From Tampongate to the Bashir bombshells: will
King Charles III finally hit back at The Crown?
The Netflix hit is now plunging into inflammatory
territory. Will the famously outspoken new monarch really simmer in silence?
Does he have to – now Prince Harry is on the streamer’s payroll?
Fri 4 Nov
2022 13.00 GMT
of Wales invites prime minister Sir John Major to a secret meeting to explore
the possibility of becoming Charles III in 1991 not 2022. The Princess of Wales
seduces heart surgeon Hasnat Khan by asking him to place his finger on her
breasts and trace her valves and arteries. In a war within the BBC, the
director general John Birt goes nuclear against chairman Marmaduke Hussey by
agreeing to let Martin Bashir, oozing ambition through aviator glasses,
interview Diana for Panorama. Meanwhile, in an Egyptian flashback, young
shopkeeper Mohamed Al Fayed forms a long-term plan to link his family to the
of The Crown is business as usual: melodrama presented in lavish
quasi-documentary style, carried by near-hologrammatic performances by great
actors, now including Elizabeth Debicki’s Princess Diana and Imelda Staunton’s
run has one very significant difference. This time, episodes carry the
following notice: “Inspired by real events, this fictional dramatisation tells
the story of Queen Elizabeth II and the political and personal events that
shaped her reign.”
doesn’t go as far as some critics of the show’s cavalier way with fact would
want. But until now, Netflix has always refused to gloss the content at all,
even refusing a direct request from the recent Conservative culture secretary
Oliver Dowden to add a “health warning” for viewers, especially in the US, who
are seemingly convinced that The Crown is the inside story.
Netflix stresses that the statement is not a “disclaimer” (the company has
always refused to run these) but a “description”. Whatever you call it, the
streamer’s agreement to finally stress the drama’s loose relationship with the
truth represents a vast shift in the balance of power between the monarchy and
Netflix, between The King and The Crown.
since 2016, the first four seasons lengthily held the No 1 slot in most Netflix
territories and won multiple awards, including 21 Emmys. But, while some
monarchists and historians took offence at attitudes and accuracy, the closest
to a royal family response was a complaint about “trolling on Hollywood
budgets”, attributed to “sources close” to the then Prince of Wales. This
silence reflected Elizabeth II’s belief that her family should not publicly
complain about media coverage – a stance rooted in a desire to keep a regally
dignified distance and not inflame hostile publicity.
position seemed to be abandoned spectacularly as details began to emerge for
the fifth series, the first in which the actors playing the key roles of Elizabeth
and Philip are portraying historical rather than living figures.
prime minister Sir John Major (played in the show by Jonny Lee Miller) publicly
described the scripts as “a barrel-load of nonsense” and “malicious fiction”,
especially the sequence in which he and the Prince of Wales are shown plotting
for the Queen to abdicate. Dame Judi Dench then wrote to the Times in support
of Major’s complaint, adding that “the closer the drama comes to our present
times, the more freely it seems willing to blur the lines between historical
accuracy and crude sensationalism”. With Jonathan Dimbleby, friend and
biographer of Charles, dismissing the show as “nonsense on stilts”, The Crown
had serious establishment firepower ranged against it.
It is not
possible to attribute this pushback directly to the new king, but each of the
complaining trio is close enough to the monarch to be risking their place at
court by intervening. Major, who became a mentor to princes William and Harry
after their mother’s death, is the ex-PM closest to the royals. Dench, a
companion of honour (one of the highest state awards) also connects to Charles
through the RSC, of which he is figurehead and she a great alumna. Dimbleby is
a friend and chronicler. This feels like a war against The Crown.
also fit with evidence that Charles III intends to be more reactive against
media behaviour than his parents. Last year, after the revelation of the
deceitful methods (faked bank statements, scare stories created to inflame
Diana’s paranoia) used by Martin Bashir to secure the 1995 Panorama interview,
the BBC director general Tim Davie agreed with Princes Charles and William that
the full programme would never be screened again.
