Free-spirited drama or fake news? How The Crown morphed from ‘safe’ territory to controversy
Drama, comedy, tragedy – even catharsis, the release of emotion. And that’s just from real-life footage of the actual royal family. Oh yes, and then there’s also the fifth season of The Crown. As the Netflix drama tackles new territory, in the 1990s and well within living memory, historian Sarah Gristwood considers the practical and ethical questions around on-screen portrayals of the recent royals…
As The Crown moves into the 1990s, it was always going to have a hard row to hoe. The events of those years are at once too shocking and too familiar. What seemed pleasurably entertaining when the events depicted were safely in the past seems tone deaf once they come within the collective living memory. And that was even before a sinkhole opened up right in front of the plough; the Queen’s death in September 2022, and the transformation of Prince Charles (previously broadly viewed as fair game) into His Majesty King Charles III.
Read more about the history behind each episode of The Crown season 5:
- 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 education
- 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
Why are some people criticising The Crown’s new season?
Everyone has joined in the chorus of disapproval. Former prime minister John Major proclaimed his outrage at scenes in the first episode which have him (played by an oddly-cast Jonny Lee Miller) listening, reluctantly, to Charles (Dominic West) suggesting his mother should abdicate in his favour. (Typically for The Crown’s use or misuse of factual detail, the Sunday Times poll prompting the suggestion was not invented – but the presentation of it was skewed.)
In a rare moment of political unity, Tony Blair (who succeeded Major as PM in 1997) has likewise declared the portrayal of his relationship with the royals as lacking any validity, and former minister Michael Heseltine declared it was “important” that they spoke out. Actor Judi Dench called for a disclaimer at the start of the series saying it is “fictionalised drama”. The closer it comes to the present day, she wrote in an open letter to The Times, “the more freely it seems willing to blur the line between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism”. The newspaper themselves weighed in, with a prurience not altogether sanctioned by their own past reporting of the Royal Family. The series has become “a monstrous perversion of itself”, the Daily Mail declared. The debate has become as much the story as anything we see on screen.
The party line from those involved in the production is that yes, of course there are challenges. Discrepancies in appearance between actor and character stand out more clearly, when we all have the reality lodged in our mind’s eye. The wave of opprobrium itself has made us less willing to suspend our disbelief. But, so show creators say, recent events have only increased public interest in the royal family; and in any case, showing the characters as human only increases public sympathy. Hmmm. Maybe.
Of course, the fact that so many of the leading characters are still visible and vulnerable puts fire in the belly of this controversy. It ups the ante, exponentially. At what point does story become the comparatively safer history? The Walter Scott Prize for Written Historical Fiction defines the genre as anything set 60 years before publication; by those standards the first season of The Crown, kicking off in 1947 and shown 2016, is safely within the category. But we’d have to be watching Season 5 in the 2060s for the same cordon sanitaire to apply.
The issue of ‘fake news’
There is however, another, broader issue; not entirely related to the fact that the events portrayed took place so recently. An issue about the relation of historical fact and fiction. At what point does free-spirited drama tip over to fake news – or false history? The rights and wrongs of what Antony Beevor called “histotainment” was widely debated regarding, for example, The Tudors – though no-one from Henry VIII’s court was in a position to be hurt. While this season of The Crown is arguably trespassing not only against history but against common humanity.
The War of the Waleses – obviously the main plot line for a season covering the 1990s – is of course a matter of extensive public record; but The Crown’s carefully precise recreation of the notorious Panorama interview with Princess Diana (a startlingly convincing performance from Elizabeth Debicki) has to be seen in view of Prince William’s expressed hope it would never again be seen. Another major plot line is the friendship between Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and Penny Knatchbull (Natasha McElhone) – who would indeed be one of only thirty mourners invited to Philip’s funeral last year. But in exploring its implications for Philip’s relationship with the Queen (a correctly downbeat performance from Imelda Staunton, The Crown must juggle the tempting opportunities for psychodrama with what history records as an enduringly successful royal partnership.
- On the podcast | Are period dramas damaging history? Fern Riddell and Nicola Tallis discuss issues of accuracy and ethics raised by recent historical dramas, including The Crown and The Lost King
Years ago, for BBC History Magazine, I interviewed Michael Hirst, creator of The Tudors, who pointed out that his series had attracted a whole new, youthful, audience to history. It is indeed the principal argument for “histotainement”. There can hardly – can there? – be a comparable need to provoke interest in the present royal family. But actually, there is real concern that – for young viewers, viewers abroad, whose awareness of the British royals may outrun their accurate information about them – The Crown could affect perceptions, in a way damaging to the monarchy. And the series itself, with its forensic and all-too-convincing attention to visual detail, does blur the distinction.
Thus episode four of season five, ‘Annus Horribilis’, takes the imaginative leap of recasting 1992 as the year when the Queen was forced to acknowledge she’d ruined the life of her sister Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) by forbidding her match with Peter Townsend (a cameo from Timothy Dalton). But it ends with a photo of the real Townsend and the real Princess. That represents an implicit promise of documentary accuracy which the episode has surely failed to keep.
It’s highly unlikely that, as on screen, the undoubted horrors of 1992 included Prince Charles telling his mother that if social services had come calling on the House of Windsor, he and his siblings “would have been thrown into care – and you’d have been thrown into gaol.” Or indeed Princess Margaret telling her sister that several members of the family, herself included, would have been happy to set the fire at Windsor. This season is at its best representing the quieter, more domestic moments. It’s when attempting to recast dramatic big events that it wobbles, ironically.
- Read more | What was the Queen like as a mother?
There is perhaps another historical saga going on here – the slide, down the years, of the royal family from iconic figures, revered for their symbolic value, towards the characters in a soap opera. The Crown is an observer of that process; but it is also a significant player in it. And we stand at a moment when the pageantry of the Queen’s funeral and the King’s accession has done something to restore that symbolic status. No wonder this latest fictional debunking is being taken so seriously.