The Crown: Aberfan
November 20, 2019 7:51 AM - Season 3, Episode 3 - Subscribe

A horrible disaster in the Welsh town of Aberfan leaves scores of children dead, but when the Queen takes a week to decide to visit the town to offer solace to its people, she must confront her reasons for postponing the trip.
posted by Cash4Lead (23 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ach, that was hard to watch. I remember the earlier MeFi thread on Aberfan, but seeing the tip coming down on the school is something else.
posted by rewil at 9:26 AM on November 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

I haven't been watching this show but I leaned about this disaster from a folk song, The Aberfan Coal Tip Tragedy, which always makes me cry. I might watch this episode just for that reason. How many died in Aberfan/when the coal tip came rumbling down?/How many children will never grow old/and how many lives purchased how many tons of coal?
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:41 AM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'd never heard of this disaster and had no idea what was coming. Man, that was hard to watch.
posted by Liesl at 12:30 PM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think this may be the strongest episode this show has done yet. I finished the season last night and it's definitely the strongest of Season 3. Didn't know anything about this before; the undercurrent of danger music in the intro alerted me that something was going to happen, but I did not expect that, even when the sinkhole opens on the coal tip.

Moments that stick out:
- When the coal slurry comes bursting through the wall of the school
- The miners digging in the rubble, using their hard hats and their fingers (!) trying to pull their children out
- Utter silence when the whistle blows signaling someone heard a noise -- a child alive -- from underneath the pile
- Olivia Colman's delivery of "Seven!" when she meets a miner who has lost nearly every child in his family to the coal
posted by basalganglia at 1:43 PM on November 20, 2019 [10 favorites]

I had only heard of the disaster a little while back when news that the show would be doing an episode about it hit the internet. I only briefly read about it because I wanted to let the episode tell the story. Boy. that was heartwrenching. Seeing the parents desperately clawing at the coal waste with bare hands is what killed me. I can't begin to imagine the horror and pain they felt that day and every day afterwards.

This article from the Guardian is an interesting look at the filming for this episode."Those relatives and neighbours who took up an invitation from the producers to appear as extras in some scenes were also offered counselling for the first time in 53 years. And there will be more to come."

It seems like there's been quite the response to the show's depiction about whether or not the Queen was really crying during her visit. I'm not sure where I stand on that. It's an interesting story to tell, but if the Queen really was crying, then it's a rather cruel thing for the show to do.
posted by acidnova at 2:54 PM on November 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

I try to go into series like this as unspoiled as reasonable, but I'd already read a fictionalized version of the coal mine disaster George V (The Queen's grandfather) was nearby for. I'd think they'd have some protocol for that based on his experience, and got her there sooner.

That said, it was horrifying watching it happen. A very powerful episode. :(
posted by tilde at 3:52 PM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

My introduction to the story of Aberfan was from Carl Jenkin's composition "Cantata Memoria - For The Children" (article about this piece) - commissioned by Welsh Channel 4 on the 50th anniversary of the disaster. Would recommend. It is interesting to note that counsellors were made available to those Aberfan residents who choose to appear as extras in this episode; after all this time it is still felt as a raw tragedy: made worse by the failure of any prosecutions of those in the NCB responsible or by the Government's taking of money from the town's disaster fund to help finance the clean up of the mess.

I thought the final scene between the queen and Harold Wilson - where they both confine in each other about their weak points as leaders - was amazing. The show's writers have taken licence to make up conversations that have no historic evidence of having taken place - and if they ever did neither party would have revealed the details. In this case the speculation seems dramatically warranted as a way of trying to explain the queen's behaviour at the time and since.

Recently, the idea of "Privileged Abandonment" as form of trauma has been floated in connection with children who were entrusted to caregivers and boarding schools at an age when they would normally have been close to their parents. This can create exactly the same kind of emotional detachment that is depicted in the queen in this episode (a distance which, George Monbiot has pointed out, affects many recent incumbents of Downing Street as well as figures in Buckingham Palace).
posted by rongorongo at 12:54 AM on November 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

There are plenty of pictures of Queen Elizabeth crying, as recently as last week's Remembrance Day celebration. I know they're taking liberties and all that, but it seemed an odd choice for the writers to give her that speech about not feeling anything even at the birth of her child.
posted by something something at 7:39 AM on November 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would argue that the show has always been republican in its sensibilities, and that this season so far (this is the last episode I’ve watched so far) seems to be making an argument for the weight of tradition and isolation leaching something fundamental out of these people. Compare the Elizabeth of season 1, who didn’t want to live in a palace, to the Elizabeth of this season, who has barely left the palace.

To read it as anti Elizabeth is fair, I think, but I also think it’s incorrect. It’s anti monarchy.
posted by Automocar at 3:17 PM on November 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

Institutions corrupt individuals - this show has the same perspective as The Wire in that sense
posted by bq at 4:19 PM on November 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

I thought this was a particularly good episode -- I had not heard of the disaster, so it took me entirely by surprise.
posted by jeather at 5:44 PM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh I was pretty sure something terrible was going to happen after all the lingering shots of kids singing, etc.
posted by bq at 4:10 PM on November 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

Twice this week have I instantly been able to match up the man-made disaster that took place in a foreign land to the opening title card/setting of place of something I was watching/listening to. I don't really think of myself as morbid but I might have to reexamine that assumption. (The other was a podcast about the Lac Mégantic railway disaster.)

