Like so many of us Americans, I love British drama, I’m a tiny bit obsessed with the Royal Family, and I will put up with a lot for a series featuring good accents and good costumes—so watching The Crown is a foregone conclusion.
I was intrigued by Claire Foy’s enigmatic portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in season 1 and 2, and impressed by Olivia Colman in season 3. Overall, the thing that I loved about The Crown was its deft ability to portray historical (and even living) characters with realism but not deference—the story was humanizing at the same time as it was just a tiny bit damning.
Seasons 1-3 were not promotional material for today’s Royal Family. The characters were complex and multifaceted, and their various shortcomings were far from skimmed over. At the same time, though, the series had a way of drawing me into imagining what it really would be like to have Queen Elizabeth’s—or Princess Margaret’s, or Prince Philip’s—experiences. It invited introspection—what choices would you have made? What kind of person would you have been, if you were under these conditions? That building up of empathy was the whole fascination of the series—the ability to see the story of the Queen as part of the vast and fascinating human experience.
In season 4, that castle came crashing down. The deftness that used to pervade the entire series was preserved only in Emma Corrin’s dynamic and masterful portrayal of Diana; surrounding Diana was a cast of politically-inflected caricatures. And this sudden heavy-handedness was not confined to the characters; while Netflix has always taken historical liberties, the liberties that it took with this series were laughable—if one didn’t want to cry.
As a recent U.S. expat in the United Kingdom, I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the relationship between our two countries, and aware of the stereotypes that exist on both sides of the pond. The United Kingdom is home to a flourishing diversity of opinion (often outspokenly expressed); well-reasoned arguments abound on everything from the monarchy to Brexit.
My beloved Americans across the Atlantic sometimes see the United Kingdom as a fantasy land where every person speaks in a funny accent, has a character somewhere on the spectrum from Bertie Wooster to Jeeves, and has no feelings. If you don’t think people have feelings, you’re in danger of misrepresenting or hurting them badly—and perhaps even of corrupting the healthy debates of their political system.
The Crown season 4 is the cinematic embodiment of the “Brits don’t have feelings” trope. The series, which presents itself as a historical drama and will at least be widely associated with documentaries about the period, is actually fiction, and very little effort has been made—or, probably, will be made—by Netflix to make this abundantly clear. Rather than building up empathy for the characters portrayed, season 4 distances its viewers from its characters in a time when empathy is deeply needed across the globe. If you plan to tune into season 4, or have had a chance to give it a watch, here are a few of Netflix’s artistic liberties, and the effects of those liberties, to keep in mind. Spoilers ahead!
Michael Fagan had no conversation with the Queen on the day of his break-in.
In season 4 episode 5, scandal strikes when a man breaks into Buckingham Palace and makes it all the way to the Queen’s bedroom. In the show, Queen Elizabeth maintains a cool exterior and talks to the trespasser—an actor portraying the historical Michael Fagan—for about ten minutes. Afterward, media is abuzz to know what they talked about, and the viewer is brought into the loop: Fagan broke into the palace to object to Margaret Thatcher’s political views, which he sees as responsible for his current unemployment and disintegrating family life.
Michael Fagan, who still lives in London, says that he and the queen had no such conversation. According to Fagan’s account, “she told him ‘I’ll be back in a minute’ and ‘walked out on her little legs’ before a footman offered him a drink.” Moreover, he had no high-minded political arguments to make, as The Independent’s interview with Fagan (note: adult content) makes clear:
Even all these years later, he cannot explain his motivation. “I don’t know why I did it, something just got into my head,” he says, breaking into a Pink Floyd song: “There’s someone in my head and it’s not me…” Describing his second visit, he adds: “I went back because I thought ‘that’s naughty, that’s naughty that I can walk round there.’”
Instead of being a faithful account of an episode in the Queen’s history that was surely colorful enough without embellishment, The Crown uses the incident as an opportunity to present the criticism of Margaret Thatcher’s politics with which the series overflows: in life and in death, Margaret Thatcher was a deeply divisive figure, but opinions widely differ on the effects of her management. Season 4, however, presents her as universally hated by working classes and royal family alike—a presentation that is decidedly on one side of the debate.
In an interview with Vogue, The Crown’s head of research and a producer claimed that “Michael Fagan has changed his story many times” but “was able to be a vessel through which to represent a lot of people in this period when unemployment was so high.” Though the two Vogue interviewees indicated that they researched Fagan and that their research showed one reason for the break-in was frustration with Thatcher’s politics, Fagan himself has asserted that he was not interviewed before the episode was written.
The widow of the man killed in “Avalanche” (Episode 9) specifically asked Netflix not to portray the event.