It will be
fascinating to see if the king’s camp reacts to the seventh episode of season
five – which dramatises Bashir’s duping of the princess – and the eighth, which
features re-enacted extracts from Panorama, rendering the no-replay deal almost
pointless. Buckingham Palace might leave any reaction over that to the BBC,
though: any direct royal challenge to Netflix would prove complicated, given
that Prince Harry’s deal with the streaming service means he is on the payroll.
apparent change in palace tactics between reigns isn’t the only problem The
Crown faces. In terms of historical authenticity, the series has always had a
flaw at its core. Its source material – Morgan’s 2013 stage play The Audience –
featured historical and living people (Elizabeth II and prime ministers from
Churchill to Blair) but everything in it was invented. This was because the
weekly audiences between the Queen and her PMs are never discussed. So Morgan
had the protection that no participant could say the scenes hadn’t happened
without revealing what really had.
his play into The Crown, Morgan ventured into events and speeches that could be
checked against the public record. And, crucially, theatregoers, critics and
lawyers understood that The Audience was an entertaining guess. In interviews,
Morgan has suggested that everyone knows his show is a vast monarchical
pantomime, but the visual realism of The Crown risks giving the impression it
is reporting rather than performance.
on, the writer established a formula. Most episodes of The Crown intertwine two
storylines. In previous series, Prince Andrew serving in the Falklands and Mark
Thatcher going missing in a desert car rally; and Philip’s Greek refugee mother
moving into Buckingham Palace while the fly-on-the wall documentary Royal
Family is shooting. In reality, the twinned events may have occurred months or
years apart but Morgan’s preferred structure demands an alternative universe in
which events always arrive in twos.
run, the doubling down occurs most egregiously in the seventh episode, No
Woman’s Land, which intercuts Bashir’s chasing of Diana with her pursuit of
Khan. Morgan gives the BBC reporter a speech about the heritage he shares with
the surgeon. The script flirts with suggestions that the princess had a “type”
– or that Bashir tactically made himself as much like Diana’s paramour as
possible – but it’s probably just Morgan doing his thing: making neat patterns
on the spattered canvas of history.
questionable decision, the 1991 death from cancer of five-year-old Leonora
Knatchbull is employed as a plot device to show her mother, Lady Romsey,
becoming “close” to the Duke of Edinburgh when he comforts her. As the marriage
of Charles and Diana unravelled in 1992, establishment grandee Lord McGregor of
Durris complained of “journalists dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other
people’s souls.” The Leonora Knatchbull sequence is one of several where Morgan
might have better kept his hands off.
few verbatim quotes – including, humiliatingly for Charles and Camilla, their
notorious overheard phone call “Tampongate” – Morgan’s invented dialogue often
consists of characters launching loaded metaphors at each other. When Philip
suggests that the yacht Britannia may be “obsolete … past her best,” it echoes what
Charles, colluding with Major, has been suggesting about his mother. But, lest
we don’t get it, the Queen is given a line about the boat being “a sea-going
expression of me”. In later episodes, as the BBC and the palace are at odds,
John Birt jumps in to gloss: “The two institutions – Crown and BBC – are
inextricably linked.” Lesley Manville’s Princess Margaret laments her own
parallel with Diana: the spirited, sexy one that the dull Windsors can’t
handle. As the Panorama interview approaches, Prince William’s history
teacher’s explanation of the gunpowder plot of 1605 cuts to a shot of Bashir,
identifying the BBC reporter as Guy Fawkes, although his pension from the
corporation will have collected him more than a few pennies.
while Morgan’s approach has remained constant, the jeopardy was inevitably
going to ramp up as the scripts approached periods that involve living
participants with lawyers, and where viewers are more likely to be aware of the
scripts’ elisions and inventions. Major’s intervention means that The Crown has
faltered at the very first scene in which it depicted a living prime minister.
(The reaction to season six of Tony Blair will be interesting, although Morgan
has shown his hand in the 2006 movie, The Queen, in which Downing Street and
Buckingham Palace clash after Diana’s death.) Certainly, if The Crown’s initial
gamble was that those on screen were too dead or too royal to hit back, that
protection now seems to be lessening. Having initially impressed with
spectacular reconstructions, the show now literally features lengthy shots of
spectacles: John Major, John Birt and Martin Bashir all have extended lingering
looks through their eye-glasses – the glances, we suspect, a legally safer
alternative to imagined dialogue that might risk defamation.
asked Netflix to discuss the questions raised in this piece with Morgan, the
network replied that no one was available to speak, a formula, coincidentally
or not, often used by governments on the wrong side of the public over an
years, we have moved from a situation in which Netflix loved to talk about The
Crown while the royal side kept silent to virtually the reverse. A franchise
thought protected by the improbability of its subjects ever answering back may
fifth season, The Crown becomes ever more a TV series with billionaire looks
but miserly ethics. We will see if viewers remain willing to accept that
is on Netflix on 9 November.