How The Crown Recreated the Tragedy of Aberfan Onscreen

On October 21, 1966, a coal tip flooded by heavy rains collapsed in Aberfan, Wales, engulfing components of the village, together with the Pantglas Junior College, and killing 116 kids and 28 adults. The catastrophe was dramatized for the primary time onscreen within the third season of The Crown; the episode, titled “Aberfan,” particulars the day main as much as the tragedy and its aftermath, because the city’s surviving inhabitants dig by way of the rubble and finally obtain a go to from Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). It’s a harrowing and palpably sensible hour of TV, present nearly as a stand-alone movie in its depth and weird plot construction. It’s no shock, then, that lots of the sequence crew are nominated for an Emmy for the episode.

“This stepped method outdoors The Crown’s consolation zone,” explains Martin Childs, the present’s manufacturing designer, who’s nominated for Excellent Manufacturing Design for a Narrative Interval or Fantasy Program. “That is one thing taking place massively someplace apart from one of many palaces. It’s a narrative that actually wanted telling. It could be fully mistaken to name it a breath of contemporary air, however it was a breath of some air that gave the viewers one thing to have a look at apart from what they’re used to.”

“There’s one thing so beneficial on this episode,” provides costume designer Amy Roberts. “Doing a miner or a miner’s spouse effectively is as vital as doing the queen effectively. And, really, as fascinating.”

Childs, Roberts and cinematographer Adriano Goldman inform concerning the element, duty and emotion concerned with pulling off “Aberfan.”

Reimaging Aberfan in 1966

Childs and his group compiled about 40 units for the “Aberfan” episode, together with the village itself. As a substitute of filming within the precise city of Aberfan, manufacturing traveled to Cwmaman, a former coal mining city within the coronary heart of Wales. They used present rows of houses, and the group turned the home facades again to their ‘60s iterations by repainting doorways, changing home windows, and modifying something that regarded too trendy. Additionally they altered any seen interiors, including in drapes and portray partitions. All modifications have been supported by city’s present inhabitants, who needed to see the story instructed. The delicate pops of pink all through the village, which echo the queen’s brick-colored ensemble, have been purposeful.

“I very a lot needed it to be the colours of the earth,” Childs notes. “I needed the village of Aberfan to be one thing a part of nature and a part of the earth, after which this dreadful factor occurs to it. It’s a method of contrasting with the royal family and the palaces.”

A set drawing of Pantglas Junior College.


The schoolhouse was constructed twice, as soon as round an present construction in Cwmaman after which as a destroyed model at London’s Elstree Studios. Childs copied actual objects from the Pantglas Junior College classroom, together with the desks, from images documenting the objects dug out of the rubble.

“Individuals walked into that schoolroom after we’d dressed it and stated, ‘This takes me again to the 1960s,’ Childs says. “It’s all within the element. The most important problem was respecting the reminiscence of the individuals who had lived by way of this and the reminiscence of those that had died.”

Childs’ onscreen interpretation of the Pantglas Junior College classroom.


The inhabitants of the city, a lot of whom have been performed by Welsh locals, additionally wanted to really feel genuine to the time and place. Roberts centered on garments from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, reasonably than 1966, as a result of not everybody would’ve owned one thing present. The colours are muted to mirror the climate and somber tone, with lots of the items un-ironed or folded with haphazard creases.

“I didn’t need them to suppose they have been costumes for a second,” explains Roberts. “All people felt that we needed to be massively respectful, greater than something.” She continues, “It’s tough while you do a becoming and suppose, ‘These trousers look a bit brief’ or ‘That jacket seems to be a bit massive.’ You cease your self entering into to appropriate that, as a result of folks appear like that, don’t they? Individuals purchase off the peg and so they’re not going to take the trousers up or allow them to down. They’ve bought higher issues to do.”

Digging by way of the ruins

The catastrophe itself was rendered onscreen with a mixture of sensible pictures and VFX. Filming the residents of Aberfan as they dug by way of the black mud and ruins of buildings in quest of their family members was intense and difficult. Childs constructed the rubble on the backlot of Elstree Studios, partially resulting from logistical considerations and partly as a result of it might’ve been in dangerous style to bodily replicate the tragedy so near Aberfan. Whereas a few of the particles and dust is actual, many of the ruined city set was constructed and faked utilizing a skeleton framework with layers of dust and detritus.

“I discovered from my days on Shakespeare In Love, after I thought it might be enjoyable to have actual dust on the ground of the Globe Theatre,” Childs recollects. “What I didn’t understand was that below the studio lights, all of the bugs that lived within the dust would come alive. As quickly as Joseph Fiennes began having his legs bitten throughout rehearsal, I spotted, ‘We have now to faux it a bit.’ You do study on the job that regardless of how a lot you need issues to be completely actual, it’s higher to have some first rate fakery concerned.”

