On July 9, 1982, one of the more bizarre incidents of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign took place — right in Her Majesty’s own bedroom. An unemployed house painter named Michael Fagan broke into Buckingham Palace, walked into the Queen’s bedchamber, and had a ten-minute conversation with the British sovereign before he was arrested. Because Fagan has proved himself an unreliable narrator over the years, and it’s not unreasonable to assume the Palace’s version doesn’t tell the whole story either, this incident is ripe for the Crown treatment.
Instead of examining Fagan’s multiple break-ins through the queen’s eyes, writers Jonathan Wilson and Peter Morgan opted to use this event to scrutinize Margaret Thatcher’s divisiveness. The episode devotes much of its screen time to Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) himself, rendering him the face of the Thatcher-era downtrodden. Wilson and Morgan argue that Fagan’s desperate Palace intrusion is the direct result of the prime minister’s policies.
After vintage news footage establishes the Palace intrusion, “Fagan” flashes back to early April, where Michael Fagan’s life is as bleak as it gets. He lives alone in a gloomy council estate with two stripped-bare bunk beds revealing a family estrangement. All the Fagan scenes almost always feature a TV or radio report constantly reminding him of Margaret Thatcher’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude, or that the Falklands War is draining the nation of much-needed funds. Not exactly what one wants to hear when the most exciting part of your day is taking the piss out of a dole office worker. Fagan’s nights aren’t much better, as a pub brawl with his ex-wife’s new boyfriend signals his inability to support his kids.
Drowning in a sea of bureaucracy, Fagan visits his local Member of Parliament and numerous public assistance offices, but keeps getting the run-around. There’s no work because money is being spent on war instead of new houses. He can’t see his kids because the water damage in his flat deems it unsafe, but he can’t get past the red tape to set things right.
So on June 7, after remembering how his MP told him, in jest, to voice his complaints to the queen, Fagan climbs up a drainpipe and enters Buckingham Palace through an unlocked window. He bums around in the queen’s empty bedroom and the throne room, and helps himself to a bottle of wine before being chased away by a maid.
In the weeks following his Palace intrusion, Fagan hits rock bottom: A second scuffle with his ex-wife’s boyfriend — in front of his kids — results in the children being taken away permanently. As Thatcher declares victory in the Falklands War, the London streets are filled with jubilant crowds chanting the name of their newly popular leader. Fagan urgently needs to talk to someone who doesn’t think the prime minister is the nation’s hero.
Hey, how about the queen? She’s not participating in the celebrations, she’s skeptical of Margaret Thatcher, and she just retired to her bedroom. And guess what? She uses the toilet just like the rest of us!
The way The Crown tells it, the only reason why Fagan was able to successfully trespass a second time is because the queen didn’t want Thatcher to find out about the first break-in. It would inevitably mean more security, and, as Elizabeth tells Martin Charteris, “Buckingham Palace is too like a prison as it is.” Sounds like Diana’s been talking …
On an early summer morning, the seasoned Palace intruder quietly enters the queen’s bedroom — and this time, Elizabeth is sound asleep in her bed. While the dialogue of this scene comes from Wilson and Morgan’s imaginations, much of the detail is matched by the incident’s description in Sally Bedell Smith’s Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch.
Both Brooke and Olivia Colman are flawless in this scene, as the queen gradually realizes there’s a vagrant in her private quarters. Aside from initially screaming for Fagan to get out when he sits on the foot of her bed (which did happen IRL), she stays pretty cool throughout her ordeal. After a few pleasantries — if you can call Fagan asking the queen for a cigarette a “pleasantry” — Elizabeth’s uninvited guest gets down to business: He wants the queen to save the country from Margaret Thatcher. Naturally, the queen gives her usual do-nothing spiel about how everything will sort itself out in the end.
But hearing about Fagan’s personal experience helps her to see that sometimes people need tangible help in order to bounce back. Fagan tells the queen a story that has become increasingly familiar in 2020, especially to those of us living in the United States: “First the work dried up, then my confidence dried up. Then, the love in my wife’s eyes dried up.” And now, he’s been told he has “mental health problems.” While Fagan insists his mental state isn’t an issue (“I’m just poor”), The Crown doesn’t spend too much time delving into this subject in the long term. However, anyone living in today’s world knows that mental illness and financial strain aren’t mutually exclusive.
Elizabeth is sympathetic, and suggests he get public assistance, but all that does is demonstrate how out of touch she is. She didn’t know that Thatcher has “dismantled” those options — or that, according to Fagan, she’s gunning for the queen’s job as head of state.
The conversation ends there, when they’re interrupted by a maid carrying the queen’s morning tea. Now officially caught, Fagan is summarily arrested and dragged off by the authorities, but not before Elizabeth reassures her new acquaintance she will “bear in mind what [he] said.” As soon as she’s left alone, Elizabeth’s humanity is allowed to burst through her steely façade, and she nearly collapses from the shock.
Shortly afterward, the queen has her weekly audience with Thatcher, and true to her word, she attempts to sway the uncompromising prime minister toward compassion. After pointing out that unemployment has doubled since Thatcher took office, Elizabeth suggests the government try to help people like Michael Fagan. This is anathema to everything Thatcher stands for, calling it an “outdated and misguided notion” that it’s the government’s responsibility to assist those who have fallen on hard times. She claims that everyone has it within themselves to be remarkable.
Sigh. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Oh, and none of this applies to Michael Fagan, because he’s been given a schizophrenia diagnosis. And since Thatcher’s all heart, she recommends he be remanded to a mental hospital. The episode’s epilogue states that Fagan was “committed indefinitely to Park Lane Mental Hospital in Liverpool” after his arrest — but ended up serving only three months.
Then Thatcher has the audacity to leave the audience early: She’s got a victory parade to attend! I love the low-angle shot on Gillian Anderson here, making Thatcher look even more imposing as she brings to mind another world leader with a fondness for military parades. The queen responds with a look that can only be interpreted as, “That throne is mine, Mags.”
While hate-watching the pomp and circumstance on TV, Elizabeth starts to wonder if Fagan was on to something when he said Thatcher wanted to be head of state. Philip encourages her to let the PM have this one moment of glory, but I’m not sure the queen can. This growing rift between the two most powerful women in the country isn’t about to be mended anytime soon.
• The second photo featured in the epilogue is of Michael Fagan posing with the British punk band the Bollock Brothers. In 1983, Fagan was featured on the band’s cover track of the Sex Pistols’ classic “God Save the Queen.”