Season one of Netflix royal drama The Crown was the TV equivalent of comfort food. The elegant palaces, ancient churches and dusty schoolrooms brought 1950s Britain to life for a global audience. But just like Queen Elizabeth, there’s only so much time the show can spend in Blighty, so for season two The Crown went out into the world.
Covering the years 1956 to 1963 – essentially the years that Anthony Eden and then Harold Macmillan were Prime Minister – season two’s storylines take in the Suez Crisis, Prince Philip on a rollicking six-month global flirtfest and the Queen’s state visit to Ghana. It’s a globetrotting extravaganza, but it was mainly shot in just one country: South Africa.
“South Africa is a gift of a place because it can be so many different countries in one,” says the show’s production designer, Martin Childs. “We filmed a lot of Philip’s world tour there, except for Antarctica, which was a quarry near London. There was one moment when we were taken up the Keurbooms River really early in the morning and we were able to see the sun come up. It felt like we were going into the heart of darkness, like Apocalypse Now. I’ve never been anywhere that’s felt so alien.”
Philip’s tour – in effect a brief exile amid rumours of an affair with a ballet dancer – sees him take the royal yacht Britannia through Bermuda, Tonga, up the Amazon, across Antarctica and to the Melbourne Olympics, where he’s honeytrapped by an attractive Australian journalist for a one-to-one interview.
Cape Town doubled as Melbourne, while further up the coast the wide sands and crystal waters of the Western Cape’s Kogel Bay became a Tongan beach, where the crew of the yacht challenged locals to various sports. From there, Britannia sails to Bermuda – while the cast merely drove 40 miles to Hermanus, where 1920s fishing port New Harbour became the King’s Wharf dock, and the Arabella Hotel golf course acted as Bermuda’s Port Royal course.
Hermanus’s tiny Old Harbour looks so much like a rocky Mediterranean fishing village that it stars as Corfu in one of Philip’s flashbacks – to 1922, when an 18-month-old Philip and the rest of his family fled their Greek royal residence after his uncle, King Constantine I of Greece, had been forced to abdicate by a military government. Banished from Greece, Philip and his family were evacuated on the HMS Calypso.
For deck scenes on Britannia, the crew travelled to Cape Agulhas – at the southernmost tip of the continent – where they constructed a giant fake deck hanging out over the sea, providing a suitable backdrop for ocean-going scenes. The millpond sea behind doubled for everything from the Caribbean to the Antarctic Ocean.
Philip’s journey up the Amazon River took place further east on the Keurbooms River – which snakes for 50 miles through mountains, high gorges and lush tropical forest in the Keurbooms Nature Reserve on the Garden Coast. Canoeing up river was Matt Smith’s favourite part of the whole shoot.
“Coming up that river in a tiny boat was a real joy,” he says. “I loved filming in South Africa; it gave me an insight into Philip. He’s obviously an alpha. He’s on the horse riding into the battle, sword in hand. We can recognise that in the 40s and 50s no man would have knelt to his wife – so if she says you’ve got to give up your job and name, and the kids are taking my name… You can see how he’d say, ‘Hang on. I didn’t sign up for that.’”
While the Prince is off gadding about, the Queen is struggling to cope with the Suez Crisis. In October 1956, Israel, the UK and France invaded Egypt, then retreated in defeat ten days later. Fisantekraal Airfield – built in 1943 for a bomber squadron in the South African Air Force and now a private flying school – became an Egyptian airforce base under attack.
The rise of Egypt’s Colonel Abdel Nasser and key scenes in the deals and negotiations surrounding the slow collapse of British rule in Suez were filmed in Cape Town City Hall, a large Edwardian building on the city’s Grand Parade that has kept its ornate European fixtures and fittings as imported by the builders back in 1905.
And once all the fuss died down, after Charles starts school and John F Kennedy’s state visit, the Queen heads out on her 1961 tour of Ghana – giving her royal blessing to the country’s independence. The Castle of Good Hope, a 17th-century Dutch East India Company bastion, hosted much of Claire Foy’s visit – while South Africa’s verdant landscape provided the rest.
Watching The Crown last year was a reassuring link to the past. Watching the show this year might provoke a desire to see the world. Which, as it turns out, can all be found in the Western Cape…
Take a guided tour of one of the world’s most enchanting – but least-seen – gardens. On this great value coach trip you’ll also visit the Palace itself to see the magnificent State Rooms and the Royal Gifts exhibition – a collection of gifts presented to HM the Queen by world leaders over the past 65 years.
A visit to Royal Windsor
Admission to Buckingham Palace and the Royal Gifts exhibition
A guided Buckingham Palace Garden Tour
A short Royal London sightseeing tour
One night’s bed and continental breakfast accommodation at the three-star St Giles Hotel, Heathrow