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Dame Eileen and a Crowning glory

Dame Eileen Atkins tells Simon Evans about the joy of making hit TV series The Crown

Dame Eileen Atkins does not demur when I suggest that the sumptuous TV series The Crown, in which she plays Queen Mary, would have once been the centrepiece of the BBC schedules.

That the show, which aims to tell the story of the life and reign of The Queen has been made by the Netflix streaming service, is a sign of the times, it;s reported £130 million budget being now beyond the reach of the public  broadcaster.

Dame Eileen was chatting to Choice in the run up to the release of the first series of The Crown of DVD and Blu-Ray. It's starts with the young princesses marriage to Phillip Mountbatten and ends just after \princess Margaret's doomed romance with Group Captain Peter Townsend. Not for the first, or the last time, the young Queen finds herself having to put duty to country before her family's happiness. 

Making the series certainly increased Dame Eileen's respect for the royal family "It's a life of privilege but it's not a privilege that I would have wanted. It must be very hard, knowing your life is not your own. The Queen can't just wander into Marks and Spencer's, none of them can. And all the physical duties they have to do, sometime in very difficult circumstances, it's just incredible."

Dame Eileen admits her task- playing a dead, and less remembered, member of the royal family- was much easier than that facing Clare Foy and Matt Smith, who play the Queen and Prince Phillip respectively. But her approach to the role was a diligent as ever.

"You want to play someone as truthfully as possible, you want to get the essence of them, so I watched footage of her, to see the way she walked.

"I insisted I had my bosoms stuffed out- Queen Mary had a huge bosom. All the royal family have enormous bosoms. The man who made my costumes had a copy of one of Mary's dresses and when they put it up against me it fitted perfectly, except I didn't have enough bosom. 

"Just wearing the clothes increased my respect for her, that at eighty-odd she could walk around in such heavy things. One of the costumes weighed about three stone in total. But the clothes were beautiful and you get used to them."

Queen Mary who became Queen Consort upon the accession to the throne of her husband King George V, in 1910, was described by the celebrated diarist 'Chips' Channon as "above politics... magnificent, humorous, worldly, in fact nearly sublime, though cold and hard." 

After  her husband's death, in 1936, Mary had to suffer the trauma of her son Edward's abdication and she provided unwavering support when her second son, Bertie, Elizabeth;s father, became King. She also took an interest in her two granddaughters, taking them on frequent visits to art galleries and museums.

In this hinterland, rare in a royal figure, that especially interested Dame Eileen.

"Before I started researching the part, all I knew about Queen Mary was that she looked to be this rather severe woman," she recalled. "I found ut she'd always thought she wouldn't get married, they didn't think anyone was going to be suitable for her. She was plain and she was younger and then Queen Victoria said "She's perking up, she might do for one of the boys", because there was all this intermarriage going on.

"Thinking she wasn't going to find anyone and having a lot of time on her own, she became a h=great reader, a keen collector an a bit of an outsider."

Mary died in 1953, not long after Elizabeth ascended the throne, but just 10 weeks before her coronation. Typically she had let it be known that, in the event of her death, the ceremony should not be delayed.

In The Crown, Mary is a rather severe but reassuring, presence around the young Queen bit it is obvious her devotion to service had a profound effect on the young Elizabeth and Clare Foy does a remarkable job of conveying the young Elizabeth's mixture of vulnerability, compassion and steeliness, as she begins to feel the burden of becoming Queen.

Dame Eileen has enormous respect for Foy, especially since the young actress had only just given birth when shooting started on the series.

"I don't know how that girl did it," Dame Eileen said, "she brought her baby in every day during filming, and she was feeding her between takes. She was extraordinary."

That respect extended to the whole cast.

"It was the best cast thing I have ever seen in my life," Dame Eileen said.

"Even tiny parts- a servant, somebody bringing something in and saying a couple of lines- were dead right and perfect. And the atmosphere on set is so much better when everyone knows that everyone else is good, It means you can relax and focus on your own part."

A lot of that was down to the producer, Stephen Daldrey, who Dame Eileen had worked with on the feature film The Hours. "I have always been a massive admirer of his work and long to work with him again, "Dame Eileen said "and the script for the crown was not one that you could have turned down. At the first reading, Stephen said "The part is yours if you want it, and I said 'yes', very quickly"

The script had been written by the brains behind the series, Peter Morgan, whose previous credits had included The Queen and The Frost-Nixon, but it took some time for it to take shape, as Dame Eileen recalls.

"I went to a reading of that script about 2 years before they did it, and hardly anyone there ended up being in the scenes except me. I thought it was quite dense, but then Peter Morgan rewrote it and when I came back to the script about 18 months later it was completely different. It's clear an awful lot of work had gone into it. That goes for the whole production, and the second series of the crown, which follows events from the 1956 Suez Crisis up to the resignation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1963 is much anticipated.

It will be available in it's entirety on Netflix on December 8th, with the DVD to follow next year, and it promises to be something special. Dame Eileen will not be in it of course, but she treasures her memories of the show "When we were working on it, I was aware that this was first class stuff," she said. "And so it proved."

Have you watched the crown? Are you looking forward to the new series? 

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