The Crown: Aberfan

Inscription: “From the remaining children of Aberfan.”

An episode so well done and yet so upsetting I had difficulty watching it.

The episode begins by informing us that it is Thursday, October 22, 1966. A rainy day – a very rainy day – in Aberfan, Wales, where the schoolchildren of a particular class are told that they have to sing the next day before the beginning of some holidays. We see the children running home in the rain, and several shots of them that afternoon, learning that song. Then, in a brilliant visual transition, we go from the street of tiny row houses to Buckingham Palace. The only thing that seems to be in common is that it is raining there, too.

The next morning, it’s still raining cats and dogs in Aberfan. Signs of disaster appear near the mine, but the people can’t warn the villagers fast enough, and with the coal tip, too tall to begin with, and destabilized by rain and weak terrain, comes crashing toward the village. I’ve never experienced a landslide, but I have been in a major earthquake and several hurricanes (including a cat 5). When the force of the elements comes at you, you realize how small you are. How much smaller are children – especially the children who are in a schoolhouse at the front of the mountain of coal. “Aberfan” does a good job of capturing the enormity of the disaster.

Word spreads, first reaching the prime minister, who is at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of a hypermarket. Harold Wilson has the sense to cut the ceremony short. He soon calls on the Queen, to ask for the Crown plane and to suggest that she come with him.

The Queen lets him use her plane but refuses to go. This initial refusal makes sense. It’s still a search and rescue operation, and having the Crown show up would be a distraction. She’s not the only one to refuse; the head of the coal board apparently has better things to do. The Prime Minister goes; the scenes are both moving and realistic. I was gripped when the whistle blew and everyone on screen fell absolutely silent, listening for the cries for help of a child who could still be alive. I wasn’t sure if they would pull out a living child or not – they didn’t – for which I was grateful.

The people who have visited in Aberfan are moved to the core. Lord Snowdon phones Princess Margaret in the middle of the night from a callbox to tell her to kiss the children. Prince Philip visits on a day when 81 children are being buried: the line of coffins in the mass grave is a powerful visual. The people sing a hymn – not the same one the children were supposed to sing on the day of the accident – but the singing reminds us of the music that was silenced.

The episode becomes a little less compelling but easier to bear when it starts covering the political fallout of the accident, rather than the tragedy itself. Labour, the party in power, is being blamed for the accident, which leading members find unfair as the conditions at the mine are more in line with Tory practices (so I presume). One of them argues that they need to deflect the blame, and so the papers come out with scathing pieces wondering where the Queen has been all this time. Are miners worth that much less than other people? Prime Minister Wilson is not actually behind the editorials (although the Queen blames him), but their point is accurate: she should have gone as soon as the rescue part of the crisis was over.

Prodded by the newspapers, the Queen finally makes the visit, where she goes to the site of the ruined school, puts a wreath on the graves, and meets with some of the villagers who have lost family members. She receives a card presented to her by one of the remaining children of Aberfan, and when she steps outside, she pretends to wipe away a tear.

The episode also explores the peculiar burdens of a monarch. I can understand the Queen’s reluctance to go to the village to comfort the people; how can she, a stranger, possibly help? Although they are strangers to her, she is not a stranger to them. She also wonders why she never weeps – not even at the birth of her first child (the first time we have a mention of the Queen’s children this season) – but Wilson sees this as strength, not a weakness.

Listening to a recording of the singing at the funeral, the Queen – alone – finally sheds real tears. Maybe, as the Queen, it’s something she can only do in private.

Title musings. “Aberfan” is the name of the mining village and is known for the terrible accident in which 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives. The word is perfect as the title of the episode.

Bits and pieces

One great thing about doing episodes for streaming on Netflix is that they are no longer constrained by having to fit into a certain amount of time with breaks at points for commercials.

The teacher’s last command to the schoolkids is to get under the desks. This was the time of “duck and cover”, the training given to children for what they were supposed to do in case of a nuclear attack. I don’t think it would help much in a nuclear attack, but maybe being under a desk gave some of them the pockets of air that they needed to survive.

I guess they didn’t use dogs to sniff out those who were trapped – or at least they didn’t hire any for The Crown.

One of the things I have mixed feelings about are all the camera shots that start and often stay focused on the backs of the actors’ heads. Is this because the director knows that the wigmakers are more likely to approximate the appearances of these real people in comparison to the features of the actors?

The day-by-day recounting reminds me of The Queen, the movie about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, which is unsurprising as they were written by same man, Peter Morgan.

From The Guardian: “We had a therapist to help all the people who were recreating such a horrific scene,” said producer Oona O Beirn. “People who live there are still traumatised, of course, and we found they’d never been offered help before. Now we are trying to arrange more.”

The Queen regrets not going to Aberfan earlier, but the people of Aberfan were too busy to worry about it. She has visited many times since.

Quotes

Queen Elizabeth: Why would I go? The Crown visits hospitals – not the scenes of accidents.

Harold Wilson: What about Lord Robens, head of the coal board?
Andrew: He was notified, but he’s being invested as Chancellor of Surrey University today and saw no reason to postpone the investiture.
Harold Wilson: What? Make sure he’s there by tomorrow morning, will you?

Woman: It was a disaster waiting to happen – and no one listened.

Harold Wilson: I didn’t say put on a show. I said, comfort people.

Princess Margaret: It was unbelievably awful. Miners, used to digging for coal, now digging to reach their children.

Miner: Buried alive, by the National Coal Board. That’s what I want to see written on my child’s death certificate.

Harold Wilson: We can’t be everything to everyone and still be true to ourselves. We do what we have to as leaders. That’s our job.

Harold Wilson: In a way, your absence of emotion is a blessing. No one needs hysteria from a head of state.

Overall Rating

The part of the episode showing the accident and what happened in the village afterwards is so gut-twistingly well done that I must give Aberfan four out of four tears.

Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

4 comments:

Billie Doux said...

I actually didn't know anything about this particular disaster, and watching it happen was absolutely devastating. An outstanding episode, very hard to watch.

sunbunny said...

Before the episode, I assumed Aberfan was the site of a coal mine collapse, which is a logical deduction. When we started focusing on school kids during the episode, I grew worried and fled to Wikipedia where I was informed of what I was about to watch. How horrific. That it would hit a school?? I mean...no words. I don't know if it was intentional or not but Wilson being told during the ribbon cutting irrepressibly reminded me of Bush being told about 9/11. This episode was heartbreaking and probably the best of the season (though I really enjoyed the Margaret ones too).

sunbunny said...

A quick (possibly spoilery) note about later in the season: we actually do see the Queen wipe away another tear in the finale...

Victoria Grossack said...

In preparation for the review, I did a little research before watching - which made the episode very, very hard to watch. I kept pausing, not just to take notes (normal for a review) but to take a break from the intensity of the emotion, and I had to force myself to continue.