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The Crown's John Lithgow on How Winston Churchill Helped Queen Elizabeth Save a 'Very Fragile' Monarchy

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She’s Britain’s longest-reigning queen now, but even Princess Elizabeth needed guidance when she was unexpectedly thrust onto the throne at age 25 amid a make-or-break moment for the monarchy.

Netflix’s highly anticipated new series The Crown focuses on the life of current monarch Queen Elizabeth II (played as a young woman by Claire Foy) and her rise to power following the sudden death of her father George VI (Jared Harris). Enter Winston Churchill (John Lithgow).

Speaking with PEOPLE, Lithgow explains the relationship between the two powerful figures and how Elizabeth II came to be the iconic queen she is today.

“Suddenly the beloved King George dies at age 56, very young and very unexpectedly and it’s a great trauma to a constitutional monarchy, because although Elizabeth knew she would eventually be queen, she’s does not know what’s going on,” the 71-year-old says. “So Churchill’s relationship with her is the old Victorian, the imperialist desperately trying to save the monarchy at a moment where it’s very, very fragile.”

Netflix
Netflix

“He teaches her that she’s got to be strong and the arc of the entire series is eventually she’s assuming that role and him losing the role as her mentor,” the actor continues. “It’s really very touching.”

Lithgow adds of the show: “In a way, it’s the classiest soap opera ever made with incredibly high stakes. It’s fascinating. So much of it derives from the fact that they are unknowable. The entire series is based on the public and the private and there’s no one more private than the royal family.”

The Crown is currently streaming on Netflix.