How true is The Crown?
The suspicion that it has a partial basis in fact makes the saga splendidly and addictively watchable
Every time there is a new series of The Crown released on Netflix, its creator Peter Morgan and its producers must sit back, pour themselves a large Dubonnet and gin (the Queen Mother’s favourite drink, purportedly) and wait for the inevitable controversy. This year has been no exception. There were the expected disagreements about Gillian Anderson’s performance as Margaret Thatcher, which has been pilloried for everything from being pantomimic and overblown to excessively sympathetic and understanding, but its presentation of the Royals has also come in for heavy and consistent criticism.
This came from directions that the makers may not have expected, including one letter-writer to the Daily Telegraph who described themselves as ‘unprepared for the depth of injustice on display – particularly towards Prince Charles’ on the grounds that ‘the show’s portrayal of his fishing technique was utterly unjustifiable’. The writer concluded that ‘never has a television series managed to lose credibility with such aplomb.’
Annoyed anglers aside, the first and second series of The Crown largely attracted adulation from both royalists and republicans, in no small part thanks to Claire Foy’s revelatory and hugely sympathetic portrayal of the young Queen Elizabeth. The third and fourth series have proved to be more divisive. The casting of Olivia Colman, fresh from winning an Oscar as the monstrous Queen Anne in The Favourite, was not met with the acclaim that was expected, with criticisms that Colman was insufficiently regal and bland in the role. There was also the sense, by the third season, that Morgan’s scripts, whether written solo or co-written with other writers, were often trying to turn marginal historical footnotes into amped-up drama.
It may well have been the case that there was a suggestion that Lord Mountbatten should replace the Prime Minister Harold Wilson (as in the episode ‘Coup’), or that Prince Philip began a deeply important friendship with the Dean of Windsor, Robin Woods, as a result of his frustration with his lack of achievement (‘Moondust’), but it often felt that Morgan was exaggerating relatively minor details and thereby transforming them into intriguing, if largely fictionalised, drama aimed at an international audience of millions.
As usual, the Royal Family has made no public comment on The Crown
It also became a frustrating trademark of the show, and one that has continued into its fourth series, that the characters have to lay out subtext quite explicitly, in heavy-handed dialogue that makes their innermost thoughts and feelings unambiguous. Therefore, in the first episode of the fourth series (‘Gold Stick’), there is a scene between Mountbatten and Prince Charles in which the older man explicitly criticises the prince for his extra-marital affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, shortly before Mountbatten was blown up by the IRA.
For many, the niceties of accuracy in the series are irrelevant when compared to the gripping drama, and the dramatic inventions are outweighed by the lesser-known but often fascinating storylines that the show has chosen to explore. Certainly, when it comes to my own area of royal expertise – the travails of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, and the Duke’s troubled relationship with his brother George VI – those storylines are more or less accurate, with Alex Jennings a superbly assured and caddish Edward. Morgan and his researchers manage to find tiny but telling – and historically correct – details to illuminate character, such as the Duke’s sardonic dismissal of Elizabeth as ‘Shirley Temple’, and her clenched, cold response when she discovers her uncle’s poor opinion of her. Only in Edward’s final appearance in the third series episode, ‘Dangling Man’, is he presented in a sentimentalised fashion, as a quasi-mentor to the young Charles, and is played with full twinkle by Derek Jacobi.
As usual, the Royal Family has made no public comment on The Crown. To do so would not only go against their unofficial motto of ‘never complain, never explain’, but also create a dilemma. If they were to make any gesture of support or approval for the programme, it would then be viewed as little less than the unvarnished truth, effectively offering the makers carte blanche to do what they liked with a royal imprimatur. But in the more likely event that they were to criticise it, the controversy would only lead to greater publicity and enhanced viewing figures. Locking up Morgan, Colman and the rest of the cast in the Tower of London for high treason is – unfortunately? – no longer an option.
