Historian Sarah Gristwood reviews The Crown season 4: “We’ve reached the issue of how fiction influences opinion in the real world”

How historically accurate is new season of The Crown? Historian Sarah Gristwood reviews the upcoming season four of Netflix’s award-winning royal drama, which drops on Netflix on Sunday 15 November

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana on her wedding day in 'The Crown' S4. (Photo by Netflix)

When season 4 of The Crown kicks off on Sunday, all eyes are going to be focused on one figure: Lady Diana Spencer. Luckily, actress Emma Corrin gets everything right – the voice, the stance, the up-from-under glance. That matters, because as The Crown gets ever closer to the present day, we get ever deeper into ‘I remember…’ territory. And this is a series where fiction is constantly being fact-checked against history.

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In one sense the focus on Diana only echoes reality. Other members of the royal family did reputedly feel upstaged by the new Princess of Wales. But season 4 is a tale of three women, and the all-important conflict is not, at this stage, between Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth, and the shy teenager who first appears dressed up as a tree for her school play. The opposition that strikes sparks is between the Queen and another, apparently steelier, blonde. Much is made of the carefully-coiffed blonde helmet, but right across the board, Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher is so spot-on as to be almost spooky: a fractious, frangible ‘Iron Lady’.

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher and Stephen Boxer as Denis Thatcher in season 4 of 'The Crown'
Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher and Stephen Boxer as Denis Thatcher in season 4 of ‘The Crown’. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Netflix)

This season is defined by the term of Thatcher’s premiership (May 1979 to November 1990 in real life, though the series has the feel of ending in the eighties). As such it has every opportunity to tackle the issue of women with power, and the men who try to nibble it away. Two women in charge? “The last thing this country needs,” says Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), irascibly. “Two menopausal women,” says Denis Thatcher (Stephen Boxer). The Queen disagrees with her husband: it may be exactly what the country needs, she says. Sources from both palace and politics have since confirmed that she and Mrs Thatcher did develop a working relationship to which the series ultimately pays tribute. But they have confirmed, too, their awkward differences in style and approach.

This exquisite agony is expressed in episode two, when Mrs Thatcher visits Balmoral in footwear Elizabeth deemed wholly inappropriate. The delicious details of the ‘great shoe test’ may have been invented – the better to display what series creator and writer Peter Morgan once called an ‘underlying truth’ – but, yes, those were the basic social dynamics of the Thatchers’ Highland holiday from hell, in what her screen husband, Denis, memorably dismisses as a “half Scottish, half Germanic, cuckoo land”.

A later episode of season 4 focuses on a time when the two women clashed over the question of sanctions on an apartheid South Africa, and the importance of the Commonwealth. Was such a conflict reported at the time? Yes, actually – right down to the shocking Sunday Times article that described the Queen as an “astute political infighter” at odds with an ‘uncaring’ Mrs Thatcher; and the questions over the ultimate source of the story. But besides setting up a battle of the handbags between two star actors, the episode suggests an unexpectedly ‘woke’ Queen, more in sympathy with African leaders than her prime minister. And we need that, since the Diana saga shows just how unawakened, in emotional terms, Elizabeth II could be.

The Crown S4: Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. (Photo by Getty Images)
The Crown S4: Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. (Photo by Getty Images)

Season 4 kicks off in 1979, when the news is full of the Troubles in Ireland – and when Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), just turned 30, is under mounting pressure to marry. On screen, as in real life, his great-uncle and mentor Lord Mountbatten urges him to find a sweet and innocent girl, without a past. “Someone who knows the rules, and will follow the rules,” writes Charles Dance’s Mountbatten. And no one, at the time, could have begun to guess just what a rule breaker the then 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer would be.

But that summer, the bangs from the sporting guns from the royal family’s annual holiday at Balmoral echo with the blast of the IRA bomb that killed Mountbatten, thrusting a grieving Charles further down the slippery slope towards one of the most famously disastrous marriages in recent history.

Charles's marriage to Diana is shown as doomed from the start

In the early episodes, we see enough of his dysfunctional family to convince us that Charles is the man that circumstances made him. Later in the season, we are going to need all the resulting sympathy. His marriage with Diana is shown as doomed from the start, which, with hindsight, of course, it was. It represented a conflict of old world and new: the last time in Britain a royal marriage would be made between virtual strangers, with wildly differing ideas of love and duty.

