Once upon a time, Americans were not thrilled with the British monarchy. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Declaration of Independence, which established our distance from King George III and his tyrannical control over the colonies? All that pretty pageantry and privilege was certainly not our collective cup of tea back then.
But these days, the royals hold our attention, having permanently annexed our glossy magazines and triggered a steady stream of terribly elegant historical TV shows, two of which, Netflix’s “The Crown” and PBS’s “Victoria,” are returning shortly.
Today’s rulers are no longer even slightly identified with politics and government so much as a rarefied kind of celebrity — more Lady Gaga than Tony Blair or Theresa May. We like to watch them — as a far-away fairytale where princesses are idolized, as a fantasy of excess, high ceilings, and servants, and as an opportunity to point and snicker, particularly when a prince gets caught whispering to his lover about tampons (Charles) or standing naked in Vegas (Harry).
It may be that lurking somewhere in the deep unconscious memory of many Americans, there is still this old enchantment with and pique about Buckingham Palace. We’re riveted by lives that are determined by birthright and dynasty, as we might be by a flock of rare birds. The royals are famous people who never invited fame or election, and we get to watch them struggle to be dignified no matter what — a struggle that many American public figures no longer bother with. We get to marvel at the formalities that both elevate and constrain them.
Right now, we’re in the middle of a new bout of royal obsession, with the announcement of the engagement between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Here are some of my favorite scripted stories from the past 15 years about the royal families of history, before weddings could be televised around the globe.
This magnificent Netflix drama, which returns for season two on Dec. 8, is about the mildest of rulers, Queen Elizabeth II, who was crowned in 1952 at age 25. She has none of the wild flaws of Henry VIII, or the madness of King George III, the sorts of traits that add up to star quality. But actress Claire Foy adds subtle layers to the queen we all know. Ultimately, the series is about the meaning of the crown: What it’s like for those who wear it? What does it mean to the people who look to it for guidance?
This PBS “Masterpiece” miniseries from 2015 is about King Henry VIII and his relationship with Thomas Cromwell, brilliantly played by Mark Rylance as a kind of 16th-century Ray Donovan. “I keep you because you are a serpent,” Damian Lewis’s Henry tells his fixer. Based on the novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel, the drama moves slowly and seductively, drawing us into the moment of 1500s England as Henry tries to annul his marriage to Catherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy, again). The mesmerizing atmosphere, as far from the soapy slickness of “The Tudors” as possible, is helped by fire-lit cinematography.
Helen Mirren. Oh, I guess I ought to say more about this gorgeously produced HBO two-parter from 2006, in which Mirren stars as Elizabeth and delivers a towering portrait of contradictory qualities. In Mirren’s mouth, screenwriter Nigel Williams’s words are enthralling, such as Elizabeth’s middle-aged observation that she is “late fruit of the tree a breath away from withering.” Jeremy Irons is here, too, as Elizabeth’s addiction, Robert Dudley, the man with whom she undergoes a kind of arrested development.
The Virgin Queen
Here’s another portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, this one a four-part “Masterpiece” from 2005, and it has both raw intimacy and operatic sweep. Anne-Marie Duff is remarkable as the queen, giving her both a brattiness and a sense of childlike joy, particularly as she flirts with the married Robert Dudley, played by Tom Hardy. As her Elizabeth ages, though, the youthful qualities disperse, and she can no longer feel pleasure underneath all of her sad clown makeup.
The Lost Prince
This touching but never maudlin two-part “Masterpiece” from 2004 is about the son of King George V, Prince John, known as Johnny. Johnny has epilepsy and an intellectual disability that leaves him staring into the middle distance and making inappropriate comments. The King (Tom Hollander) and Queen Mary (Miranda Richardson) consider him a social and political liability, so they hide him from the public eye. Only his affectionate brother George and his nanny see the love in Johnny’s innocent ways, and they fight to keep his parents from institutionalizing him.
The Last Kingdom
This Netflix series, set in the ninth century, resembles “Game of Thrones,” with its brutality and medieval-meets-hard-rock-star stylings. Based on “The Saxon Stories” novels by Bernard Cornwell, it has a distinct appeal in its portrayal of King Alfred the Great, beautifully played with calm circumspection by David Dawson. Alfred defends his kingdom against vikings and dreams of a united England.
The White Queen
Starz aired this 2013 10-parter, which is set against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses and based on novels by Philippa Gregory. It’s extremely melodramatic, it’s lusty, and there is no shortage of overacting — but I loved it. The story revolves around King Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner whose first husband was killed by Edward’s armies. She tries to maintain a bond with him, while his counselor Lord Warwick and his brothers undermine it. “The White Queen” has none of the subtleties of “Masterpiece,” but it’s enjoyably dishy.
PBS is bringing this entertaining “Masterpiece” series back for a second season on Jan. 14. Like “Downton Abbey,” the show splits its time between the rich folk upstairs and the servants downstairs. Jenna Coleman is the queen who inherited the throne at 18, and who develops a crush on the older Lord Melbourne before falling in love with Prince Albert.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.