The Crown season 6 review – so bad it’s basically an out-of-body experience
This Diana-obsessed series is the very definition of bad writing. Despite the brilliant cast, it’s a crass, soapy dive into the abyss – not least in the atrocious scenes featuring Ghost Diana
Thu 16 Nov 2023 08.01 GMT
Welcome to series six of The Crown – or The Diana Show, as it has now become. Where once you could expect a 10-episode run to represent at least a decade of royal shenanigans, limning the political machinations of the time and throwing in an examination of evolving palace protocol minutiae, the first three episodes of the latest instalment deal with just the last eight weeks of Diana’s life, and the fourth with The Crash and the funeral.
Unless you are reading this while ensconced in a Diana shrine of your own making, those few months are recreated in a truly punishing level of detail. From the beginning The Crown has walked a tightrope between prestige drama – capable of evoking a world of emotional struggle from a single scene or queenly line – and soapy nonsense. It started teetering in season three, lost its balance entirely over the next two and is now plummeting into the abyss, despite the uniformly brilliant performances from the entire cast – Elizabeth Debicki as the queen of our hearts especially, of course – trying gamely to arrest its fall. The kind of spin Imelda Staunton as the Queen can put on a line as simple as “Oh, that girl … ” is a gift, but The Crown is no longer worthy of it, or her.
In the manner of a Hallmark movie, Diana is marked for death at every turn – you know, just in case you are unaware of the fate of the most famous woman in the world and have forgotten the frenzy of grief that gripped the country thereafter. She is, in The Crown’s telling of it, a virtual saint: see her talk about landmines! See her play normal middle-class games with her beloved boys! See her fall in love with sweet Dodi Fayed! See her furrowed brow as she takes the sensible advice of her therapist on board and pledges to start a new life as soon as she gets home from Paris and away from these villainous paparazzi who are following her into this tunnel! And thus the postmortem convulsions of an entire country are presented as no more than her due. By the time she has called William and Harry, the point has been so laboured that this is the last communication they will have with their mother that there might as well be a news ticker along the bottom of the screen screaming in capitals “TUNNEL COMING! SHE GONNA DIE SO BAD!”
And yet the worst is still to come: after her death, Ghost Diana appears to Prince Charles and then to the Queen as a kind of ministering angel, illuminating for them the way and the light and the best way of tending to the mood of the people, to whose every individual heart she has always had a direct hotline. She thanks Charles “for being so raw, broken and handsome” in the hospital when he saw her body. “I’ll take that with me,” she adds. My notes at this point are indecipherable, which is just as well, as I suspect what they say would be unprintable. By the time Ghost Diana takes the Queen’s hand and gently whispers “You’ve always shown us what it meant to be British. Maybe it’s time to learn, too”, and prompts her to cave in to the headline’s demand to “Show us you care, Ma’am”, I am having quite the out-of-body experience myself.
But Ghost Diana is all of a piece with what is now simply a crass, by-numbers piece of film-making, with a script that barely aspires to craft, let alone art, any more. “She doesn’t get to keep the man of her dreams,” says Diana to her ex-husband as they achieve detente. “But the friend of her dreams.” “Look what you’ve managed to achieve in the year since your divorce!” says Dodi at the beginning of The Last Night. “A global anti-landmine campaign! Raising millions for charity! And yet you’re still not happy.” “It’s the story of my life,” sighs pre-Ghost Diana. “Dashing around, losing sight of myself in the process.” It is the very definition of typing-not-writing.
The emotion it does manage to elicit comes simply from the power of small moments – which at least have the sense to fade to silence – such as seeing the boys being told by Charles of their mother’s death, or Harry writing the “Mummy” card that will sit atop the coffin. But even this is little more than voyeurism.
