Listening for the Caribbean on "The Crown"




APPROXIMATELY HALFWAY through the latest season of The Crown, the series tackles a most peculiar incident that occurred during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign: the night a British man named Michael Fagan broke into Buckingham Palace. Since the 1982 event, multiple others have tried to scale the Palace fence and gain an audience with the Queen, including one just last year on the anniversary of Fagan’s original break-in. But Fagan didn’t just make it past the perimeters; he had a 10-minute chat with the Queen herself. You would think, then, that it’s the conversation between the two that would take centerstage in the episode entitled “Fagan.” And, to be fair, it’s what the show builds up to, vividly detailing Fagan’s daily life of estrangement and isolation in Margaret Thatcher’s — and the Queen’s — London before he scales the walls. Yet there is another, far briefer, exchange that’s just as intriguing, and just as pointedly about England’s corrosive neglect of its subjects, old and new. At one point in “Fagan,” Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) and Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) have a conversation about Guyana.

In the episode, after Fagan’s first attempted break-in to the Palace is thwarted, the Queen’s aide reports on the nature of the trespassing. Noting how Fagan (Tom Brooke) entered through a window in the Master of the Household’s office, then made his way through the picture gallery, and finally, ended up in the gift room, the aide alerts Queen Elizabeth to two petty instances of crime: Fagan drank a bottle of Riesling wine from Johannesburg valued at six pounds, and he broke a painted vase. What happens next is surely meant to inject some form of comic relief into what is undoubtedly not a funny situation, but something like the truth seeps in. The vase, the aide explains to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, was a gift from the President of Guyana. This news seems to pique Prince Philip’s interest as he inches closer to the Queen and admits that he remembers that, “ghastly little pink thing” replete with painted “blue worms all over it.” The Queen swiftly corrects him pointing out that it was not worms he perceived, but the three main rivers of Guyana, which is also known as the “Land of Many Waters”: Essequibo, Berbice, and Demerara. When Philip quips that the vase also portrayed a “strange looking duck,” the Queen, again, steps in claiming that it is no duck, but rather the national bird of Guyana, the canje pheasant. Philip’s recollection of the vase pales in comparison to the Queen’s studied expertise about its country of origin. Elizabeth showing up her glib, dunderheaded husband is largely the dramatic takeaway from the exchange. But her knowledge is not all that surprising, considering that she served as the country’s monarch from her coronation in 1953 until Guyana became a Republic in 1970. Her off-hand display of familiarity with the former colony ought to bear a lot more dramatic weight in the episode than it probably does.

Forbes Burnham and his wife Viola Burnham did, in fact, gift Queen Elizabeth a vase from Guyana on the occasion of the marriage between Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, but it hardly looks anything like the one described in The Crown. Instead, the terracotta vase, likely made by the indigenous peoples of Guyana also known as the Amerindians, boasts of turtles, fishes, pelicans, and monkeys, as well as huts, sun, and bodies of water showcasing Guyana’s rich ecological and animal life. The conversation between Elizabeth and Philip about Guyana is quick — it’s supposed to be — and those focused on Fagan might just as quickly overlook it. Those who hear it, however, as more than a laugh, more than a jab at Britain’s former colony, recognize its importance especially as it signals England’s imperial influence and interference in parts of the Caribbean and South America.

Vase, 1981. Terracotta. Guyana.

But Guyana isn’t the only colonial outpost making a vexed cameo in this episode. “Fagan” concludes with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s victory parade celebrating the defeat of the Argentina junta during the Falklands War — a 74-day war she initiated on April 5, 1982, when she sent a British fleet of 38 warships, 77 auxiliary vessels, and 11,000 soldiers to an island roughly 300 miles off the southern tip of Argentina. Despite varying members of Thatcher’s own team of advisers and members of Parliament opposing her decision, years later she wrote in her memoir Downing Street Years (1993): “When you are at war you cannot allow the difficulties to dominate your thinking: you have to set out with an iron will to overcome them.” While The Crown often pits the Prime Minister (Gillian Anderson) and the Queen against one another, the series points to an uncanny resemblance: their steadfast determination to dominate both at home and abroad.

Several episodes later in “48:1,” which tackles the issue of apartheid in South Africa, we see a much younger Queen Elizabeth address “all the people of the British commonwealth and Empire” on the occasion of her 21st birthday with the following words: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” What flashes across the screen during her speech are people who belong to that “great imperial family” tuning in on devices like satellite radios and black-and-white televisions from parts of the commonwealth as far ranging as India,  St. Kitts and Nevis, Jamaica, Barbados, Ghana, Nigeria, and elsewhere, showing just a sampling of how far Britain’s reach extended in the 20th century. The episode ends with the young Elizabeth’s words resounding again, too, as a much-aged Queen reflects on her reign.

Those of the “great imperial family,” however, didn’t just listen to the monarchy. Rather, they created the sound and textures of their own lives; they left their own histories and critiques of history in elaborate soundtracks, be it through calypso, soca, reggae, or dub. Put another way, there’s a history to be found — or better yet, heard — in the credits of The Crown that differs drastically from the main plot that circulates onscreen pertaining to Elizabeth and her family. We need only look — I mean listen — for it, which is actually a bit easier said than done. Thanks to Netflix’s automated features that produce questions and instructions including, “Are you still watching?”, “Skip intro,” and “Next episode” it is quite possible that people move from episode to episode without ever sitting through the credits, which in Season Four of The Crown occasionally contain crucial information about Fagan’s whereabouts today as well as two estranged members of the royal family, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, who were surrendered to an asylum. Information can easily go overlooked due to Netflix’s proclivity to speed things up and viewers’ own desire for immediate gratification.

