The Crown: Prime Ministers from the Netflix royal drama ranked and rated - we pick our five most memorable PMs

The Queen’s relationships with her Prime Ministers, framed by their weekly audiences, is a key aspect of the success of The Crown. We profile the most memorable PMs from the series so far.

By Rhys Lewis Published: 16 November 2022 - 12.30pm
Netflix John Lithgow as Winston Churchill with Claire Foy as the Queen in The Crown

Some of the most fascinating and surprisingly emotional scenes across five seasons of The Crown take place in Buckingham Palace, where the Queen has her weekly audience with the Prime Minister of the day.

The two discuss the affairs of state and throughout the series the Queen is shown to have a shrewd political nous which can put her PMs off guard – if the strict protocols of the occasion haven’t done that already.

It’s no surprise that the audience scenes in The Crown are so well observed – before creating the series, Peter Morgan wrote a West End play called The Audience, which reimagined the weekly meetings from the Queen’s first with Winston Churchill in 1952 through to a meeting with her 12th PM, David Cameron.

In all, eight of the Queen’s first 10 Prime Ministers have featured in The Crown, with their relationship with the monarch studied in varying degrees through the audiences.

As we await the impact of Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) – newly elected at the end of season 5 – on season 6, here’s our pick of the most significant and the actors who played them.

5. John Major – Played by Jonny Lee Miller

Jonny Lee Miller as John Major in The Crown Netflix/Getty

Appears in: Season 5

If Gillian Anderson’s season 4 casting as Margaret Thatcher (see below) was confusing for admirers of the X-Files and Sex Education star, then the choice of Jonny Lee Miller as her successor was even more disturbing.

When Major – caricatured as the pea-pushing grey man of No.10 – was in power, Miller was finding fame as wide boy heroin addict Sick Boy in Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting. The Elementary actor succeeds in making Major’s contributions to the 1990s more significant than most may remember as he turns confidant to several members of the Royal Family concerned at the state of the monarchy in the 1990s.

4. Anthony Eden – Played by Jeremy Northam

Jeremy Northam as Anthony Eden in The Crown Netflix/Getty

Appears in: Seasons 1 & 2

Anthony Eden was destined to be Prime Minister. Son of a baronet and Eton-educated, he was Foreign Secretary at 38 and spent 30 years as an MP and 15 years as Winston Churchill’s deputy as Conservative leader before he got his chance, moving into No.10 and claiming a record majority at a General Election a month later. Nothing could go wrong.

And then came Suez, a catastrophic diplomatic blunder from a man regarded as the consummate diplomat. After his decision to send British troops into Egypt to reclaim the Suez Canal - a vital trade route - met with global opposition (not least from the all-powerful US), Eden’s health declined and he eventually resigned 20 months into the job.

Physically speaking, Jeremy Northam seemingly required little more than a well-groomed moustache to become Eden, but he skilfully portrays all sides of his personality – the scheming deputy who urges King George VI to persuade Churchill to resign; the supportive deputy keen to ensure he retains Churchill’s all-important backing; and the neurotic, physically weak man who ultimately, and belatedly, took on a doomed premiership. 

3. Harold Wilson – Played by Jason Watkins

Jason Watkins as Harold Wilson in The Crown Netflix/Getty

Appears in: Season 3

The Queen was 12 years into her reign when she invited her first Labour Prime Minister to form a government, and at their first awkward audience, neither monarch nor minister are sure of what to expect. A nervous Wilson swings between silence and a blunt honesty that surprises the Queen, but she soon warms to the plain-spoken Yorkshireman and later follows his advice on her response to the Aberfan disaster and Prince Charles’ Welsh education – even believing him over Mountbatten when he suggests that her uncle is plotting to overthrow the Labour government.

Jason Watkins’ transformation into Harold Wilson is so remarkably accurate that it drew praise from one of Wilson’s own granddaughters. His PM is a bundle of nervous energy, confident in his own intelligence and abilities but always mindful that he is addressing the monarch and of all the time-honoured etiquette that their meetings demand.

