TV review

‘The Crown’ tells some harsh truths. No wonder the royal family hates it.

The Daily Beast

November 18, 2020

The royal family is reportedly upset about inaccuracies in “The Crown.” They are more likely furious at it holding an unforgiving mirror up to their flaws, failures, and cruelty.

What should a drama like The Crown do? Present events only as they occurred, word-perfect? Or make a drama from what is known, and opt for dramatic license about what is not, while remaining as faithful as possible to the generally known trajectory of history?

Your answer to this will depend on whether you expect The Crown to be drama or documentary. In reality, it is very much the former, with the authoritative air of the latter because of its fluently rendered scripts and direction, which is why Buckingham Palace sources are reportedly so upset.

Season 4 of the drama—brilliantly written, a treat to watch, do it now—has been denounced by royal sources as “drama and entertainment for commercial ends being made with no regard to the actual people involved who are having their lives hijacked and exploited. In this case, it’s dragging up things that happened during very difficult times 25 or 30 years ago without a thought for anyone’s feelings. That isn’t right or fair, particularly when so many of the things being depicted don’t represent the truth.”

A Palace source told the Mail on Sunday: “The new series paints the Prince and Duchess (Charles and Camilla) in a very unflattering light but at least at the start of reality shows like The Only Way Is Essex they admit that some scenes have been invented for entertainment. There is no sense of telling carefully nuanced stories—it’s all very two-dimensional. This is trolling with a Hollywood budget. The public shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this is an accurate portrayal of what really happened.”

“The truth” is doing a lot of work in this sweeping condemnation. Peter Morgan, the show’s creator—and one of the finest screenwriters of our time; see Frost/Nixon, The Queen, The Deal, The Special Relationship—is known for distilling lives and history into fictions that are rooted in reality.

Morgan himself has said, as The Daily Beast reported, that key scenes in the first episode of Season 4 in which Charles’ great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, writes to the prince and orders him to stop his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles and marry a “well-tempered girl” are “made up.”

But this doesn’t invalidate what we are watching; it does not mean the palace’s whining has any validity.

If “trolling” is the most devastating insult the palace can come up with, then that is an embarrassing admission in itself. It reveals not only that the palace lacks a substantial retort to The Crown’s themes and general retelling of history, but also that what The Crown is generally showing us in Season 4 is rooted in fact.

If it is not “an accurate portrayal” of what happened, what does it get wrong? How strange that the palace source—so free and easy in insulting the work of Morgan and the Crown team—doesn’t tell us. Morgan made the Queen herself intelligible and yet still mysterious in The Queen starring Helen Mirren; his writing in The Crown, similarly, is hardly that of an embittered republican. He fillets character relentlessly, but with a fascinated eye and even hand.

In the coming days, there may be more specific kvetches to add to the made-up letter. Did the Queen and Princess Anne really sit under a tree, with Anne complaining that her foreign aid work got less attention than Diana’s public appearances because of the latter’s beauty?

Did Charles and Diana really exorcise some early marital demons at the Australian sheep station early on in their 1983 tour, her saying they should be open and honest in their communication? Did Prince Philip really talk to Diana so sympathetically one Christmas, far from the railing bully we have read about?

Maybe these conversations never happened, or happened but not as we see them on screen. But the emotional ebb and flow and the feelings they illustrate did happen; we know this from royal biographies and sources who knew the main players. The Crown, Season 4, is 10 episodes long, roughly an hour per episode. It has to cover a lot of historical time in a short amount of screen time; it has to make big characters human. This it does skillfully.

If the royals were being honest watchers, they would be grateful to The Crown for being so careful in its approach towards a world of riches and privilege that does not exactly emanate nuance. (And an eye for witty detail too: see the Thatcher-at-Balmoral episodes, and the Queen’s lunchtime penchant for poached salmon.)

The drama only becomes ham-fisted when characters say things in a rush to encapsulate a banner tabloid headline or trope of the era. The genuinely fascinating Princess Anne needs more screen time in The Crown; poor Erin Doherty has to do so much character work in that scene under the tree, reciting Anne’s legendary “Naff off” to her tabloid tormentors, while not being allowed to dwell on the knot of pain and duty we can see the character feels when it comes to her position within the family.

