I’ve only seen four episodes of Netflix’s new prestige series “The Crown,” which will follow the life of Queen Elizabeth II from the early days of her marriage up until the present day. It’s extraordinarily well done, with beautiful production values and solid performances all around. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that this series may go down in history as the finest anti-smoking public service announcement ever filmed.
The first episode begins with King George VI coughing up blood due to his metastasizing lung cancer. In the next shot, he’s shown happily puffing away at a cigarette, blithely ignorant of the correlation between his smoking habit and the blood in his spittle that he attributes to “the cold weather.” Not long after, young Prince Philip is seen lighting up, too, which prompts this exchange with his soon-to-be-wife Elizabeth.
“Must you really smoke?” she asks. “You know how I hate it.”
“Pity,” he answers. “Because I love it so very much. But like a great many other things, I’m going to give it all up for you.”
And so he does, making Elizabeth and Philip unique among the royals. The king continues to indulge his habit, even after he has an entire lung removed. He coughs and sputters his way through all of his scenes until (spoiler alert) he passes away at the age of 56 near the beginning of the second episode. In contrast, the real-life Elizabeth and Philip are still with us today at the ripe old ages of 90 and 95, respectively. Surely that early decision to “give it all up” is the reason this current monarch has enjoyed such longevity, a point that is inescapable while watching this show.
In all the films and TV shows that were popular when Queen Elizabeth took the throne, smoking was depicted as glamorous and sophisticated. For me, that makes many of those old movies rather hard to watch. It was just a few years ago that I finally saw “Casablanca” for the first time, and while that classic has a reputation for being a magnificent romance for the ages, the only thing I could think about was how bad everyone must have smelled. Even in all the love scenes, Humphrey Bogart is smoking like a chimney, and you wonder how Ingrid Bergman can kiss him without gagging. Some clever YouTuber decided to make a video called “Casablanca: Non-Smoking Version.” The video is 35 seconds long.
This is one area, then, where pop culture has changed for the better. Consider that in 2002, only 35 percent of movies with a G, PG or PG-13 rating were smoke-free. As of 2015, that number is 62 percent, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC has found that there is a direct correlation between smoking on screen and young people choosing to take up the habit, and they estimate that if the MPAA were to assign an R rating to all movies that feature smoking, it would “reduce the number of teen smokers by nearly 1 in 5 (18 percent) and prevent 1 million deaths from smoking among children alive today.”
That would be a good thing, even though it would brand “The Crown” with an R rating, too. I still think it makes for a good PSA, though. I can’t imagine any teenager watching King George coughing and hacking himself to death coming away with a positive image of smoking, even though "The Crown: Non-Smoking Version" might not be much longer than 35 seconds.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.