I wouldn't necessarily have pegged this show as having overtly republican sensibilities in the first two seasons (ambivalence, sure) though maybe I was just blinded by the pretty costumes and now that we're in the years of ugly fashion I'm just noticing it more? But yeah, this season is kind of shaping up to be polite Succession--wow these people are broken and have stupid "problems". We'll see.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:48 AM on November 23, 2019

I've only seen this episode and the one with the art expert spy and between them I'd say the people making this show hate Elizabeth specifically. She comes off very poorly in both.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:32 AM on November 24, 2019

I couldn’t disagree more, Pope Guilty. You’d best make that decision of how she’s portrayed by watching the entire show.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 9:02 AM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't feel she comes off poorly at all. It's all in the silences and subtext, but I feel like Colman is displaying a lot of inner conflict over what to do in this episode. At times to me it felt like she was using what she felt was the protocol of where The Crown goes or doesn't as a means of protecting herself from the emotions she seemed to be having about the tragedy. Note how eager, yet reticent, she is when Phillip returns - both wanting and needing to ask what he'd seen, but frightened of how bad it might be.

That's very much the essential drama of the show - her private life and experience warring with the face she shows to the public. I feel like the series mostly admires the effort it must have taken to live with that for so many years.
posted by dnash at 10:04 AM on November 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think it's reductive to describe the show as republican or monarchist in its leanings. The whole series has focused on the question of what Elizabeth has had to navigate over the course of her reign to keep the monarchy relevant and useful in a world that is changing so quickly. From Tommy Lascelles telling her that any break from tradition leads to things like the abdication in the first season to Lord Altrincham helping her see that adaptations need to be made to grappling with her role in moments like Aberfan. I don't think people appreciate just how much the world changed in the middle of the 20th century. You can see it in the architecture of the buildings they shot in this season, which are decidedly modern in a way that non-palace scenes in the first two season weren't. I don't see the show as leaning one way or another in the struggle about whether the monarchy is still relevant, I just see it as looking directly at the struggle.
posted by dry white toast at 2:43 PM on November 25, 2019 [11 favorites]

There is something very weird to me about regular people giving the royals gifts when the royals come into their life. A traumatised child gives the queen a bouquet of flowers - it seems like wherever the royals go regular people give them a gift. Maybe I'm just an American who doesn't understand tradition. That practice struck me as extra off on this occasion.

I could feel this episode trying really hard not to make this tragedy all about the Queen and what she does or doesn't get right. I think they walked the line fairly well.
posted by Emmy Rae at 10:05 AM on December 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

It looked like they actually made it less horrific for TV. From that article,
The crisis whistle sounded in the colliery and miners, their headlamps still lit, ran to the school where women were clawing at the slurry - “some had no skin on their hands” - trying in vain to reach children who could be heard crying.
I think they conveyed the horror of it well. I had no idea of the tragedy of Aberfan or of the coal board trying desperately to avoid blame. I also appreciated the small touches. Menzies is a consummate actor - the twitching of his face, combined with his reactions and “Did I cry?” was enormous. As well as Tony reaching out to Margaret- despite everything, because she was the only comfort that could exist in a world so bad.
posted by corb at 10:33 AM on December 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

For the 50th anniversary of the disaster, the BBC put together a long piece. (linked in the previous Metafilter post above) It is difficult to read, especially bonehead parts like this:
Then there was the issue of compensation.

To reach an appropriate sum the Charity Commission proposed asking grief-stricken parents ‘exactly how close were you to your child?’; those found not to have been close to their children would not be compensated.

Mercifully, the proposal was never acted upon.
but it gives a through overview of before/during/after and current day Aberfan for anyone who wants to learn more.

The description of this episode that I read before watching it focused on the queen's delay before visiting the site. Then she said to her aide, something about "we visit hospitals not disasters". To me, this was almost foreshadowing Diana's death when there was a huge outcry because the queen stayed in Scotland. There was a line of dialogue in the Helen Mirren movie in which she said (paraphrasing), "She wasn't part of the royal family anymore, what do they expect me to do?" So it seems that scriptwriters tend to characterize her as "emotionally detached".
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:20 PM on December 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ah hell, just found out that the scriptwriter for this episode is the same guy who wrote "The Queen" so no surprise that the same issue crops up in both. Next time I'll read TLo's review before commenting.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:29 PM on December 20, 2019

last comment, promise. I LOVED the ending credits, how they were shot at such a high angle that you mostly just saw the shadows of the children playing. Very moving.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:52 PM on December 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Finally got around to watching this.
* Oh god, watching that giant black mass COME FOR YOU....jesus.
* I read "The Rowan" by Anne McCaffrey as a kid, I'm assuming the Rowan Mining Disaster was based off of this? (The book starts out with an entire town, except for one 3-year-old girl, getting wiped out. Welsh people, too.)
* The one time Tony's ever not an asshole, even though I do think he could have just TOLD Margaret instead of telling her to read the paper on the way out the door. Even Tony's affected by something.
* I like how Wilson and Martin (still the best secretary) attempt to persuade her, tactfully.
* I concur that the Queen showing up in an emergency would most likely interfere with dealing with the disaster and whatnot. I wouldn't send her or any out of town leader immediately to the site of a disaster either.
* But really I think she just knew she couldn't display emotion well enough and didn't want to get in trouble for that.
* Oh god, they had a kid there who did survive.
* Wilson's ah, secretary or assistant or whoever that was sure did tell him off, wow.
* Likewise Elizabeth sure did tell Wilson off.
* I did kind of enjoy the "I smoke pipes in public" speech a bit. He doesn't really relate either, but at least he's got enough sense to fake it, I guess.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:14 PM on June 9, 2021

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