Yet this time round, the few comments that have been allowed to permeate out from Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and beyond have been more pointed, perhaps because this series is the first to deal with relatively recent history that any viewer over the age of 45 will have at least some recollection of. They have not been flattering. A ‘friend’ of Charles has let it be known that ‘He has never watched The Crown. I shouldn’t think he knows it’s coming out’, but the loquacious royal chum has gone on to say that ‘The series has no regard to the actual people involved who are having their lives hijacked and exploited… The public shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this is an accurate portrayal. This is trolling with a Hollywood budget’. The Prince himself is distressed to have been portrayed in an ‘unflattering light’. His son William has gone further, with a source saying ‘The Duke of Cambridge is none too pleased with it. He feels that both his parents are being exploited and being presented in a false, simplistic way to make money’. He will appear in the fifth and sixth series as a major character; doubtless his ‘friends’ will offer further commentary then.
The female Royals have been less damning about the programme. Camilla, the supposed possessor of a ‘wonderful sense of humour’, has been said to be a keen aficionado of the series, regularly turning in to watch herself by portrayed by Emerald Fennell while armed with a glass of red wine, and Princess Anne, who has been sympathetically interpreted by Erin Doherty, has merely commented that she finds it ‘quite interesting’. And Princess Eugenie – herself no stranger to real-life controversy thanks to her father’s blundering Newsnight interview – has been positively gushing about the programme, saying ‘It is filmed beautifully. The music is wonderful, the story is beautiful. You feel very proud to watch it. I can’t speak for everyone, but that’s how I felt when I watched it.’
It is the visceral response to historical events that any filmmaker must try and capture
Of course, there have been other, more obviously sympathetic presentations of royals present and past, as well as considerably more damning ones. Peter Morgan’s first portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen, which won an Oscar for its star Helen Mirren, dealt even-handedly with the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in 1997. It was widely believed to be largely accurate, thanks to Morgan drawing on numerous off-the-record briefings by courtiers and aides.
In fact, actors who have wanted to win awards have often looked to royalty to do so: as well as Colman and Mirren, Colin Firth was rewarded for stammering his way through The King’s Speech as George VI, Judi Dench received an Oscar for a pungent nine-minute cameo in Shakespeare in Love and Katherine Hepburn was honoured for her Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. And the distinguished likes of Cate Blanchett, Kenneth Branagh, Helena Bonham Carter and Nigel Hawthorne have all been nominated for similarly regal roles, to say nothing of the plethora of awards that Foy collected (including a Golden Globe and an Emmy) for her appearance in the first two seasons of The Crown.
It is not at all hard to see the continued appeal of stories about kings, queens and their scions. At any point in our national history, the role of the royal family has its own symbolic relationship to the lives of everyone in the country. Everyone over the age of 35 remembers where they were when they learned of Princess Diana’s death, and of the cathartic, extraordinary months that followed. Talking to my 96 year old grandmother about the events of the abdication crisis in 1936, she was still able to remember the national horror that greeted Edward VIII’s decision, and the scorn in which Wallis Simpson was held in. It is this visceral response to historical events that any filmmaker must try and capture, and to do so in an entertaining and thought-provoking fashion. Most would regard The Crown as having succeeded in this endeavour, as long as it is approached as a creative work of fiction rather than a sober exercise in fact.
And, of course, its inventions can lead to some amusing creativity. The Daily Mail recently ran a sidebar attempting to separate fact from fiction in the first four episodes of the Crown’s new series. Thus, while we learn that it is indeed false that Britain occupied Ireland in the late 70s, that Princess Diana was dressed as a tree in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when she first met Prince Charles and that the last thing that Charles said to Mountbatten before he died was to call him a traitor, there is the splendidly deadpan observation that the show’s presentation of the Royal family as ‘bloodthirsty and obsessed with hunting’ is at least ‘partly true’. It is this suspicion that at least some of which we watch has a partial basis in fact that gives it the aura of respectability and insight, rather than mere gossip – and in turn, makes the saga such a splendidly and addictively watchable one.
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