The 10-episode run, set between 1964 and 1977, will showcase tension inside Buckingham Palace and tackle turmoil on the outside, introducing many viewers to a volatile period in British history.
Tragically, Netflix hasn’t provided a reading list ahead of the premiere. Fear not, though — here’s a history lesson to guide you through the blockbuster show’s third season.
Who was the Prime Minister?
During “The Crown”‘s first two seasons, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan featured prominently. The last episode saw Macmillan step down and be replaced by Alec Douglas-Home, but season three will begin with the election of a new leader: Harold Wilson.
Wilson, a moderate socialist, won a razor-tight general election in 1964, ushering in the first Labour government for 13 years — one that was immediately forced to tackle a currency crisis. He would later embark on a bold series of domestic reforms in education, housing, healthcare and pensions, while resisting the more radical urges of some on the left of his party.
Known for his almost-constant pipe-smoking and his skilful oratory, Wilson is one of the most recognizable politicians in British history — providing plenty of fodder for Jason Watkins, a newcomer to the show’s cast.
He also oversaw a dramatic change in British society, likely to be reflected in the show. The country’s move to a so-called “permissive society” was aided by the liberalization of homosexuality, abortion, divorce and censorship laws, which Wilson supported.
Wilson oversaw much of the dismantling the British Empire and kept the country out of the Vietnam War, but he lost vigor for his policy program and stunned the country by retiring in 1976. By then, he’d won four out of five general elections, briefly losing power to the Conservative leader, Edward Heath. A series of conspiracy theories and rumors followed his shock announcement — and one can only wonder how the Queen must have reacted.
What was going on in Britain?
Where do we begin? The series starts in the mid-1960s, when Britain was enjoying a significant role in the world’s cultural scene and the Swinging Sixties were picking up steam. The Beatles were leading the British Invasion of musical acts making their way across the Atlantic, Mods and miniskirts were in vogue and the mood in the country — at least for those swept up in the excitement — was high.
Sentiment was lifted even further when England won the World Cup in 1966, and the moon landing three years later — the focus of one episode in the new season — made a captivated global audience believe anything was possible.
But the countercultural movement that swept Britain in the Swinging Sixties also took to the streets, with increased outbursts of political activism rocking much of mainland Europe in the summer of 1968.
Over the course of the season’s time-span, the post-war economic boom that formed the background to Britain’s cultural combustion in the 60s gave way to a period of gloom in the 1970s.
An oil crisis and a series of workers’ strikes crippled the country, even leading to the imposition of a three-day working week in 1974 to preserve limited electricity supplies.
And across the Irish Sea, the Troubles — a period of sustained sectarian violence in Northern Ireland that claimed the lives of thousands — escalated in the early 1970s, peaking with the so-called Bloody Sunday incident in 1972.
With this backdrop, the new season will also cover one-off incidents including the Aberfan disaster, which saw the collapse of a spoil tip in a Welsh mining village claim the lives of more than 100 children; the death and funeral of Winston Churchill; and the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, which was targeted by Welsh nationalists.
What about the royal family?
The tension on British streets was arguably matched inside the walls of Buckingham Palace, providing the writers of “The Crown” writers with a number of juicy avenues to explore.
Princess Margaret’s marriage to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones formed an important part of the show’s second season, but that relationship turns rocky in the new season, when Helena Bonham-Carter’s princess begins an eight-year affair with baronet and gardener Roddy Llewellyn.
After photographs of the pair swimming in the Caribbean hit British tabloids, their relationship became a much-publicized challenge for the royal family. Eventually, Margaret’s marriage to Armstrong-Jones broke down, with the pair divorcing in 1978.
The Queen herself sees her empire shrink and colonies gain independence during the series, before Britain votes to join the European Community in 1975.
Elizabeth II remained a popular figure during the time-span covered and celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1977.
Elsewhere, her son and heir, Charles, officially became the Prince of Wales — this season will chart his move into adulthood, beginning when he was a teenager and ending with him approaching his thirties.
And a tantalizing cast list excited fans earlier this year, revealing that the latest offering will feature both of Charles’ future wives — Diana Spencer and Camilla Shand. They’ll be more prominent in the fourth season.
And the rest of the world?
Season 3 also takes in the middle of the Cold War, which influences several of the events covered.
The Apollo 11 moon landing — the pivotal moment in the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union — is featured in the seventh episode, “Moondust,” in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin will make an appearance.
At the time, Elizabeth II praised the astronauts in a statement, saying: “On behalf of the British people I salute the skill and courage which have brought man to the moon. May this endeavor increase the knowledge and well-being of mankind.”
But that message didn’t come without resistance, it was later revealed. Earlier this year, documents released by the National Archives showed that the Queen considered the goodwill message — requested by NASA — a “gimmick.” The Palace added it was “not the sort of thing [the Queen] much enjoyed doing, but she certainly would not wish to appear churlish by refusing an invitation which is obviously so well-intentioned.”
Elizabeth II nonetheless met Armstrong and Aldrin at Buckingham Palace a few months later, during the global goodwill tour the pair undertook after returning to Earth.
According to Aldrin, Michael Collins — another astronaut on the mission — “almost fell down the stairs” during the meeting, as he tried to comply with royal protocol by not turning his back on the monarch.
Another Cold War-themed episode will focus on the exposure of the Queen’s adviser, Anthony Blunt, as a Soviet spy.
Blunt, who worked as an art adviser to Her Majesty, confessed in 1964 to being a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring that operated in Britain for around two decades.
His admission remained hidden from the public until 1979, when it was revealed by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Do I even need to watch ‘The Crown’ now?
Yes — as detailed as our history lesson has been, it’s still worth watching how Olivia Colman and the rest of the blockbuster cast tackle this turbulent period.
“The Crown” lands on Netflix around the world on Sunday.