But if we don’t slow down, we miss the music, and when we miss the music, we miss both sound and fury. Following Thatcher’s victory parade and the success in the Falkland Wars, the episode “Fagan” concludes with The Beat’s 1980 reggae song “Whine and Grine/Stand Down Margaret.” This British Birmingham band, comprised of children of the Windrush generation, helped to transform the genre of ska by blending Caribbean music with ’80s punk rock, pop, and soul music. Much like Queen Elizabeth increasingly fears that Thatcher is overstepping her boundaries in “Fagan,” The Beat’s lyrics — “Stop trying to talk down to people. You don’t really know that much more than them, anyway” — plead for her to get off her soap box and resign. The song proved so catchy and controversial that the BBC banned The Beat for two years following its release. Its recuperation into the credits of The Crown gestures to this tumultuous afterlife without engaging it explicitly. That is, the credits’ use of “Whine and Grine/Stand Down Margaret” at once acknowledges The Beat’s existence while still relegates them to the oblivion of the show’s (automatically skipped) footnotes.  

The episode could just as well have ended with Grenadian Mighty Sparrow’s “Philip My Dear,” a raunchy, playful tune that pokes fun at Fagan’s intrusion and imagines his exploits in the Queen’s bedroom. Sparrow, also known as Slinger Francisco or better known to all as “Calypso King of the World,” never shied away from belting out his true feelings about the “Mother Country,” which he refers to in the song as “good old England.” Indeed, he was known for calling Trinidad the “Model Nation.” In another tune, “Dan is the Man (In the Van)” Sparrow bemoans the British education he receives singing, “De poems an’ de lessons dey write an’ sen’ from England. Impress me dey were trying to cultivate comedians! Comic books made more sense: you know it’s fictitious, without pretense. Cutteridge wanted to keep us in ignorance!” Like any number of calypsonian or folk singers, Sparrow relished in drumming up drama about the royal family; in satirizing the foreign overseers from afar. Unsurprisingly, upon the release of “Philip My Dear” in 1983 — following the contentious Falkland Wars — the English didn’t receive the song too kindly, and, as with “Whine and Grine/Stand Down Margaret,” the BBC banned it. Turns out the Queen doesn’t hold grudges though, and evidently can take a good laugh because in 2015 at 80 years old, The Mighty Sparrow received one of England’s highest honors on the Queen’s birthday: an Order of the British Empire for distinguished contribution in the area of culture adding to his budding list of accolades and making him Dr. Slinger Francisco ORTT CMT OBE.

“48:1,” ends with a brief nod to a different legend in his own right: the Jamaican dub poet, reggae artist, and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson and his poem “Inglan Is a Bitch.” Johnson, also known as LKJ, like members of The Beat, is a child of the Windrush generation and currently resides in Brixton, London. In the 1970s, he joined the British Black Panther Party through the youth division and then went on to be a part of the Race Today newspaper collective. Johnson inaugurated the genre called “dub poetry,” which is a type of poetry strongly influenced by the rhythm of reggae music. In his own words, “I began to write verse, not only because I liked it, but because it was a way of expressing the anger, the passion of the youth of my generation in terms of our struggle against racial oppression. Poetry was a cultural weapon in the black liberation struggle…” His records Forces of VictoryDread Beat an’ Blood, and Bass Culture capture the tempo of Black-British people combating police brutality, racism, anti-immigration, and so much more. “Inglan Is a Bitch” points to the country’s twofold disdain of and exploitation of Caribbean immigrants (“There is no escaping it. No running away from it”) as well as the sense that you need to know exactly how to deal with England otherwise the country has the capacity to kill you (“y’u bettah face up to it” and “y’u haffi know how fi survive in it”). Whereas you can only hear Johnson reciting the titular line of the poem at the end of the episode in The Crown before it ushers in the next episode, it’s worth remembering that the longer poem ends with a question, a provocation: “Inglan is a bitch / Dere’s no escapin it / Inglan is a bitch / Is whey wi a goh dhu ´bout it?” Like many other dub poets, Johnson was not interested in defeat but hard-won solutions.  

As Phillip Maciak suggests, music, especially as it manifests through dance, cannot be overlooked in either The Crown or more recently, Steve McQueen’s masterful five-film anthology Small Axe — both of which take place at opposite ends of the United Kingdom during the 1980s. As I have written elsewhere, McQueen’s deft selection of songs anchors the anthology in a particular place and time: the West Indian community in Britain in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. McQueen’s soundtrack offers a commentary on the brutal nature of anti-Blackness in Britain where it has all too often been downplayed, and it imparts how music can help make a life: that is, how sultry, sonic tunes create an atmosphere where dancing is more than mere revelry, where music is more than noise but rather what one listens to in order to stay alive, to keep (it) moving. Unlike McQueen’s Small Axe, The Crown fails to meaningfully integrate a sonic vibe that deftly critiques the empire that sits at the center of its series. This registers as more than a creative oversight or missed opportunity, but instead as a willful disavowal of West Indian musical traditions that rejected imperial rule. To sonically invoke The Beat and Linton Kwesi Johnson, but not to carefully situate their life’s work is a particular kind of exploitation that neither serves the series or its viewers.

The credits in The Crown could be as compelling as the plot, if we chose to listen to them. Though they might be glossed over or shortened or altogether skipped due to the sleight of hand of an eager viewer or the metrics designed by Netflix itself, to do so misses an important set of counternarratives, an unflinching critique of British rule that tells on a lower — but not quite invisible or more aptly, inaudible — frequency (a la Ralph Ellison) the history of a people: Black, British, West Indian, Windrush children, each of whom are the subjects of their own lives; who wrote and jammed out to their own tunes; who had no other choice than to listen and create their own beats because in the words of LKJ: “y’u haffi know how fi survive.”

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