The worst episode—and it’s not terrible, just an oddly toned and played duck—is the one devoted to infamous palace intruder Michael Fagan. One can see the temptation to try to make his story bigger—here he becomes an implausible cipher of the huge unemployment of the time, the gap between rich and poor, the anger towards then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—but the episode fails, because the conversation The Crown imagines him having with the Queen in her bedroom did not happen, at least according to Fagan in a recent interview with The Independent.

The Crown has confected a much grander encounter than the reality, which seems to be that the Queen got the hell out of there as soon as she saw him. This weird episode comes across as over-reach, not in terms of exploitative fabulism, but a writer and producers wanting to make A Bigger Social Point. This is not unusual in drama; and clearly Morgan and Co. wanted to chew on the social and economic tumult of Thatcherism, and in a drama about royalty that necessarily lacks working-class protagonists, mistakenly landed on Fagan as their temporary chief voice.

What the royals are really upset about is not the presence of made-up letters; it is seeing the very personal pain of that time recognizably reflected back at them. They know the public knows what a lousy husband Charles was to Diana; they know this young woman was gaslit and traumatized as soon as she entered the family. But all the books and newspaper articles about such things do not compare to seeing it on screen.

Here, the royal family is shown for what it is: an institution and machine that you either adapt to, get crushed by, or learn to craft a place within. The Crown Season 4 shows that the royal family used Diana, ignored her pain, and then were horrified when she grew strong herself and learned to dexterously play them at their own game.

Emma Corrin plays Diana as having a febrile but resolute poise, evolving from fragile bird to nascent power player. The final scene of this fourth season reveals that, in whatever episodes are left to come before her 1997 death is evoked, we will see more of her at her most confident and world-charming.

Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret is shown in Season 4 as a wizened seer and truth-teller; knowing how the family kiboshed her happiness with Captain Peter Townsend, she begs the Queen to stop the Charles and Diana marriage before it mutates into the disaster that she fears, rightly, it will become. The Queen does the opposite. She is horrified—until she remembers the royals’ iron oath of loyalty—by how the family has treated its disabled members, left to languish unloved in an institution.

The condemnation of The Crown is unmerited from the royal family because the series could have actually been much harsher towards the institution. Instead, Morgan and his collaborators are sympathetic to all the main players, even when the viewer could be forgiven for feeling very little. Even when somebody does something awful, or says something high-handed or cruel, the camera and script stay with them long enough for us to understand motives and causes.

Prince Charles should be grateful that Josh O’Connor is playing him, because even though his adultery with Camilla Parker Bowles was calculatedly organized, we see all his inner and outer torture. His and Diana’s marriage is made in hell for both of them. The Crown makes clear that their fury is with each other, and with the forces and structures around them.

Yes, the Queen seems to have been a terrible—or if you want to be charitable, pretty damn lacking—parent, but The Crown returns to why and how that came to be, and its results in her adult children, in this fourth season. We see her puzzlement and her attempt to connect, even if it all seems inadequate. (If you wonder how Prince Andrew attained the sheen of unbearable arrogance that has helped lead to his forced ejection from senior royalty, the seeds are laid out here.)

Of course, the royals hate this TV show, because their lives are being edited and dramatized. It feels unfair to them because we are not seeing the exact replication of a certain moment; we are not seeing real moments at all. But a dramatic representation is not a misrepresentation, and what is really painful for them is to see the worst of their behavior—particularly when it came to Diana, which had such a ghastly end—quite so pared down and explicit. Many of those on screen are still alive, and while books and articles can be ignored or grow dusty, the authority of The Crown, its broadcast to millions, will prove a more tangible, lasting thorn.

This fourth season doesn’t just tell the story of a turbulent decade in recent royal history. It puts the royals on glossy trial. Yet somehow this interrogation—despite all the huffing and puffing from the palace—does not damn them. The Crown is relentlessly, sometimes irritatingly, fair to the royals; it seeks to understand and contextualize all their excesses, eccentricities, and frailties.

Soon will come The Crown Season 5—Diana’s death, and even more scandal and exposure re-heated and analyzed, with the drama reportedly ending in 2003, pre-Harry and Meghan. This will likely be small mercy for the royals. After the Queen’s eventual death, their chief concern will be to somehow keep their well-dressed pomp-and-circumstance show up and running for as long as possible, with Charles at the helm (and get to the William and Kate years as quickly as possible).

What the royals must really hate about The Crown is how everyday it renders them. The maintenance of royalty, its command on our attention—still today, even in an all-knowing online world—depends on a level of mystique that The Crown, ferociously, has no time for.