While the events in “Avalanche” are generally historically accurate, it’s unfortunate that they were portrayed, and especially that in one instance an actress is in fact portraying a living woman who didn’t want her story dramatized. In Episode 9, close friend of Prince Charles Major Hugh Lindsay is killed when accompanying the prince skiing. In a heart-wrenching scene, we watch his widow weeping but standing at attention as her husband’s body is taken off the airplane that transported Charles and Diana back from their holiday in Switzerland.
It’s even more heartbreaking when one realizes that this widow is the a living woman who asked Netflix not to dramatize her husband’s death and considers their decision “very unkind.” While of course one can’t accommodate every request, this seemed to me to be another unfortunate incidence of Netflix’s overstepping personal emotional boundaries. As The Guardian relates,
Major Hugh Lindsay, a former Queen’s equerry, was skiing off-piste at the Swiss resort of Klosters in 1988 with a group including senior royals when disaster struck, with his friend the Prince of Wales and others reported to have dug snow with their hands in a vain attempt to save his life.
After the Crown episode entitled Avalanche was made available for streaming last week, Lindsay’s widow, Sarah Horsley, has revealed she had asked Netflix not to adapt the disaster for television.
“I was horrified when I was told [the episode] was happening and was very concerned about the impact on my daughter,” she told the Sunday Telegraph.
“I’m very upset by it and I’m dreading people seeing it. I wrote to them asking them not to do it, not to use the accident. I suppose members of the royal family have to grin and bear it, but for me it’s a very private tragedy.”
The royal family did not—and would have had no occasion to—spitefully mock Diana for not knowing the ins and outs of court etiquette.
Ah, the trope of the unwitting common woman who marries a prince and can’t fit into the royal family. It’s so compelling I almost don’t blame Netflix for falling into it. But—come on. In a painful scene in the series, Diana is portrayed in the center of a circle of members of the Royal Family, being made to look a fool by their scolding and instructions about whom to address, how to address them, and when and how to curtsey. This is fair to neither the historical Diana nor the living Royal Family. As historian Hugo Vickers put it for The Times,
This is spiteful rubbish. Diana had been brought up in the shadow of Sandringham, at Park House. Her two grandmothers and four great-aunts were in the Queen Mother’s household. Her father had been equerry to the Queen on the 1953-54 Commonwealth tour. She knew precisely what to do.
Camilla and Prince Charles’ affair did not begin until 5 years into his marriage.
Whatever you might think of Prince Charles’ politics and highly publicized affair, it’s undeniable that he gets the short end of the stick in The Crown season 4. While in season 3 he was believably tortured, frustrated, and multi-dimensional, in season 4 (despite Josh O’Connor’s acting talents), he is written as little more than a selfish villain. Throughout the series, I was shocked by the words put in the mouths of the characters (including but not limited to the Queen, Margaret Thatcher, and Princess Anne—but generally excepting Diana).
Though of course the show is meant to be a drama of the life of the royal family behind closed doors, it’s hard to believe that anyone with any moderate sense of decency would consistently say the callous, cruel, and selfish things that some of the members of the Royal Family are portrayed as saying, even in private. At the very least, a royal upbringing would seem to include some awareness of when one is coming off as rude—and anyone who knows human nature knows that even when we are being selfish and cruel, we don’t want to sound selfish and cruel.
Prince Charles comes in for the worst of the series’ depicting famous figures as lacking basic human decency. Charles’ abuse of Diana through his relationship with Camilla is particularly grossly exaggerated and inaccurately portrayed. Prince Charles has said that his affair with Camilla was not reignited until his marriage had “irretrievably broken down”—while this may not be an excuse for infidelity, it does mean that the Prince Charles who is calling Camilla almost every day of his first year of marriage is nothing but a hurtful fiction.
While the Royal Family is no doubt used to such things, it’s worth considering what effect our entertainment may have on the lives of real people. A biographer of Prince Charles writes that “He is one of the saddest people I have ever encountered. His entire life has been sacrificed to duty. He has been criticised, he has been hounded, he has been ridiculed and still he battles on, carrying his bruised and fragile ego into another minefield of controversy.”
The now-72-year-old prince has hardly turned out to be a supervillain, pursuing interests as wide-ranging as sustainable farming, charitable work, and world religions. Fans of The Crown are now hurling abuse at Charles and Camilla on Instagram—thank goodness that according to a friend of Camilla, the 73-year old woman now 15 years into her marriage with Prince Charles “has a wonderful sense of humour and this won’t fuss her in the slightest.” If only we all had such thick skin.
Unfortunately, the issue is rumoredly a painful one for William, Harry, and their stepsister, who are now navigating marriages and families of their own. It’s easy to think of The Crown as a fun, fictional portrayal, but the fact is that it dramatizes personal stories of people who still live, and whose children and grandchildren will have to deal with the fallout from that dramatization.
Margaret Thatcher never asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament (and wasn’t a creepy automaton despised and mocked by all).