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana in season 4 of 'The Crown'. (Photo by Netflix)
Emma Corrin as Princess Diana in season 4 of ‘The Crown’. (Photo by Netflix)

Did the real-life participants know at the time there would be such problems? Well, up to a point, maybe. We know now that Charles’s uncertainty was for real – that he was pushed past the post by his father, and, yes, probably the memory of Mountbatten, too. We certainly know about his enduring commitment to Camilla Parker Bowles (played by Emerald Fennell). We know that before the wedding Diana, too, expressed doubts to family and friends, to be cheerily told that it was too late to pull out now, since her face was on the souvenir tea-towels.


The Crown S4 episode guide: the real history


Episode 3 of this season, the pre-wedding episode, is titled ‘Fairytale’, and that was how the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, described it (his real voice being used in the series): “This is the stuff of which fairy tales are made. A prince and princess on their wedding day…” He might have reflected that, in fact, there is a very dark side to most fairy stories.

Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince Charles embrace. Public expectations of their marriage were high, writes Sarah Gristwood. (Photo by Netflix)
Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince Charles embrace. Public expectations of their marriage were high, writes Sarah Gristwood. (Photo by Netflix)

But then, public expectations of the marriage were high. And in private, too, there must surely have been on both sides a measure of hope, of determination to make things work? Peter Morgan’s script gives no sense of any possibility. As Diana’s bulimia is graphically shown, this is a relationship that starts at rock bottom and goes steadily down. Since no one honestly knows what happened behind closed doors, maybe that‘s how it was in reality.

But I’m not sure the scenes between the warring Waleses carry quite that conviction which, usually, is Morgan’s special gift. The problem may be that the strength of historical drama lies, usually, in casting a spotlight into the shadows – giving the personal side of political events, which we don’t get to see. But, thanks to some 30 years of revelations, the difficulties of Charles and Diana have already come howling out into the daylight. And where fiction has to strive to be stranger than fact, it risks straying into implausibility.

In any marital break-up, the spectators wind up taking sides, and most of the public have been on Diana’s. Morgan once described Prince Charles to The New York Times as “one of those characters for whom you have sympathy and criticism in equal measure”, but as this season wears on, screen Charles winds up looking more like the villain of the piece – if ‘villain’ isn’t too definite a word for this pompous, increasingly stooped, and self-pitying figure.

Word is the royals have rather liked 'The Crown' so far, but this season may go down badly

In real life, recent years have perhaps brought a more nuanced perception of the ‘war of the Waleses’. The prince has started to look more like a viable king-in-waiting: prescient in his desire to prune Andrew out of a pared-down royal family; caring about climate change; walking Meghan Markle down the aisle when her own father didn’t make the wedding. But that is not the Charles we are seeing here. Word is the royals have rather liked The Crown so far, but this season may go down badly.

Emma Corrin as Diana and Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip in season 4 of 'The Crown'
Emma Corrin as Diana and Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip in season 4 of ‘The Crown’. In episode 2 the pair go stalking at Balmoral where Philip grills Diana to establish whether she could be a suitable bride for his son Prince Charles. (Photo by Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix)

We’ve reached the issue not just of how faithfully fiction reflects fact, but of how it can actually influence opinion in the real, factual world. The screen Charles comes over as an emotional pygmy compared even to his father. It is Philip who, at the end of the season, gets to deliver the mandatory sum-up of the monarchy. He reminds Diana that there is ultimately only one figure, the sovereign, who matters in the royal story. It is certainly the creed by which the real Philip has lived his long life… Albeit that, in the years ahead, it would be Diana whose life and death remoulded the British monarchy.

The projected season 5 could see Philip a centenarian. It will also see Imelda Staunton take over as the Queen, and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana. It is Debicki who will have to deal with, for example, Diana’s BBC Panorama interview, the backstory to which is a hot topic today.

The Crown S4: Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles with Helena Bonham Carter's Princess Margaret. (Photo by Getty Images)
Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles with Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret in ‘The Crown’ season 4. On the eve of Charles and Diana’s wedding, Margaret remarks: “How many times can this family make the same mistake?” (Photo by Getty Images)

That’s the other thing about fact, fiction and The Crown – it’s impossible not to look to its version of the past for insights into today’s royal family. To see the flinty gaze the family turned on one royal bride, 40 years ago, and not to assume there are lessons there about Meghan and Harry. As Princess Margaret (a prickly Helena Bonham Carter) asks on the eve of Charles and Diana’s wedding: “How many times can this family make the same mistake?”. Well, precisely.

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Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling Tudor biographer, novelist, broadcaster, former film journalist and commentator on royal affairs