Forward of filming, Goldman met with Nigel Walters, a former BBC Movie cameraman who was one of many first to reach in Aberfan the night time of the catastrophe. “He instructed me essentially the most disturbing factor was the silence,” Goldman notes. “It was completely quiet so you’ll be able to hear the survivors in the event that they’re knocking on one thing or making an attempt to get the eye of the rescuers.”

A nonetheless from the episode’s depiction of the catastrophe aftermath.


Goldman and director Benjamin Caron needed to echo that emotion within the visuals. They used minimal lighting and introduced in fog so the folks of Aberfan seem principally in silhouette. In actuality, the city had misplaced its electrical energy, so all the sunshine got here from the rescue groups, hearth division, and flashlights.

“It’s a practical method, to be trustworthy, and it makes it so unhappy,” explains Goldman. “They’re all dad and mom, the rescuers, on the identical emotional stage, and it didn’t make a lot sense to us to truly determine every of them. They turn out to be ghosts looking for the youngsters and that felt to us like a really sturdy picture. It was additionally enjoying with this black-and-white setting the place all the colour is gone as a result of the youngsters are useless.”

Remembering the victims

Following the tragedy, the city of Aberfan held a memorial service for many who died. Within the episode, it’s attended by Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), though in actual life, he wasn’t really current for the service (he visited with the queen later). To recreate the stark drama of the second, the manufacturing design group constructed a number of child-sized coffins, which have been specified by a grave they dug into the sphere. VFX prolonged the pictures of the coffins and the group to make them bigger in scale, with the digital camera pulling out in a drone shot to disclose the coffins organized in a cross.

Prince Philip (Tobia Menzies) attends the memorial service for the Aberfan catastrophe victims.

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“It’s a painful factor to do, however nothing just like the ache folks suffered in actual life,” Childs says of setting up the coffins. “It was our duty to get that proper, so sure, we constructed the grave and sure, we constructed the coffins. The emotional response to a child-sized coffin is kind of one thing.”

“It was a really, very emotional day,” Goldman provides. “The preacher’s speech is so transferring and he’s [Hugh Thomas] such a beautiful actor in the way in which he delivered the phrases. All of the extras have been really crying. The extras have been primarily from Wales, so it was a narrative all of them knew. They actually understood the story and felt it on the day.”

For Roberts, it was vital to showcase actual folks, reasonably than deal with the palace and royal household. She needed to maintain issues genuine with out being too costume-y or making the group look downtrodden, particularly in a second of remembrance. “It’s a Welsh mining village and it’s poor, however it’s not raggedy,” she notes. “It’s not Dickens. These are proud working folks.”

The Queen (lastly) arrives

When the queen first hears the information of the Aberfan catastrophe within the episode, she’s sitting at her desk within the palace, wearing a floral pink shirt. That look was intentional for Roberts, who needed to distinction the truth of the harrowing scene in Wales with the queen’s lack of ability to take motion.

“There’s a journey for her by way of that story,” Roberts explains. “She doesn’t know she’s going to get dangerous information and I favored the sense that she’s clear and fairly and motherly. And Margaret, when she receives the information, has are available from a celebration in a glittery costume and a fur coat. That’s life, isn’t it? Occasions occur and also you don’t know they’re taking place. They’re carrying one thing fairly inappropriate.”

She provides, “The colours are tender, female, motherly—and but these are all of the issues she will be able to’t be. When Wilson is making an attempt to steer her that it might be a very good transfer to go there, she’s carrying that Madonna blue, a comforting colour, and but that’s the one factor she will be able to’t be. And she or he is aware of it.”

The queen (Olivia Colman) visits Aberfan.

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The queen lastly agrees to go to Aberfan, and Roberts needed to recreate the brick-red coat and fur-lined hat the true queen wore to the precise element. “The Crown DNA is a steadiness,” she says. “It’s a steadiness of getting actual moments and key moments, just like the queen in Aberfan, just like the Silver Jubilee, proper. The basic ceremonies folks will most likely know or bear in mind or can simply reference and occasions which might be completely recorded, you need to try this. Then there’s a lot in between the place you don’t know what goes on and you are able to do flights of fancy. I don’t know if I’ve considered utilizing brick pink, and I believe it’s fairly startling in, hopefully, a great way.”

All through the episode, the queen usually seems in silhouette from behind—a visible trademark of The Crown. “Aberfan” ends because the digital camera strikes up from behind the queen to a close-up shot of her face as a single tear lastly trickles down her cheek. It’s the one time within the episode she reveals actual emotion, and the camerawork within the episode displays that.

“These [silhouette] pictures are very a lot a part of the visible grammar of the present,” Goldman explains. “But additionally, it made whole sense to do extra of these pictures from behind on the ‘Aberfan’ episode as a result of she’s in deep battle. She can’t present emotion, she by no means cries—and she or he’s very open to the Prime Minister saying that. Taking pictures her from behind places us along with her and makes us share her anxiousness and inner battle.”

Emily Zemler is a contract author primarily based in London.

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