'The Crown' Tackles the Aberfan Disaster

The disaster devastated a small village in Wales.

Aberfan Disaster
(Image credit: I C Rapoport)

Last fall, during filming of The Crown season three, the show's producers released a statement announcing that an episode of the newest season would cover the Aberfan disaster, one of the most devastating events in modern British history. The cast and producers of The Crown made clear that they took care to speak to survivors and remain sensitive and respectful in the show's depiction of the event—and the episode was not filmed in Aberfan itself, out of respect to what the village has already endured.

The Aberfan disaster of 1966 occurred on an otherwise unremarkable day in the small Welsh mining village of Aberfan. A poorly managed spoil tip collapsed, causing a large slurry of coal waste down a hill—to those at the bottom of the hill, it would have seemed like a black avalanche—that hit the local junior school just after classes had begun that morning. The school was all but buried in the debris; 144 people died, 116 of which were children. The disaster has been described as "the mistake that cost a village its children."

Immediately following the disaster, the BBC reported, there was complete silence. A teacher in the adjacent school later said: "Everything was so quiet...As if nature had realized that a tremendous mistake had been made and nature was speechless.”

The Disaster scene at Aberfan, South Wales. 21st October 1966

The scene of the disaster.

(Image credit: Mirrorpix)

Heartbreakingly, many residents of Aberfan, desperately seeking to rescue their children, dug through the rubble all through the day and night. The disaster occurred just after 9.15 a.m.; after 11 a.m., no more survivors were found. In the hours afterwards, members of the media, politicians, and various royals—including Princess Margaret's husband Lord Snowdon, who was of Welsh descent and was one of the first public figures on the scene—descended on Aberfan, along with rescue workers. The tragedy still haunts Britain; the 50th anniversary of the disaster saw a multitude of remembrance services, one of which was attended by Prince Charles, and many shared poignant memories of the event.

In a 2018 statement, The Crown's producers said:

"The third season of The Crown will cover the major historical events of Elizabeth II's reign from 1963-1977 and all strongly felt the Aberfan disaster and the events that followed must be included, especially as it continues to hold a deep resonance for the nation and the Queen herself. As producers, we feel a responsibility to remain true to the memory and the experience of the survivors, so have met with community leaders, as well as the people of Aberfan on a number of occasions as part of our in-depth research and to discuss our approach. We have been made to feel welcome by the residents who have been very helpful in providing insight into one of the most tragic events of the 20th Century."

Tobias Menzies, who plays Prince Philip in season three spoke to Wales Online about the decision to cover the tragedy: "I was aware of the name, but I didn’t know a great deal about it, actually." Menzies added to Wales Online: "When we were there, we were talking to local people and people felt pleased that the story was being retold...I certainly felt confident that it was going to be told in a very respectful way that it wasn’t going to be sensationalised. Everyone through the production team from Peter [Morgan, The Crown's showrunner] down were really dedicated to doing that event justice."

Indeed, the "Aberfan" episode is the best episode of season three, and quite possibly the strongest of the entire series. The tragedy is masterfully, painstakingly rendered, and the entire cast, particularly Colman, puts in Emmy-deserving work in their portrait of a royal family that feels hopeless. The episode reveals the most human side of Colman's Queen that we ever see in season three—a woman who, contrary to her public perception as "cold," is desperately worried that she isn't capable of feeling the emotions in public that her role demands of her, and, of course, has long been discouraged from showing in any sense. It's an intriguing look into what it must feel like to be the woman forced to be utterly stoic 95 percent of the time, and openly emotional during the remaining 5 percent, when tragedy hits her nation and she is called to mourn. In the final moment of the episode, while listening to a rendition of the hymn sung at a mass funeral by the residents of Aberfan, she begins to cry—sincerely, and in private.

Aberfan Funeral

The mass funeral of 81 of the children who died.

(Image credit: George Freston)

Much has been written about the real-life tragedy of Aberfan, particularly about how preventable the disaster was. The National Coal Board has been blamed for the event—the spoil tip was built atop a foundation that included streams and springs, which had contributed to previous, smaller slides down the hill. This spoil tip itself was a known problem to NCB management in the region, the official tribunal found, and yet nothing had been done about the clear risk to the village. While the NCB was not fined or charged, the disaster did lead to the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act of 1969, which sought to make sure these mistakes were not repeated.

You can read vivid, in-depth accounts of the Aberfan disaster here and here.