Beyond all its formal failures, late-period Crown is also impossibly hamstrung by being set well within living memory. Even if there were anything to engage with, the memories and consequent questions that crowd into the viewer’s mind at every stage would make it impossible. Was Charles really so astute about what her death would mean, so quickly? It seems unlikely, from everything we knew then, and the mountains we have learned since. And we know Prince Philip didn’t murmur to Harry an explanation of the crowd’s behaviour during the funeral procession (“They’re not crying for her. They’re crying for you”) because we were, effectively, there. We would have seen it. The suspension of disbelief can never be established. Ghost Diana dances among ruins.
‘Royally lost the plot’: how The Crown went from prestige drama to TV disaster
It was once a stately piece of landmark TV, but seven years on it’s a trashy, unwittingly comical melodrama that borders on the exploitative. How did things get so bad?
Fri 17 Nov 2023 06.00 GMT
Prime ministers have called it “malicious nonsense” and “complete rubbish”. Theatrical dames have criticised it as “crude sensationalism”. And now the notices for the new season are in, they don’t make pretty reading, either. The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan found it so excruciating to watch whilst delivering her one-star verdict that she felt like she was having an “out-of-body experience”. Other critics have called it “clumsy and crass”, “ill-judged and outrageous”, “pointless and sad”, “a disappointing new low”, “a very pretty bore”. Let’s call them “mixed reviews”, shall we?
Somehow The Crown – that everyday story of blue-blooded folk – has become the most divisive drama on TV. Forget Euphoria’s druggy orgies or The Idol’s horrendous misogyny. The real shocker on our screens is a family of billionaire toffs gazing mournfully out of palace windows and clapping politely at polo matches.
The Crown’s controversy-bait status has been a gathering storm. When Peter Morgan’s regal saga first swept on to Netflix in 2016, it was lavishly produced and largely non-problematic. Most viewers had no memory of the postwar events it dramatised (the debut run covered 1947 to 1955 – like, totally olden times) nor strong views about them. The people it portrayed (Winston Churchill, Wallis Simpson) were long dead. Any arguments were limited to whether actors looked enough like their real-life counterparts. It was part posh soap opera, part history lesson. Emmys and Golden Globes were duly plundered like colonial treasures.
Over its six seasons, The Crown has steadily caught up with modern times and this has become a mounting problem. Suddenly most of its characters are alive, vocal and consulting their lawyers. Viewers now have vivid memories and their own takes. The closer The Crown creeps to the present, the more historical distance is lost and the more contentious it becomes.
The fourth season was described by the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins as ‘a cowardly abuse of artistic licence’
There were early grumblings about speculative storylines, such as young Princess Margaret’s wish to be queen or Prince Philip’s refusal to kneel at his wife’s coronation. The real Philip considered suing Netflix over the “upsetting” season two subplot where he was blamed for the 1937 death of his sister, Princess Cecilie. The backlash had ramped up by the fourth season, described by the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins as “fake history … reality hijacked as propaganda and a cowardly abuse of artistic licence”. The royals themselves stayed characteristically tight-lipped but Charles’s biographer Jonathan Dimbleby called it “nonsense on stilts”.
There is an argument to say The Crown is merely a scapegoat, taking the rap for a wider shift in attitudes. Due to intrusive press coverage, oversharing interviews and soul-baring memoirs, we know more about the royals than ever. Is it Netflix displaying a lack of reverence or our entire contemporary culture? Does today’s scandal-prone monarchy merit reverence anyway?Morgan was called “callous” for using the death of five-year-old Leonora Knatchbull to precipitate an insinuated romance between her mother Penny and the Duke of Edinburgh. It was widely mocked as jarringly EastEnders-esque when Charles raged at his mother: “If we were an ordinary family and social services came to visit, they would have thrown us into care and you into jail.” Increasingly, The Crown’s imagined dialogue sounds like generic scriptwriting, rather than how these people might actually speak.
Nowadays coverage of the series is more about factchecking it than considering its merits as screen entertainment. Many critics seem confused by the difference between drama and documentary. How dare Morgan lightly spice up events to make them more compelling? Why invent dialogue for the royals and not base the whole thing around dignified silence? Let’s all march on Netflix, waving pitchforks and cuddly Paddington bears.
