“No match for reality”: the missing history in The Crown series three

The third series of acclaimed drama The Crown has arrived on Netflix, covering the period from 1964–1977. Writing for HistoryExtra, historian Sarah Gristwood unpicks the history behind the drama, the real royals who are ripe for dramatic treatment, and the moments that are missed out…

The queen's visit to the Welsh village of Aberfan

Series three of The Crown covers the period from 1964–1977 – and that, frankly, is a problem for the production team. These were the years when – a decade after the accession of a glamorous young Elizabeth II, but just before the arrival of a glamorous young Diana Spencer – the British monarchy was looking a bit old-fashioned and out of touch, even a bit boring.

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The bad news for The Crown is that boring doesn’t make for gripping drama. The good news? Whatever writer Peter Morgan invents, it couldn’t possibly compete with the reality, which was far less dull than you might at first imagine.

Take the break-up of the marriage between Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. Lord Snowdon was a serial adulterer, and Princess Margaret too reputedly sought consolation elsewhere. In 1973 she was introduced to Roddy Llewellyn, 17 years her junior, with whom she would go on to have a lasting and open affair.

Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Daniels as Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon
Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Daniels as Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon. (Image by Des Willie / Netflix)

By this time, Snowdon could be seen attending dinner parties with a paper bag over his head and, when asked why, telling his wife: “It’s because I can’t stand the fucking sight of you.” The relationship between husband and wife had become vicious to the point where he would leave her notes reading “Things I Hate About You”. It did not help that the press were no longer prepared, as in bygone decades, to maintain a degree of gentlemanly silence – not, at least, any paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, the new boy on the British newspaper scene.

The Queen’s delayed visit to Aberfan

The tragedy of Aberfan features early in the new series, and offers an insight into how the Queen’s instincts would later cause her problems. In 1966, an avalanche of mud and debris cascaded onto the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, engulfing its primary school, killing more than a hundred children. Elizabeth, urged to go there immediately, refused – and for the best of motives. The arrangements for her visit might distract from the rescue effort. What, she asked, if she caused rescuers to miss “some poor child that might have been found under the wreckage”?

When she did visit a week later, her emotion was palpable. She was sorry, as she told the villagers with tears in her eyes, that she could “give you nothing except sympathy”. But in the years ahead, such restraint could be misunderstood and taken for a lack of care.

The need to ‘sell’ the monarchy

In these years, the Queen was described merely as being “not unpopular” in the country. This led to an increasing awareness of a need to sell the monarchy to the people – a “distinct wind of change at the Palace”, as a BBC memo put it. The royals reacted surprisingly readily (perhaps in part because inflation was making the royal finances less secure) and the result was the 1969 film, Royal Family, a joint production between BBC and ITV. The Queen, having perhaps had qualms about being so open in this extraordinary fly-on-the-wall documentary, has not, for more than 40 years, given permission for it to be seen in its entirety.

By the end of the 1960s, polls were finding that people thought the monarchy to be an out-of-touch anachronism – and, in a youth-oriented era, hailing the idea that the heir to the throne should automatically succeed when he or she reached 35. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that series three of The Crown gives a lot of airtime to Prince Charles – another instance of Peter Morgan’s perspicacity!

It’s no coincidence that series three of The Crown gives a lot of airtime to Prince Charles, writes Sarah Gristwood.
It’s no coincidence that series three of The Crown gives a lot of airtime to Prince Charles, writes Sarah Gristwood. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

The second half of the new series features questions about the relationship between the Queen and her racing manager Lord Porchester, ‘Porchie’. Does that have any foundation in reality?

As late as the 1990s, after all, Prince Philip would be asked by a reporter about stories that Prince Andrew was not his son. This fictional embellishment has drawn furious reactions from those around the Queen, claiming utter implausibility.

The Queen and her racing manager Lord Porchester, ‘Porchie’.
The new series features the relationship between the Queen and her racing manager Lord Porchester, ‘Porchie’. (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

The history The Crown doesn’t show

There are stories The Crown chooses not to feature, such as the 1974 abduction attempt on Princess Anne. Nevertheless, it was certainly dramatic when one Ian Ball, someone with a history of mental illness, brandished a gun and brought Anne’s car to a halt in The Mall. He hoped to hold her hostage for a large ransom, the money to be given to Britain’s National Health Service. But the attempt, which left her bodyguard and chauffeur wounded, was foiled, in part by the princess’s own courage. (She was, by then, travelling with her new husband, Mark Phillips – though The Crown makes a point of featuring her earlier rapport with Andrew Parker Bowles, former husband to the more famous Camilla. Indeed, it sees her in flagrante with him, dressed in improbably saucy lingerie.)

Matters such as the abduction are public fact – as now, are the letters Lord Mountbatten wrote to Prince Charles, urging him to marry some inexperienced, virginal, girl. Diana’s appearance will come in series four, already in production, apparently.

Princess Anne, played by Erin Doherty
The Crown chooses not to feature the 1974 abduction attempt on Princess Anne, played by Erin Doherty. (Image by Des Willie / Netflix)

The limits of drama

But of course, where dramas like The Crown both win and, potentially, go astray is in inventing the dialogue behind the scenes – the stuff that, in reality, press and public never get to hear.

The trailer for The Crown featured an extraordinary scene between Wallis Simpson and Prince Charles. It is a matter of public record that, in 1972, the Queen with Prince Philip and Prince Charles did visit the dying Duke of Windsor in Paris – and, later, the duchess would visit England for her husband’s interment at Windsor, meeting members of the royal family.

The Crown sees Wallis offering two pieces of advice to Charles, then in the process of abandoning his romance with the ‘unsuitable’ Camilla Parker Bowles. The first is: “Never turn your back on true love.” Charles, understandably, asks what is the second. “Watch out for your family,” Wallis answers.

There could hardly (think The Godfather) be a better pitch for on-screen drama. But, in reality? Peter Morgan’s great strength is using what is known in order to infer what is not. This scene, albeit in an extreme way, has a kind of emotional truth.

The royal family in Buckingham palace, c1971.
The royal family in Buckingham Palace, c1971. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Yet with Britain’s royal family, whatever has been said behind closed doors has mostly stayed that way. That’s why there was such fury behind Palace walls when the memoirs of former prime minister David Cameron unforgivably leaked details of his conversations with the Queen.

Yes, it’s possible although far from probable – that Wallis Simpson did, in private, have such a conversation with Charles. But private means private, where Britain’s royal family is concerned. And expecting The Crown to let us that far inside the walls is, frankly, unrealistic.

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Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling Tudor biographer, novelist, broadcaster and commentator on royal affairs. To find out more, visit sarahgristwood.com or follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahgristwood