Everyone’s favorite streaming period drama is back, as big and as British as ever. Where Season 2 of The Crown left off in 1964, Season 3 picks back up in 1966 and extends into the late 1970s, with a whole new cast. No longer a young couple trying to find their way in a postwar muddle, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are now in their prime and making their way through a new era of British history. World events are as much a part of The Crown as any character, which means it won’t hurt to do a little homework before diving into the third season. Here are a few things to read, listen to, and watch to put the history of The Crown in context.
Apollo 11 and “Mare Tranquillitatis”
Like any historical drama that features scenes set in 1969, The Crown will address the moment when human beings first set foot on another world. Earlier this year, director Todd Douglas Miller released a documentary about the Apollo 11 mission, including previously unreleased 70mm footage of the mission, along with audio from contemporary interviews and Mission Control logs. It is, to put it simply, engrossing, even for such a well-traveled subject as the moon landing, and it’s available on Hulu.
For those in search of a fictionalized narrative depiction, though, the obvious place to go is First Man, featuring The Crown’s Claire Foy and one of the great soundtracks of 21st century cinema. But “Mare Tranquillitatis,” the sixth episode of the 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, is a more compact alternative. Starring Tony Goldwyn as Neil Armstrong and Bryan Cranston as Buzz Aldrin, it’s completely focused on the actual Apollo 11 mission, rather than close-ups of a dolorous Ryan Gosling staring into the middle distance.
Aberfan: A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One of Britain’s Worst Disasters, Gaynor Madgwick, 2016
Another pivotal event to be portrayed in The Crown is the Aberfan disaster, a 1966 mining accident in which a pile of accumulated coal waste slid down a Welsh mountainside and onto the grounds of a junior high school, killing 144 people, including 116 children. Madgwick, one of the survivors, combined her own story with stories from others affected by the disaster for this book, resulting in a heart-rending account of the tragedy and its aftermath.
Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, Sally Bedell Smith, 2017
As the young Prince of Wales grows into his own man, he takes on a more prominent role in The Crown, which explores his strained relationship with his parents, struggle to live up to his title, and the beginnings of the heir apparent’s relationship with the former Camilla Shand, now the Duchess of Cornwall but previously the Other Woman in Charles’s tabloid-spattered love live.
Lyndon Johnson is one of American history’s great complicated historical figures, a talented but vulgar politician thrust into turbulent times. His Great Society, a slate of economic reforms and civil rights legislation unparalleled by any administration since, is a definitive American governmental triumph; his decision to plunge the U.S. headlong into the Vietnam War is a definitive national disgrace.
Princess Margaret, played by Helena Bonham Carter in Season 3, meets the bombastic Texan during his tenure in the White House, where they bond over a shared love of vulgarity. So rather than any book or documentary about LBJ the politician, consider this often-repeated anecdote about his fondness for urinating outdoors.
“Taxman,” the Beatles, 1966
One new figure on The Crown is Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who introduced widespread democratic socialist reforms to the British government over his two terms as prime minister. Wilson’s pro-worker sympathies made him a pariah in conservative circles, who circulated rumors that he was a KGB plant. Those rumors supposedly led to an MI5 plot to depose him, sort of a domestic version of the way the CIA has behaved toward every Latin American socialist government for the past 60 years. In 1987, his conservative successor, Margaret Thatcher, rejected claims of such a plot, but then, she would, wouldn’t she?
Among Wilson’s critics were the Fab Four, who in 1966 kicked off Revolver with a brief number called “Taxman,” which complained about the Wilson government’s high taxes. Suffice it to say, this petulant libertarian ditty did not go down as one of the great protest anthems of the late 1960s.
The Miami Showband Massacre and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe, 2018
By virtue of their station, the royal family is often insulated from the day-to-day effects of their country’s political strife, but The Crown is rapidly approaching the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle and mentor, played by Greg Wise in seasons 1 and 2 and by Charles Dance in Season 3. The 20th century history of Ireland is in large part defined by the Troubles, the violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and between those who favored a united and independent Ireland and those who supported British rule. Indeed, one of the major threads of British history in this time period is the story of British military action in Northern Ireland. And in 1979, Mountbatten was killed by an IRA bomb, making him one of the numerous casualties of the Troubles. Even if the assassination itself won’t show up on screen until next season, the conflict in Ireland colors much of the historical period that Season 3 covers.
Keefe’s book explores the 1972 abduction and murder of a Belfast woman by the IRA. The Miami Showband Massacre, streaming on Netflix, tells the story of a loyalist paramilitary’s attack on a popular touring musical act in County Down, Northern Ireland, in 1975, and explores the complicity of British military intelligence in terrorist attacks by loyalist groups. Both illustrate the ferocity of sectarian violence in the late 20th century, from which not even the royal family was immune.