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One to watch: Cri de Coeur (Season 3, Episode 10) – Wilson’s final audience with the Queen is played brilliantly by Watkins and Olivia Colman. Wilson tells her that he is stepping down due to Alzheimer’s, and when the Queen tries to look on the bright side, he explains in no uncertain terms what his diagnosis means. The two talk about their initial misgivings and subsequent rapprochement – she admits letting out a cheer when he beat Edward Heath in 1974 - before the Queen, visibly moved, brings a sudden end to the audience. But as Wilson leaves, she invites herself to dinner at No.10, an honour only previously accorded to her first PM, Winston Churchill.

What the critics said: “Jason Watkins as Harold Wilson … starts a little shrilly, but ends up putting in an artful, virtuoso performance and a Wilson impersonation of which even Mike Yarwood could be proud. His quiet, sincere friendship with the Queen is understated and entirely convincing.” - Carol Midgley, The Times

2. Margaret Thatcher – Played by Gillian Anderson

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown Netflix/Getty

Appears in: Season 4

The Conservative election victory of 1979 brought a new dynamic to the Queen’s weekly audiences – for the first time in British history two women would be discussing and guiding affairs of state. So it’s no surprise that the Queen is stunned when Thatcher expresses contempt for their gender during their first audience, and the pair’s strained relationship is a regular theme of season 4.

The casting of Gillian Anderson as Britain’s first female PM couldn’t have been further from her starring role as a sex therapist in another Netflix show, Sex Education. But her dedication to the role – including months of perfecting that voice – contributed to an uncanny portrayal which not only captures Thatcher’s strengths but also her idiosyncrasies and weaknesses.

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One to watch: The Balmoral Test (Season 4, Episode 2) – Anderson won a Primetime Emmy Award (one of four accolades for the role) for her performance in Episode 4, The Favourite, but it’s in the second episode that she shows the two sides of Margaret Thatcher – the determined politician and the self-conscious grocer’s daughter who is anything but comfortable when invited for a weekend at the royals’ Scottish home. At once she becomes the victim of snobbery, mocked for her exaggerated curtsey and awkward around party games.  Thatcher makes her excuses and leaves for London, where she returns to type by dismissing her rivals from the cabinet.

What the critics said: “It's a season of next-level performances, really. Anderson's turn as Thatcher is so viscerally physical - her head held high under an armored bouffant, her replication of Thatcher's raspy, received pronunciation simply impeccable - that it's impossible to avoid the critical cliché: She is transformed.” - Kristen Baldwin, EW.com

1. Winston Churchill – Played by John Lithgow

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in The Crown Netflix/Getty

Appears in: Seasons 1-3

The first PM of the Queen’s long reign is also our No.1. The contrast between the veteran statesman and the young monarch couldn’t be more stark, but any ideas that Churchill has that a malleable Queen might unwittingly help him shore up his weakened position as Tory leader are soon dispelled as Elizabeth is unafraid to challenge him during their audiences. The two soon come to share mutual respect for each other and an understanding of how the Prime Minister can support the monarch, and vice versa.

John Lithgow’s award-winning turn as Churchill won him Emmy, Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice awards, and perfectly capture’s Churchill’s sheer presence, helped by generous padding and a frame nine inches taller than the wartime leader. He barks out orders like the time-honoured bulldog caricature, but it’s in the moments of private doubt that Lithgow excels, however, adding depth to a man all too easily capable of being played as a well-worn cliche.

One to watch: Assassins (Season 1, Episode 9) – Churchill’s vulnerability comes to the fore when his 80th birthday portrait show him tired and ageing. With ministers lining up to replace him in No.10, he finally concedes it’s time to step down.

What the critics said: “Finally there’s the biggest prima donna - the entitled, petulant, newly re-elected prime minister, Winston Churchill. John Lithgow plays the part with such a commanding presence that it becomes surprising and genuinely moving as the layers are peeled back and we see Churchill at his most vulnerable.” - Hank Stuever, Washington Post

The Crown’s other Prime Ministers

Anton Lesser, Michael Maloney and Bertie Carvel in The Crown Netflix

Three other Prime Ministers have been portrayed in The Crown:

Harold Macmillan – played by Anton Lesser – Season 2

Edward Heath – played by Michael Maloney – Season 3

Tony Blair – played by Bertie Carvel - Seasons 5 & 6

Two of the Queen’s premiers have not featured in the series: Wilson’s predecessor Alec Douglas-Home and his successor, James Callaghan.