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'The Crown' stokes an uproar over fact vs. entertainment

Dramatic liberties in the latest season of the Netflix series, covering the turbulent 1980s, are annoying Britons who wrote of that period, even among those who disparage the royals

By Mark Landler
Published: Nov 28, 2020

'The Crown' stokes an uproar over fact vs. entertainmentAn undated photo from Netflix of Stephen Boxer and Gillian Anderson in “The Crown.” Dramatic liberties in the latest season of the Netflix series, covering the turbulent 1980s, have annoyed Britons who wrote about that period, even among those who disparage the monarchy. (Des Willie/Netflix via The New York Times)

LONDON — On a Saturday night in July 1986, a band of bureaucrats in raincoats — one contingent from Buckingham Palace, the other from 10 Downing St. — converged on a newsstand in a train station to snap up The Sunday Times, fresh off the presses with a bombshell headline: “Queen Dismayed by ‘Uncaring’ Thatcher.”

It’s a dramatic flourish from the latest season of the “The Crown” — except, according to Andrew Neil, the paper’s editor at the time, it never happened. “Nonsense,” he said. “All first editions are delivered to both” the palace and the prime minister’s residence, making a late-night dash to buy the paper superfluous.

Neil, who published the famous scoop about tensions between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, said the invented scene had allowed Peter Morgan, creator of the hugely popular Netflix series about the British royal family, to depict 1980s London as a place of “squalor and vagabonds.”

Through four vivid seasons of “The Crown,” Morgan has never denied taking artistic license with the saga of the royals, playing out their private joys and sorrows against the pageant of 20th-century British history.

Yet “The Crown” is now colliding with the people who wrote the first draft of that history.

That has spun up a tempest in the British news media, even among those who ordinarily profess not to care much about the monarchy. Newspapers and television programs have been full of starchy commentary about how “The Crown” distorts history in its account of the turbulent decade in which Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer and Thatcher wrought a free-market revolution in British society.

The objections range from the personal (the queen’s brittle, coldhearted treatment of her emotionally fragile daughter-in-law, which the critics claim is unfair) to the political (the show’s portrait of Thatcher-era Britain as a right-wing dystopia in the grip of a zealous leader who dares to lecture her sovereign during their weekly audiences). Historians said that is utterly inconceivable.

“There has been such a reaction because Peter Morgan is now writing about events many of us lived through and some of us were at the center of,” said Neil, who edited The Sunday Times from 1983 to 1994.

Neil, who went on to be a broadcaster and publisher, is no reflexive defender of the royal family. Suspicious of Britain’s class system, he said he had sympathies for the republican movement in the 1980s. But he grew to admire how the queen modernized the monarchy after the upheaval of those years and has been critical of renegade royals like Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan.

The events involving Neil did happen: The queen became frustrated with Thatcher when she refused to join the 48 other members of the Commonwealth in backing sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. This highly unusual clash spilled into public when The Sunday Times published its front-page report, attributed to palace officials, which said the royal family viewed Thatcher as “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive.”

But Neil disputed several elements of “The Crown’s” retelling, not least that Buckingham Palace made the queen’s press secretary, Michael Shea, the scapegoat for the incident. The show depicts his being fired for having leaked the story, even though it suggests that he did so at the queen’s behest. There is no evidence of this, Neil said, but it fits Morgan’s “left-wing agenda.”

“He gets to depict Thatcher as pretty much an ally of apartheid, while the queen is the sort of person who junks loyal flunkies when things go wrong, even when they are just doing her bidding,” Neil said.

The brickbats are not just from the right.

Simon Jenkins, a columnist for the left-leaning Guardian, regards members of the royal family as artifacts of celebrity culture irrelevant to a country grappling with real-world challenges like Brexit. “They are practically defunct,” he said. “They are like anthropomorphized figures of a head of state.”

Yet he, too, is angered by how “The Crown” portrayed the events of the 1980s, when, as political editor of The Economist, he wrote about how Charles had been drawn to the now-defunct Social Democratic Party. (He based the report on an off-the-record interview with the prince.) Jenkins said that because this season of the “The Crown” deals with contemporary history and people who are still alive, its liberties with the facts are less a case of artistic license than an example of “fake news.”

“I find it offensive when people dump standards of veracity in relating contemporary history,” Jenkins said. “If I did that as a journalist, I’d be hauled up before the press council, while these people get prizes.”

Like others, Jenkins pointed to an episode-by-episode analysis by Hugo Vickers, a royal historian, which found whoppers large and small in the series and has become Exhibit A for its prevarications.

Not everybody faults Morgan for filling in the missing pieces with conjured scenes, even if he jumbles the facts in the process. (Thatcher’s son, Mark, was not lost in the desert during the Paris-Dakar auto rally just as his mother was preparing to go to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands; hostilities broke out a few months after he was found.)

Charles Moore, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph who wrote a three-volume biography of Thatcher, praised Gillian Anderson’s performance as the prime minister, putting it on a par with Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning turn in the 2011 film “The Iron Lady.” Even a much-criticized episode in which a snobbish queen plays host to a fish-out-of-water prime minister and her husband, Denis, at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, struck him as having “the ring of truth,” despite some embellishments.

“The Crown,” Moore said, is trying to have it both ways, selling itself to audiences as a true story while clearing out the extraneous debris of facts that would gum up its dramatic narrative. “There is this thing called the tyranny of fact,” he said. “But as we get to modern times, it gets harder to avoid.”

Morgan declined to respond to the criticisms, though he told The New York Times this month that he was mindful that this season would be held to closer scrutiny. The producers mined the copious news reports of the period as well as biographies of Charles and Diana, which contained firsthand accounts of their misbegotten union.

What is depicted in the family’s private moments, however, is “an act of creative imagination,” Morgan has said.

Behind the frustration with “The Crown” is a recognition that, right or wrong, its version of the royal family is likely to serve as the go-to narrative for a generation of viewers, particularly young ones, who do not remember the 1980s, let alone the more distant events covered in earlier seasons.

“They’ll watch it and think this is the way it was,” said Dickie Arbiter, who served as a press secretary to the queen from 1988 to 2000. He took issue with parts of the plot, including a scene in which aides to Charles question Diana about whether she is mentally stable enough to travel alone to New York City.

“I was actually at that meeting,” Arbiter said. “No courtier would ever say that in a million years.”

The biggest problem, said Penny Junor, who has written biographies of Charles, Diana and Thatcher, is that “The Crown” is a prodigiously effective piece of entertainment. That, she said, poses a particular threat to Charles, who arguably comes off worst in the series and who is likely to ascend the throne before memories of his grim, hunched portrayal have completely faded.

“It is wonderful television,” Junor said. “It is beautifully acted. The mannerisms are perfect. But it is fiction, and it is very destructive.”

©2019 New York Times News Service