‘The Crown’ Could Have Damaged Charles. Becoming King Has Helped.
The latest season of the Netflix drama depicts Charles’s contentious divorce from Diana, but in Britain, several prominent figures and the news media have rallied behind him.
By Mark Landler
Mark Landler is the London bureau chief of The New York Times.
Dec. 2, 2022
LONDON — Six months ago, the new season of “The Crown” was shaping up as another public-relations headache for Prince Charles. The timeline of the popular historical drama had reached the 1990s, which meant that it was going to dissect the collapse of his marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales, an unwelcome exhumation of the most painful, mortifying chapter of his adult life.
Some advising the prince were pondering how to counter the narrative, according to people with knowledge of the workings of Buckingham Palace, worried that it could tarnish the reputation of a man who, in recent years, had come to be known less for his peccadilloes than for his embrace of worthy causes such as climate change.
Yet now, as Season 5 of the Netflix series has unspooled, it is clear that “The Crown” has dealt Charles at worst a glancing blow. In a few cases, it has even cast him in a positive light — celebrating, for example, his philanthropy, in an episode that ended with a charmingly awkward Charles (played by Dominic West) break dancing at an event for his charity, the Prince’s Trust.
What changed, of course, is that two months before the new season arrived, Prince Charles became King Charles III.
His ascension transformed the star-crossed heir into a dignified sovereign and Britain’s head of state. London’s tabloid papers, which once dined out on every morsel of Charles’s messy personal life, now have little appetite for embarrassing the sitting monarch. On the contrary, most prefer to focus on how gracefully the new king has succeeded his revered mother, Queen Elizabeth II.
King Charles III standing vigil with the coffin of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, in London in September. He has been praised in the British news media for his handling of the transfer of power.Credit...Pool photo by Dominic Lipinski
Then, too, there is the show’s unapologetic mixing of fact and fiction, which drew sporadic complaints when it dealt with events of the more distant past, but has reached a kind of critical mass when it comes to depicting the well-worn saga of Charles and Diana’s marriage.
Their story was extravagantly covered at the time and is vividly remembered by millions of people, especially in Britain. Some of those actually involved in the events have voiced their outrage at the artistic license taken by the show’s creator, Peter Morgan, calling the most recent season a “barrel-load of nonsense” and “complete and utter rubbish.”
Those critics — among them two former prime ministers, John Major and Tony Blair; a famous actress, Judi Dench; and one of Charles’s biographers, Jonathan Dimbleby (who called the show “nonsense on stilts”) — inoculated the king against some of the damage he might otherwise have suffered. Rather than keeping the spotlight on the tawdry events themselves, the critics shifted the focus to how “The Crown” had embellished them.
“It is definitely the case that this series of ‘The Crown’ has come in for greater backlash than any previous series, particularly for its factual inaccuracies and the treatment of the current monarch,” said Ed Owens, a historian who has written about the interplay between the monarchy and the media.
For the king, the chorus of outside detractors made it easier for him to ignore the series, according to the people with ties to Buckingham Palace, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with royal protocol. That is how the royal family handled the show’s previous four seasons. The king’s communications secretary did not respond to a query about how the palace viewed the latest season.
Whether the palace had a role in orchestrating the critiques is harder to establish. There are plenty of back-channel conversations — whether between palace officials and prominent outsiders or between aides to the king and royal correspondents and their editors.
The season’s characters include the former prime ministers Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel), left, and John Major (Jonny Lee Miller), both of whom have criticized the show’s accuracy.Credit...Keith Bernstein/Netflix
“It will doubtless have been clear to allies of the crown, including former prime ministers, that there was some discontent and anxiety about the new season of ‘The Crown’ before it first aired,” Owens said.
But public figures like Major also had an incentive to protect themselves. “The Crown” depicts him and Charles holding a private meeting in which a frustrated prince lobbies the prime minister for help in pushing the queen to abdicate because she is superannuated and poses a threat to the monarchy’s survival. Such a meeting would have raised constitutional issues, and Major says it never happened.
