Like my colleague Joseph Hartropp, I love the Netflix drama The Crown. It's big budget, beautifully produced and the dialogue and plot are West Wing sharp. None more so than in episode six of season two, which features the relationship between the young Queen Elizabeth and the American evangelist Billy Graham, on his first visit to the UK in 1954. It was a fascinating insight into the UK at that time and the lives of both the Queen and the evangelist – bearing in mind that the dialogue, though based on historical events, was of course made up.
We open with the Queen Mother and the Queen sitting watching Billy Graham on the black and white TV from Harringay. The ensuing dialogue begins with the Queen Mother.
'It's rare and not entirely assuring to see religious certainty in someone so young.'
'He's not young, he's my age.'
'Exactly, a child...I think moral authority and spiritual guidance should come from someone with a little life experience, not from someone who learned their trade selling brushes door to door in North Carolina.'
'There's a humility to that which I like.'
'Are those people crying? What's happening to this country? The people of Great Britain never cried during the war...now they're weeping like children' (all with the Queen looking on fascinated as Billy Graham preaches and offers an altar call.)
'Turning out in droves for an American zealot.'
'He's not a zealot.'
'He's shouting, darling, only zealots shout.'
The opposition of the establishment
As a short piece of dialogue it captures superbly the attitude of the British establishment to the arrival of Billy Graham. The Archbishop of Canterbury told him he was not welcome, the media were generally opposed and questions were asked in Parliament about whether he should even be let into the country.
In one scene Harold MacMillan, the Prime Minister, is portrayed dismissively mocking Billy Graham to the Cabinet – 'I've no objection to him being here – it's the word crusades....if the Rev Graham is the crusader it's the implication that we are heathen.' Imagine the shocking implication that the British need salvation as much as any other people!
In another scene when the Queen asks her personal secretary to arrange a private audience with Billy Graham, he agrees but warns her, 'We should have to be careful that any invitation to preach was not perceived as an endorsement of his crusades, which would not be compatible with your role as the head of the Church.'
The Queen's personal faith
While previous episodes have hinted at the Queen's own faith (often showing her kneeling at her bed praying), this episode makes it explicit. Shot after shot shows her staring fascinated at the spellbinding message of Billy Graham as he clearly preaches the gospel. It is also made clear that neither the Queen Mother nor Prince Philip approve. From all reports this is very true to life. I recall one clergyman who preached for the royal couple on the subject of the resurrection. Philip asked him afterwards if he really believed it. 'Yes, I do.' 'Bloody nonsense,' came the retort.
But in the interactions with Graham (who is portrayed accurately and sympathetically) the Queen's searching faith is described with some warmth and understanding. She tells Graham 'You illuminate the Scriptures so well...the great joy that I felt was that of being a simple congregant being taught...above me there is only God.' She goes on to admit that she is lonely and likes to sometimes be able to disappear and be someone else. When Graham suggests that someone else is 'a simple Christian', she responds, 'Yes, above all things I do think of myself as just a simple Christian.... it's the values of Christian living that root me, guide me, define me.'
For those of us who have lived in this country with her as our Queen, we have seen this statement to be borne out by years of faithful, humble, Christian service.
The struggles of being a Christian in high office
The main plot in this episode is the attempt of the former Edward VIII (her uncle David), the Duke of Windsor, to return to public life – an attempt that was thwarted by the shocking revelation of his and his wife's relationship with Hitler and the Nazis. The Queen has to make the decision about whether to forgive him and let him back. Ultimately she decides not to and struggles with whether this is the Christian thing to do or not. The dialogue with Graham on this issue is thought-provoking and profound. At one point he tells her, 'The solution for being unable to forgive – one asks for forgiveness oneself and prays for those we cannot forgive.' Although the implication in the story line is that it would have been the Christian thing to do to forgive him and let him back in, I suspect that Prince Philip's remark at the end that Jesus would give her 'a gold star' for not letting him return is probably the more accurate theology.
The contrast between the Duke of Windsor's arrogant dismissal of Graham and his message, and the Queen's humble acceptance, could not be starker. The Duke writes to his wife: 'I would say wait and pray but all taste for prayer has left me as I survey the madness involving the American evangelist here. What has happened to the people of this country? Turning like lemmings to this showman from Charlotte for their inspiration.'
It was an incredible scene as the Queen wrestled with what to do, upon hearing about the extent of the Duke of Windsor's involvement with Hitler. She is pictured pacing up and down in the library as in the background the TV is on, and Billy Graham is preaching, 'The problems of the world can be summed up in one word – SIN.'
This was a remarkable episode in a remarkable series about a remarkable woman. I came away thankful that such things can be portrayed on today's TV, thankful for the consistency and Christ-centredness of both Billy Graham and the Queen over the decades; and thankful, that as a Republican (in the UK sense!) I live in a country where a Christian has been head of the nation in such a troubled and turbulent century. God save the Queen – and God help us when she is no longer with us.