“Haunted, in more ways than one”: A historian’s review of The Crown S6, part 1
Historian Sarah Gristwood reviews the first episodes of the royal drama’s final season. Centring on the final months of Diana, Princess of Wales, part one invokes an eerie blend of memory and invention, and plays with our knowledge of what lies ahead…
As actor Claire Foy said in the Netflix teaser for the sixth and final season of its flagship drama, the crown is a symbol of permanence. She, in her role as the young Elizabeth II, meant the crown she embodied, the one on her head – but you could say the same of The Crown too.
A final sixth season, taking the narrative into the 21st century, was originally on – then off – then on again. It is now being shown in two separate chunks; and rightly so, because although the first four episodes are about the crown and its putative future, in personal terms they are all about Diana, Princess of Wales.
Even the evocative poster image shows Elizabeth Debicki’s Diana – alone but always on view – perched on the end of the springboard aboard the Al Fayed yacht in the summer of 1997, seemingly contemplating a dive into an uncertain future.
These first four episodes cover a little more than eight weeks, and with such a tight focus its central performance is all-important. Debicki does not disappoint. Her voice – that voice we all remember from the real Diana’s Panorama interview – is almost spookily right.
Images we all recognise are recreated with astonishing accuracy (though the famous landmines walk has been transposed from her Angola visit to her Bosnia one in August 1997).
But in those very memories lies the challenge – that we’re coming up to, as the New York Times put it, “one of the most analyzed periods in recent British history”. And as they watch this season, many viewers (in the UK at least) will have an alternative narrative running simultaneously in their head as they match up the drama with their own recollection.
The Diana of Debicki and writer/creator Peter Morgan is a woman coping with the chaotic circumstances around her –though nods are made to reports which described, instead, a woman adrift, vibrating distractedly between her anti-landmine crusade and a life of luxury.
Much in the first two episodes seems almost too much like the story we already knew; though Morgan imaginatively explores also the relationship between Diana and Dodi Fayed (appealingly played by Khalid Abdalla). Dodi’s father Mohamed (Salim Daw) is cast as the ambitious fixer – something of a deus ex machina, indeed – portrayed as pushing his son towards Diana.
It’s in episode three that things really get inventive. At the Ritz in Paris, just hours before their death, Diana and Dodi are shown having a profound, insightful conversation which allows them each to recognise past mistakes, and resolve on a path ahead.
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As promised, the fatal crash is not seen on screen, though heard nonetheless. But it’s in episode four – ‘Aftermath’– that the controversial question of good taste presents itself most clearly.
When Peter Morgan first gave us his take on these events, in his feature film, The Queen, 17 years ago, William and Harry (played here by Rufus Kampa and Fflyn Edwards) were kept discretely out of view. Now, by contrast, we see Prince Charles (Dominic West) coming in to tell his sons of their mother’s death, and the boys’ reaction. It makes seriously uncomfortable viewing even for us – and excruciating, surely, for anyone who had actually been there.
Diana does indeed, as already reported, appear as a ghost to both her former husband and her mother-in-law (Imelda Staunton, once again). With Charles, Diana’s tone is rueful but affectionate; with the Queen, instructive. Elizabeth II had always, Diana tells her, shown the nation “what it meant to be British”. Now is the moment to prove she could be also “a mother to the nation” as Charles had phrased it, lamenting that the Queen had been unable to be a mother to him.
- Read more | What was Queen Elizabeth II like as a mother?
This season is haunted, in more ways than one. By literal ghosts; by the ghosts of all those other past books, films, documentaries covering these same few weeks; and by the knowledge of what lies ahead (slyly acknowledged from episode one, when the Queen tells Tony Blair – of Diana’s wish for a continued public role – that “it’s hard to be half in anything”, giving shades of Harry and Meghan). And haunted, too, by all of our feelings about Diana, and about the monarchy.
The Queen tells the ghostly Diana she has sparked something like revolution. In fact, it proved to be not a revolution, but a much-needed reform. The aftermath of Diana’s death was – as Charles puts it in the series – “the biggest thing that any of us have ever seen”. But lessons were learnt (though the Sussexes have since queried how thoroughly) and history has shown that the popularity of many senior royals bounced back with surprising speed.
“A mission statement for the British monarchy”
In many ways, this final series of The Crown is a mission statement for the British monarchy. We have Charles bluntly telling his parents they could no longer have it both ways, “being a private family when we want, and a public one when it suits us”. It’s true, and it’s their tragedy.
Gyles Brandreth once complained that The Crown was turning the royal family into a soap opera. The easy retort is that they did that to themselves. But that is to ignore the real vulnerable people behind the stories just as surely as did the paparazzi, shown here in all their remorseless brutality.
A further six episodes, covering Charles and Camilla’s wedding, and William’s first encounters with Kate, will be released on 14 December (with talk of a prequel to follow). Will this last season help or hurt the reputation of the real monarchy?
- On the podcast | Dominic Sandbrook on Queen Elizabeth II's century of change
Andrew Marr suggested in the Sunday Times that its members should ultimately be grateful to The Crown, for keeping their profile high in ever-less-reverential days. But that is on what one might call a professional level, not a personal one. Dodi’s ghost tells his father we can only heal if we tell the truth.
On the evidence so far, it’s debatable whether Peter Morgan’s truth will do anything to heal still-open wounds within today’s divided royal family.
Catch up on the real the history behind each episode of The Crown season 5, with our episode guides:
- The Crown S5 E1: ‘Queen Victoria Syndrome’ and a second honeymoon
- The Crown S5 E2: Prince Philip’s ‘keeper of secrets’ and Andrew Norton’s book on Princess Diana
- The Crown S5 E3: exiled royals and the al-Fayeds
- The Crown S5 E4: the Queen’s “annus horribilis” and Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend
- The Crown S5 E5 real history: ‘Camillagate’ tapes and a “war council” for the monarchy’s survival
- The Crown S5 E6 real history: the Romanovs’ murder, and Philip’s “spiritual companionship”
- The Crown S5 E7 real history: the introduction of Martin Bashir, and a royal
- The Crown S5 E8 real history: Diana’s Panorama interview causes fireworks
- The Crown S5 E9 real history: the divorce settlement between Charles and Diana
- The Crown S5 E10 real history: the HMY Britannia's final voyage, and a political landslide
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