“They’re not doing the palace’s work for it,” said Dickie Arbiter, who served as a spokesman for the queen from 1988 to 2000. “They are being besmirched and they are defending themselves.”
But Arbiter said that the palace should steer clear of litigating the facts itself. “You start getting into ‘he said, she said,’” he noted. “You just give it oxygen.” British viewers, he added, would recognize the factual discrepancies without a warning.
“The only difficulty is with the global audience, who will believe the royal family are like that,” Arbiter added. “It’s your lot on the other side of the Atlantic that believe every word of it.”
Just in case there is any residual confusion at home, British papers, including the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, have published detailed fact-checking pieces. Some scenes, like the furtive tête-à-tête between Charles and Major, have been comprehensively debunked.
Others, like the underhanded tactics used by a BBC correspondent, Martin Bashir, to persuade Diana to give him an interview, were judged to be mostly accurate, if somewhat amped up for dramatic effect. Still others, like Charles’s attempt at break dancing, did happen, if not when the series said they did.
Beyond the specific facts, some people with ties to the palace argue that “The Crown” is so obviously tilted against Charles that it is easy to dismiss. As evidence, they cite the unequal treatment of two particularly cringe-worthy 1990s scandals, named “Tampongate” and “Squidgygate” by the British news media.
The series, they said, dwells on the prince’s extramarital affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, most luridly in an episode about an overheard phone call between Charles and Camilla in which he tells her he wishes he could “live inside your trousers,” perhaps by being reincarnated as a tampon.
But it ignores a similar episode involving Diana, then still married, and her close friend, James Gilbey, in which their intimate phone conversation was surreptitiously picked up and published in The Sun newspaper. In it, Gilbey called her by an instantly notorious nickname, Squidgy.
To some who have worked in the palace, the season’s most glaring discrepancy involves not Charles, but the queen. Morgan, who wrote the current season, doctored her celebrated speech in November 1992, when she described that year as her “annus horribilis.” Even in a speech suffused with regret, the queen made no mention of the “errors of the past,” as Imelda Staunton does, in her portrayal of Elizabeth.
Morgan, who declined a request for an interview, has never denied taking license with the facts in “The Crown.” Netflix describes the series as “fictionalized drama inspired by true events,” though it has resisted calls to put a disclaimer on each episode. Some critics have joked that if Morgan were serious about accuracy, he would not have cast a handsome actor, like West, in the role of Charles.
But it’s not clear, even if the series were meticulously accurate, that the British news media would be in the mood to re-air the dirty laundry of a man who is Britain’s first new monarch since 1952. Charles has been widely praised for his performance since taking the throne, including when trouble brewed at the palace this past week.
That trouble was set off by a royal aide when she repeatedly asked a Black woman born in Britain, who had been invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace, “Where are you from?” The reception guest, Ngozi Fulani, posted about the encounter on Twitter, and within hours, the royal aide, Susan Hussey, who had served as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, resigned with “profound apologies for the hurt caused.”
As it happens, Hussey appears briefly as a character in “The Crown,” encouraging her husband, Marmaduke, then the chairman of the BBC, to ask the broadcaster to produce a laudatory program on the queen to cheer her up. (The BBC’s director general at the time, John Birt, instead greenlighted the infamous Bashir interview with Diana).
Royal experts said that the palace’s swift reaction, and blunt condemnation, of Fulani’s treatment showed that Charles was intent on demonstrating that he would not tolerate any perception of racist behavior in the royal household. It averted what could have been another cycle of punishing headlines for the monarchy.
According to Geordie Greig, a former editor of Tatler magazine and of The Daily Mail, “The only conversations about the king are, ‘Isn’t he doing a great job?’”
Mark Landler is the London bureau chief. In 27 years at The Times, he has been bureau chief in Hong Kong and Frankfurt, White House correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, European economic correspondent, and a business reporter in New York. @MarkLandler