It only took me an episode or two in season three of “The Crown” to admit that I had taken to the new actors portraying members of the Royal Family. By the end of the season, and after having re-watched it multiple times since, I still agree with that assessment with one exception. The re-casting of King Edward VIII by Derek Jacobi in place of Alex Jennings, who portrayed the former king in seasons one and two, was a royal mistake.
Simply put, the performance of Jennings as the Duke of Windsor was absolutely brilliant. From his looks to the sound of his voice, everything about his portrayal of the former king was remarkable, so much so that the season three portrayal by Jacobi was doomed to failure. I suspect that sentiment may not be shared among those who are well familiar with Jacobi’s work. While I have no doubts that he is a great actor, I couldn’t help but find his presence in season three as jarring.
Show runner Peter Morgan on the official Crown podcast discussed his reasoning for the re-casting of his characters every two seasons, and I agree with his decision. His explanation for expecting a Claire Foy or a Matt Smith to successfully portray aged versions of their respective characters, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, as the series progresses into further seasons would have been a difficult challenge. To his credit, the recasting of those characters along with the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, and Lord Mountbatten, among many others, were all done so brilliantly (and gives me hope the same happens once season five debuts).
However, Morgan was willing to make an exception to his rule at the start of season three for the character of Winston Churchill, brilliantly portrayed by John Lithgow. Even though Lithgow’s portrayal of an older Churchill in season three was short, it worked. Considering that the age difference between when we last saw King Edward in season two versus that of season three would not have been that overly dramatic, I have no doubt that with some additional makeup, Jennings would have pulled off a stellar performance of an older version of his character in that lone season three episode.
I can just imagine how much more powerful the strengthening of continuity between kingdoms might have been if it had been Jennings portraying King Edward in scenes with Josh O’Connor as the future king, Prince Charles. The same continuity thought also exists in the scene where the former king dies to the background song of “Duckshoot,” which was played repeatedly throughout seasons one and two, including scenes with King Edward’s brother, King George VI.
While Jacobi’s portrayal of King Edward was fine, I can’t help contemplate about the missed opportunities with the absence of Jennings. A few years later and on the verge of the fifth season, it is the one significant flaw in that show that continues to bother me.