British press states that some vital scenes are simply made up, such as Mountbatten's letter to Charles, and Diana being dressed up in costume when she first met Prince Charles. How dangerous is such artistic liberty?
By Scott Bryan
Published: Nov 23, 2020
A still from the Netflix series 'Crown' Image: Des Willie/Netflix
LONDON — Asking British people their views on “The Crown” is like asking what they think of the real-life royal family; like them or loathe them, everyone has an opinion.
The release of the fourth season of Netflix’s opulent drama about the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II has sparked an especially large flurry of reactions in the British press and social media, since the season spans not just a tumultuous period for the royal family but also a divisive time in British politics. It also sees the introduction of two key figures in 20th century British life: Margaret Thatcher (played by Gillian Anderson) and Diana, Princess of Wales (Emma Corrin).
Below is a roundup of how Britons have been reacting to the new season, including complaints about Prince Charles’ fishing technique and concerns about the impact on the real royal family.
Emma Corrin wows
Corrin’s portrayal of Diana has impressed British critics, and those who knew the princess have also voiced their praise. Andrew Morton, who worked with Diana on an explosive 1992 biography, told Vanity Fair, “I think Emma Corrin’s performance is far and away the most accomplished and realistic portrayal of Diana I have seen.”
Corrin’s performance also reflected what made Diana so popular with the public, according to Rachel Cooke in the New Statesman. “The spooky secret of her performance lies not in the upward gaze of her eyes,” Cooke wrote, “but, rather, in the way she radiates Diana’s teenage energy — a sometimes disabling vitality that the princess, in reality, never fully managed to lose.”
A scene in which a shy Diana stands in front of news media from around the world following her engagement to Prince Charles quickly became a meme on Twitter. One user posted it with the caption: “Me on a Zoom call pretending I’m listening and not just looking at myself.”
Questions of accuracy
While “The Crown” explores real events and has been praised for its attention to detail, it is at its heart a dramatization featuring fictional conversations. As a result, many newspapers have fact-checked the show.
In a long review of the series for The Times of London, historian Hugo Vickers lamented the depiction of the queen as being “glum and schoolmistressly.” He also argued that, contrary to what viewers saw in this season’s third episode, Diana was actually well versed in the protocols of curtsying.
The Daily Mail published its own fact check. “Princess Diana was dressed as a ‘mad tree’ for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when she first met Prince Charles: FALSE,” the paper stated, and “Royal Family are bloodthirsty and obsessed with hunting: PARTLY TRUE.”
In a discussion on The Crown: The Official Podcast, the show’s creator Peter Morgan said that a plot point surrounding a critical letter between Lord Mountbatten and Prince Charles, advising the prince to marry Diana and not Camilla Parker Bowles, may not have existed.
By Tuesday, Morgan’s comments were front page news. “Crown writer defends making up scenes,” said a Times of London headline above reports from unnamed sources that Prince Charles was upset by his depiction and had refused to watch the show.
… and whether fiction is dangerous
Much has been written about whether such creative license matters. “‘The Crown’’s fake history is as corrosive as fake news” reads the headline on a piece by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. “‘The Crown’ has taken its liberties by relying on royalty’s well-known — and sensible — reluctance to resort to the courts,” Jenkins wrote. “This is artistic license at its most cowardly as well as casual.”
“This Morning,” a popular daytime talk show on British television, recently broadcast a segment titled “Is ‘The Crown’ now too close to home?” asking whether the fictional aspects of the plot could be harmful to people still alive.
“We all love a good drama,” said Philip Schofield, one of the show’s presenters. “The problem is that the royal family are still people at heart, just people, just a family, who get hurt and stung by things that quite blatantly appear not to be true.”
Jennie Bond, who was the royal correspondent for the BBC at the time the series is set, told the BBC’s Newscast podcast that “I think the difficulty is knowing which is the truth and which isn’t … particularly for the younger generation who are watching who hadn’t lived through those times, who didn’t know those people, they are going to believe what they see. They are going to see this as a documentary.”
Thatcher still splits opinion
While the fifth episode does explore the high levels of unemployment and economic strife in the early years of Thatcher’s government, critics of the Iron Lady have still expressed fears “The Crown” will humanize her and her Conservative politics.
Clips of Thatcher advocating for Section 28, a policy banning the promotion or acceptance of homosexuality in schools, have been widely circulated on Twitter. “While you’re all stanning ‘sexy Maggie’ here’s a reminder of how toxic she was,” one user wrote on Twitter.
Equally, some fans of Thatcher have taken issue with Anderson’s portrayal of her. “The caricature of Thatcher is a travesty,” one viewer told The Telegraph. “Even her voice sounds as though she has a permanent sore throat, when, in fact, it was strong and commanding.”
Michael Fagan is unimpressed
While it is difficult to know how members of the royal family feel about their depiction in the series, one character from the fourth season has made his feelings known.
Speaking to the British tabloid The Sun, Michael Fagan, who broke into Buckingham Palace and entered the queen’s bedroom in 1982, said that he was unhappy with his portrayal: “I’m actually better-looking, and he seems totally charmless,” he said.
A surprise cameo
Eagle-eyed viewers spotted what looks like a mouse running through a scene about a phone call between Prince Charles and other members of the royal family. Greg James, the BBC Radio 1 presenter, responded to the animal’s cameo on his breakfast show, saying “It’s no ‘Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup or ‘Downton Abbey’ bottle of Evian in shot, but it is definitely up there.”
Not long after it was spotted by viewers, the Twitter account for “The Crown” responded to a user’s post with “Outstanding Guest In A Drama Series?”
Letters of complaint
British viewers have sent in some rather pointed letters to newspapers about “The Crown.”
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, one viewer was aghast at the portrayal of Prince Charles’ fishing technique: “To imagine that any self-respecting fisherman would allow his line to touch down so catastrophically is bad enough, but to then suggest that such a cast could possibly result in the landing of a fine salmon is tantamount to gross — almost criminal — negligence.”
The queen’s salute has also been criticized. A letter by an army veteran to The Times of London read, “To my recollection Her Majesty’s salute has always been exemplary, with the forearm and hand being ramrod straight. This may not perhaps be noticed by many viewers, but to us ex-military types, with a passion for standards, it is particularly galling.”
Such specific criticisms about “The Crown” are hardly new. When the first season was released in 2016, Matt Ridley, a member of the House of Lords, also wrote a letter to The Times of London. “Walking through a marsh near Sandringham at Christmas, the King [George VI] points out a reed warbler to the Duke of Edinburgh. At that time of year all reed warblers are in sub-Saharan Africa (as the duke would well know),” he wrote.
“The producers go to such trouble to get the costumes and props right: Why not the birds?”