I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped in the scene where Margaret Thatcher is portrayed as asking the queen to dissolve Parliament to preserve Thatcher’s power. It’s of course a fabrication, but what’s more concerning is that could mislead the audience. Parliament is “dissolved” every five years, for the next election. Technically, before 2011 parliamentary elections were at the behest of the monarch, so they could and would dissolve Parliament to make way for the incoming cohort. The problem is that the portrayal in season 4 could delude the audience (including me, at first blush) into thinking that Margaret Thatcher is asked the Queen to get rid of an entire branch of government so that she can rule as dictator.
Of course, that idea is absurd (the earliest use of the world “parliament” to refer to a ruling body in the British Isles was in 1236). But the nuance will most likely be lost on large parts of international audiences, especially in the United States. This was only the most egregious, though, of a series of exaggerations and misinformation about the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Opinions differ about Gillian Anderson’s Thatcher. Some are calling for awards; others, like me, feel that it more resembled a thinly veiled parody of the Iron Lady. The raspiness of Anderson’s voice doesn’t do Thatcher any favors (or justice), making her sound closer to 84 than 54, her real age when she was elected prime minister. But here, again, the acting is less at fault than the extreme artistic license taken by the script.
When we are first introduced to Margaret Thatcher, Thatcher tells the Queen that she doesn’t think women are capable of high office because they are overly emotional (a remark that has no basis in Thatcher’s public record). Then, she is portrayed as emotionally compromised when her son goes missing, leading to the British invasion of the Falklands. The Falklands plotline is blatantly historically inaccurate, but I’m more concerned about what it means as a portrayal of a woman in politics.
Thatcher revolutionized the economic policy of the United Kingdom. Contrary to what Netflix would lead us to believe, her economic reforms were not an attempt to single-handedly destroy the entire British economy and leave everyone jobless—in fact, many credit her with reviving the economy of Great Britain. Most importantly, by allying with Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, she helped bring down the Iron Curtain and end the Cold War—an event that I didn’t even hear mentioned in The Crown season 4, though dark hints that she had apartheid sympathies, her dramatic downfall from office, and her (alleged) failure to be any fun at obscure parlor games all get plenty of screen time.
Season 4 somehow manages to portray Margaret Thatcher as emotionless, rude, and unkind, while also including an imagined situation where she gets so emotional she leads the country into war. Not only can’t they have it both ways, I would argue they can’t have it either way. The historical Thatcher was a complex, powerful woman, not an antisocial dictator.
The uneven portrayal comes to a head when, after fanning the flames of media rumors that Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher didn’t get along (riddled with historical inaccuracies—read a firsthand account here), Netflix next shows us the Queen presenting Thatcher with the Order of Merit. It’s enough to give one cinematic whiplash. Only one explanation is offered for the Queen’s sudden appreciation of Thatcher’s merits: they’re both women. The Queen expresses respect for “the way you dealt with your stuffy, rather patronizing, gray-haired men throughout your time in office, and saw them all off” and addresses her (finally) “not just as queen to prime minister, but woman to woman.”
It’s really unfortunate that the show suggests that women in politics only band together because they’re women—not because they agree on anything, not because they have independent political positions that each respects, but because they’re the only women around.
Instead, the historical circumstances point to true mutual respect. As Town and Country observes,
Unlike most other royal honors, the Order of Merit is solely awarded based on the Queen's discretion, without input from her staffers or government officials. This, perhaps, even more than the exclusivity and esteem of the Order, is why it’s so meaningful that she appointed Thatcher—it was a choice the Queen made herself. “This exposes the talk that Mrs. Thatcher and the queen did not get on as rubbish,” Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of “Burke's Peerage,” told the Baltimore Sun at the time.
Making the Order of Merit a mere moment of “girl time” is not only inaccurate; it’s disrespectful.
In a piece for the Guardian titled “The Crown’s fake history is as corrosive as fake news,” Simon Jenkins emphasized how the Royal Family is unlikely to take action against Netflix in the form of defamation lawsuits (though the U.K. government has called on Netflix to label the series as fictional, something the media giant has refused to do). As Jenkins observed,
Laws of privacy, defamation and slander have been built up over years to protect individuals against ever more surveillance and intrusion into personal lives. Most people support them, and increasing numbers use them. The Crown has taken its liberties by relying on royalty’s well-known—and sensible—reluctance to resort to the courts. This is artistic licence at its most cowardly as well as casual.
The unfortunate thing is that artistic license, when taken too far, undermines the art. The series became less and less compelling as many of the main characters behaved less and less like human beings and more and more like political cartoons. I missed the depth and intensity that we associate with British drama. Watching Diana’s continual bulimic episodes, I started to have a queasy feeling that what once was a fluffy historical spectacle was becoming voyeuristic. When Netflix premieres season 5, I’m not sure I will be tuning in.
Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that Margaret Thatcher was the UK's only female prime minister. She was the first of two female prime ministers to date.