What is The Crown and how are we to understand it? Does The Crown have a responsibility to be historically accurate, given that it is a historical drama? Are we gaining a better understanding of the people and the events? Or are we indulging in a high-brow soap opera that puts real people and events to the service of make believe drama and muddies the reality of things?
After several weeks of toxic US post-election drama and in the rolling crisis that is the Covid-19 pandemic, enter the latest installment of The Crown. It’s a welcome entertainment break from the world around us, although each season’s dramatic action can remind us that the world has been through plenty of dramatic events in every era. Yet, without wanting to break the spell over The Crown, it seems there are some questions to ponder as we watch The Firm live their lives in their gilded cages of duty and privilege.
Now in its fourth series, the Netflix drama The Crown takes us inside the lives of the British royal family. British screenwriter Peter Morgan has written The Crown, and Morgan also penned the screenplay for the 2006 film The Queen that depicted the events following the death of Princess Diana in 1997. The series began in 1947 with a young Elizabeth marrying Philip and, shortly thereafter, becoming Queen with the death of her father. This latest installment moves to the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher in British PM, the country is in turmoil and Prince Charles marries a young Diana. We all now know the tragic end-point of that story and this season is heavy with that sense of tragic foreboding. In many ways, the coronavirus crisis of this year is also revealing the results of economic inequality and weakened public institutions that can be traced back to the conservative, neoliberal ideology advanced by the likes of Thatcher and Reagan at that time, and championed by conservatives, including in Australia, since then.
The series has always walked a delicate line between historical accuracy and creative licence. We know many of the major events – either we’ve lived through them or we know about them through our shared, acquired history. Anything we’re a bit sketchy on, a quick Google search or check on Wikipedia can usually fill in the details for us. In The Crown, it’s the personal conversations and intimate exchanges, along with the smaller events that we don’t know about, that fill out much of the drama. It’s where the writer takes his creative licence. This blending on historical events and actual people can leave us as the audience thinking ‘did they really say that’ or ‘did they really do that’? Or perhaps even assuming that it’s an accurate retelling of something.
As an audience to the private, but imagined, exchanges it’s worth keeping in mind, it’s just that – an imagined filling in on the behind-closed-palace-doors exchanges that may bear little resemblance to reality. Have the producers attempted to colour in all the missing bits from the Royal family with accuracy? Probably not. This is not a historical documentary after all. Have they taken one of the most famous family dynasties and given themselves a bit of creative licence? Probably more so. Does the fact that The Crown adheres closely to events and people, make it so enthralling? Yes. But is it that this grounding in actual people and events that makes it problematic. Probably, yes, also. It’s engrossing for this reason but also troubling because it relies on known events and people, while also making no claim to accuracy or its veracity.
The Crown expresses the deep curiosity many people have in imagining what ‘ordinary life’ is like behind the palace walls. The audience get to be voyeurs inside the tightly guarded walls of this historical yet secretive institution. We see characters like Charles putting duty and role above love, with tragic consequences. We see the stark disparity between the life of privilege and the struggles of ordinary Britons in the 80s. We see a populist, conservative leader beating the drums of war to rising popularity while unemployment rises and she attempts to recast the role of government and citizens from the state and society to the economy and the individual. There are many parallels to today, with Trumpism in the US, elements of hard-right conservatism in Australia and the populist politics in the UK. This season takes a harsher lense to the Windsors, although the series has always blended a certain pity, with a sharp critique of privilege. It also gives a nod to the seductive grandeur of the pomp and pageantry that royalty gives its citizens and conveys to the world.
If you’re looking for more to read and watch related to The Crown, here are a few suggestions. Also on Netflix, The Story of Diana is like a companion piece to this season of The Crown, examining Diana’s life from her childhood to her tragic death. Historians, journalists, friends, family and charity partners of the princess recount the significant effect she had on modernising the Royal Family, charity work and carving out an identity as a modern royal.
This profile from The New York Times is of series writer Peter Morgan and the effect the series has had on our perception of The Firm and its relevance today.
In this Vogue story, the show’s production team answer questions about whether some of this season’s events actually happened.
Biographer Andrew Morton, who penned the book about Diana, with help from the princess, thinks that Emma Corrin’s Diana is the best he’s seen.
If you love The Crown, here are Vogue’s picks of the seven best British shows to watch.
12 Royal TV Shows Like Netflix’s The Crown.
If you keen to brush up on royal history, there’s a lot to watch and read about Victoria in this Broad post from last year.
And there is plenty more virtual entertainment to be had if you’re in confined to home.