When the sad news was announced about the death of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh last month, a rush began to speak to anyone who had a connection to the Queen’s husband of 73 years.
Among them, perhaps not surprisingly, were the actors who had portrayed him in Netflix’s hit TV drama The Crown, including Tobias Menzies, who was part-educated in Kent.
The Crown is a series which has brought the Royal Family to a new – younger – audience. And while the storylines are sometimes a little loose compared to the facts about what actually happened during the Queen’s long reign, it has provided a fascinating history lesson on the key figures of the household.
For many, Matt Smith’s portrayal of the young Prince Philip in the first two seasons seemed an impossible feat to emulate. But Tobias Menzies stepped into the Duke’s shoes for seasons three and four and proved so successful it is often difficult to separate them.
Tobias and Olivia Colman, as the Queen, proved a remarkable team. Yet he, perhaps more than any other asked for a comment on the Duke’s passing, seemed to gauge just how the man he portrayed would react. “If I know anything about the Duke of Edinburgh,” he said in the immediate aftermath, “I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t want some actor who has portrayed him on television giving their opinion on his life.”
The 47-year-old actor was born in Hammersmith – the son of a teacher and BBC radio producer. As a child he attended the Rudolf Steiner School in Chartham, Kent, just outside Canterbury – an establishment which was forced to close in 2017 due to financial pressures. The private school was known for its focus on the emotional and intellectual development of its students. It had a heavy focus on the creative arts – a theme he would continue when he moved to Frensham Heights School in Surrey – another independent school with a focus on progressive education.
It is rather a long way from the ‘tough-love’ approach the young Philip experienced at Gordonstoun School in Scotland, which he so adored.
So what did Tobias make of the Duke’s remarkable life and times when playing him? “He was someone who was very wary to show his feelings,” he reflected, “and yet he’s not a cool presence, he’s quite hot. He can be abrasive, challenging, funny. But there’s an energy about it: It’s not calm, it’s not gentle. And those things seem to battle inside him.
“I really enjoyed playing someone real. To have so much footage to watch and audio to listen to, I’d not experienced that before. You end up saying lines and doing stuff that you wouldn’t come up with otherwise. There’s also the technicalities of how someone talks, and the intonation they use. I found that liberating in a strange way. He was enjoyably a debunker. He poked fun at unnecessary pomp and circumstance. What Olivia and I built with the texture and atmosphere of that marriage I also came to really like.”
The Crown made much of the Duke’s adjustment to royal life after his Navy career was ended by his wife’s accession to the throne, leading to the curtailment of certain freedoms he craved. But the overall image is a warm one – with many of the ‘gaffes’ he made (sometimes, we have learned, for good reason, to put people at ease) underplayed or simply ignored.
Added Tobias: “The show is not a political critique on these people. It is a measured and thoughtful appraisal of that institution and the family that sits inside it. It never seeks to trip them up or to satirise or ridicule. You could definitely criticise that and say that we have added to propaganda about the family. It’s essentially quite a benign representation. It gives them depth, it gives them profundities that maybe they don’t have – I don’t know, I’ve never met them – but it’s not all positive.”
His portrayal of the Duke secured him a Golden Globe nomination – another to add to the one already achieved for his role in time-travel romance drama Outlander. He’s certainly no stranger to period or fantasy drama. Other roles include Brutus in Rome, William Elliot in an ITV production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and Edmure Tully in Games of Thrones – a role which reoccurred over six years of the hugely successful show.
Other notable roles include spook Geoffrey Dromgoole in the BBC’s critically-acclaimed The Night Manager and obligatory early career roles in both Casualty and Midsomer Murders. Just prior to The Crown, Tobias appeared alongside Sir Anthony Hopkins in King Lear – playing the Duke of Cornwall – in a version of the Shakespeare classic set in an alternative dystopian 21st century.
He keeps his private life close to his chest, too; something he’s done since he dated the multi-award-winning actress Kristin Scott Thomas in 2006 – a romance that made headlines, but also made Tobias vow to keep his relationships out of the spotlight.
He has one regret, however, over The Crown. In keeping with the manner in which the show has progressed, the cast changes after every two seasons – which means he will not be playing the Duke when the series resumes next year. And the Covid crisis put paid to any proper farewell for the stars of the show, including Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter (who played Princess Margaret so memorably).
Filming on season four ended just before the first lockdown was introduced last year. “We were planning a fairly drunken farewell,” quips Tobias. “Olivia and I finished on the same day, so they gave us a round of applause. But we also knew that we had a wrap party during which we could say goodbye. Maybe that was dumb on our parts because this was February, when the pandemic and the lockdowns were looming. But still, no part of me imagined where we were headed.”
So has it changed the actor’s view on the Royal Family? “I’m fundamentally republican,” he admits, “in that it doesn’t feel massively grown-up for a country to have an inherited monarchy as our head of state. But I’ve gained respect for them, for their sense of duty. They do work hard, and they have taken their role seriously. It’s a curious role, one I wouldn’t like to try and do.”
As the curtain comes down on his time portraying the Prince, viewers are preparing to welcome in the new cast – new actors portraying the Windsors. Esteemed actor Jonathan Pryce – famous for roles in Brazil, Evita, Pirates of the Caribbean and Academy Award-nominated for The Two Popes – will fill the shoes of the Duke of Edinburgh.
Says Tobias: “I think he’ll do a great job. I took on the baton from Matt Smith and now I’m handing it to him – I wish him all the very best and hope he enjoys it as much as I did.”