superb,” for his “voice, mannerisms and plausibility.”

Brioux considered that Menzies was a good fit for the role of Philip.

“He’s perfect in that he looks like a royal. He has a sternness about him. His face … it’s good at conveying somebody who is an aristocrat. He just seems to carry himself that way in other roles so he was well-cast as Philip.”

Tobias Menzies strikes a pose for the cameras at a gala screening of The Crown at the 2019 AFI Fest at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Nov. 16, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/The Associated Press)

Brioux said Philip isn’t a complete mystery the way a historical figure from a past century would be.

“Against that though is the fact that it’s the Royal Family and these guys are kind of cloistered and you don’t often see behind the veil of them,” he said.

That, however, can offer those in the business of drama an advantage.

“They can go ahead and shape this character in ways that we don’t know if they’re right or wrong,” said Brioux. 

“I’m not swallowing it whole, thinking this is exactly how [Philip] is, but I find the point of view of the producers of the series to be very interesting,  like why have they chosen to render him in such a sympathetic way?”

Brioux considered the portrayal of Philip in Season 3 of The Crown to be a “bit of a revelation.

“Not that it’s the truth, but that someone chose to portray him that way.”

WATCH | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Philip’s legacy:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shares his memories of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. 0:49