Unfortunately, the growing controversy coincided with the show’s quality falling off its throne. Biseasonal cast changes haven’t helped. The line of succession from Claire Foy to Olivia Colman to Imelda Staunton has delivered diminishing returns. Jonathan Pryce’s harrumphing incarnation of Prince Philip is a shadow of the nuanced figure portrayed by Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies.
Hard-partying Princess Margaret – an MVP in early seasons, when Vanessa Kirby was terrific and Helen Bonham Carter quietly heartbreaking – has been reduced to fleeting, fag-puffing cameos from a wasted Lesley Manville. Emma Corrin’s empathic embodiment of teen Lady Di propelled her to stardom and Elizabeth Debicki now shines but many remain unconvinced by Dominic West as Charles.
The final season drops in two parts – the first four episodes arrived this week, the last six follow on 14 December – and is dominated by Diana, Princess of Wales’s untimely death. Netflix has been at pains to point out that the 1997 Paris tragedy is depicted “delicately”, assuring pearl-clutching pundits that “the exact moment of crash impact won’t be shown”. Morgan told Variety: “Oh God, we were never going to show the crash. Never.”
Regardless, it is still being berated for poor taste and liberty-taking. The phrase “too soon” has been bandied about. So has the phrase “disaster porn” – before the episodes were seen, naturally. As Morgan said: “All the criticism comes in anticipation of the show coming out. The minute it’s out and people watch it, they instantly fall silent. And probably feel rather stupid.” He has a point but it’s wishful thinking on the “fall silent” part.
It was deeply risky depicting the Pont de l’Alma tunnel crash, which mercifully isn’t seen, only heard. Bafflingly, it’s framed by whimsical scenes of a whistling Parisian taking his dog for a moonlit walk. He’s pleading with the pooch to do its business when a Mercedes hurtles past, tyres squeal and a sickening crunch is audible. It’s a strange creative choice, to say the least.
In seven years, The Crown has gone from a superior Downton Abbey to a gossipy guilty pleasure
Appearances of Diana’s ghost provide a further flashpoint, guaranteed to send Middle England swivel-eyed with outrage. Morgan has denied that her posthumous cameos, talking gnomically to Charles and the Queen from beyond the grave like a willowy Yoda, are strictly spectral. “I never imagined it as Diana’s ghost in the traditional sense,” he said. “It was her continuing to live vividly in the minds of those she left behind.” When she appears from beyond the grave, she genuinely announces herself with a camp “Ta-da!”
Still the clangers keep coming. Foreshadowing of Diana’s death is ham-fisted. Dodi Fayed’s ghost pops up, presumably as a gesture towards equal opportunities in the afterlife. While young Harry is gut-wrenchingly weepy about “Mummy’s” death, Prince William turns into Kevin the teenager – angstily stomping around Balmoral listening to Radiohead. The suite of episodes closes with a moment so silly it’s more likely to make viewers laugh than cry.
In the run-up to this week’s global release, Team Crown embarked on a preemptive “positive publicity drive” in a bid to calm the inevitable blowback. Morgan seemed tetchy and defensive in interviews. No wonder. It all feels an awfully long way from the show’s early highs: Foy’s gong-garlanded performance, the Kenyan tour, Aberfan, the Great Fog, the Marburg Files, those sumptuous $15m-per-episode production values.
What began as a prestige period piece now resembles a trashy telemovie. The untold historical stories and clever parallel plots of earlier series have fallen by the wayside. Slow-burn subtlety has been swapped for splashy melodrama. In seven years, The Crown has gone from a superior Downton Abbey to a gossipy guilty pleasure.
Yet despite all the fact v fiction hand-wringing, it still tops Netflix’s most-viewed charts. In its home stretch, however, this lightning-rod drama has royally lost the plot. We’ll still watch it but we won’t admire it: a sentence that might equally apply