In the fourth season of Netflix’s The Crown, Peter Morgan’s high-middlebrow docudrama of Queen Elizabeth’s 70-plus years in the public eye enters the tabloid age. Britain’s royals have always generated more press than any family deserves, but starting around 1981 — when Princess Diana joined the fold and gossip became a bigger British export than wool — all the added scrutiny caught even the unflappable Queen off guard. Add in Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister with little time for royal niceties or old-school paternalism. Stir in a bizarre island war halfway across the planet and an IRA murder of a beloved royal. Dress the whole thing up in entertaining dialogue and you get Season 4 of The Crown.
Morgan and his team have obviously read all of the tell-all books written about Britain’s government and monarchy in the Eighties, because these ten episodes are packed with embarrassing backstage revelations about the royal family, most involving either Margaret Thatcher or the Prince of Wales. Morgan has never been this unsparing or anti-monarchial in tone.
But how much is factual? Royal enthusiasts will almost certainly pick nits with some of the show’s more dramatic reenactments, although the general descriptions of events depicted in the program have been in the public record for years. I don’t really know what Morgan — a master of imagined dialogue — was supposed to do in the absence of reporters inside the royal chambers when the more explosive moments of the Diana years happened. Nothing that I saw in these 10 episodes rose to the level of extreme literary license (e.g., Morgan’s suggestion in Season 2 that Prince Philip had something to do with the Profumo affair). Thanks to the intensity of royal coverage during the years covered in Season 4, there was plenty of material to work with that was jaw-dropping enough without need of embellishments.
The Death of Dickie
In 1979, the Irish Republican Army detonated a bomb on a fishing boat being used by Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), or “Uncle Dickie” as everyone in the royal family called him. Killing Mountbatten, a decorated war hero, was “one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country,” as the IRA’s statement claiming responsibility for his death put it. Mountbatten’s killer was released from prison in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement that ended the civil war in Northern Ireland.
It is true that Uncle Dickie was advising Prince Charles closely on personal matters, including the choice of a wife, at the time of his assassination. Royal watchers have speculated that had he been alive, Mountbatten would have put the kibosh on the prince’s fast-tracked courtship with Diana Spencer. It’s unlikely that (as The Crown suggests) Dickie’s last act before his death was to write Charles a note about picking a mate, and for that matter I doubt his counsel would’ve mattered much even had he lived (he once wrote Charles that, “you have got to choose somebody very carefully,” which is advice my uncle could’ve given).
A Girl Named Diana
Though we think we’ve heard everything there is to know about the most spectacular wedding — and failed marriage — of the century, The Crown does manage to bring a fresh angle to the saga of Charles and Diana, played by Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin. Yes, the prince did in fact date Sarah Spencer (among other women) before falling for her younger sister Diana. The imaginative scene where Diana is revealed allows viewers to consider the time, however brief, when Charles was genuinely smitten by this teenage sprite. Diana did win over the prince’s family at their Scottish retreat in Balmoral, though whether it was by gamely slogging through the mud on a hunt with Prince Philip is hard to say. He was her champion inside Windsor, though, and Diana charmed everyone, including Charles, all the way to the marriage altar.
Yet Morgan frames this courtship through the prince’s ongoing dalliance with Camilla Parker-Bowles, his first flame, which he never broke off. Camilla’s importance would not be known until much later, since she was considered to be off the market, having entered into a sham marriage with Andrew Parker-Bowles, a former paramour of Charles’s sister Princess Anne. Because it was the Seventies and no one could foresee the mess that the prince and Diana would make of their nuptials, the idea of Camilla divorcing Andrew to marry Charles was unthinkable to the Queen. Only much later (spoiler alert: coming in Season 6!) would that become the royals’ best option.
The rest of the sad story told in Season 4 — Diana’s virtual imprisonment inside Buckingham Palace (yes, it appears she did roller skate down the halls), her and Charles’s extramarital affairs, the prince’s fury at the princess grabbing all the headlines, the royal family’s tone-deaf insistence that Diana buck up, and that tragic eating disorder — all fairly echo the accounts of Andrew Morton’s 1992 blockbuster Diana: Her True Story and the many, many insider books that followed.
The Iron Lady
The next season of The Crown will feature a new lot of mostly older actors to play Elizabeth and the rest of the gang in the 21st century. Frankly, good riddance to this current cast. With the exception of Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, Erin Doherty as Princess Anne, and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, they have been less actors than SNL-tier celebrity impersonators.
In my opinion the worst of the bunch is Gillian Anderson as Maggie Thatcher, a portrayal so bad that I started to think perhaps she was doing it out of revenge. With her permanently curled lip, Anderson looks and sounds like a stroke victim trying to pass a kidney stone. I’ll give her this — if she was going for something other than Meryl Streep’s portrayal in Iron Lady, she succeeded. And as someone who keeps Audio Description on in Netflix, I will say that the British narrator’s description of Thatcher primping herself was sublime: “At a mirror she sprays her carapace-like hair, and contemplates her immaculate reflection.”
All that aside, were relations between Thatcher and the Queen in fact frosty? Mostly. Did Maggie fail “the Balmoral test” of getting on with the royals in Scotland, the one Diana passed with flying colors? Apparently yes: The PM “regularly had to borrow wellies (mud boots) after turning up with just high heels,” and in general found the Balmoral trips a “tedious waste of time” that she couldn’t escape soon enough.
The Intruder — What? Really?
Did someone actually break into the Queen's bedroom? Perhaps the most shocking revelation to Americans not old enough to remember it — and can hardly imagine such a thing happening — is that on July 9, 1982, an unemployed painter named Michael Fagan broke into Buckingham Palace and awoke the Queen in her bedroom. The two chatted amiably for a few minutes and then he was gone. (And yes, this was his second time eluding security to gain access to the palace.) Remarkably, intruding on the Queen was not a crime back then. The incident has been anthologized for British TV in recent years, including a 2011 Banksy documentary that Fagan (who’s been in and out of scrapes ever since) appeared in. He still lives within walking distance of the Queen.
The Apartheid Split
Queen Elizabeth was insistent — privately, of course — that the UK government back the worldwide movement for economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime, a move that Thatcher just as vigorously opposed. It’s true that the Queen was enraged at Thatcher for her intransigence on sanctions, and used her press secretary Michael Shea to work the backchannels to pressure the PM to give in.
In one scene, Elizabeth tells Princess Margaret, “I don’t like to fight; when I fight I like to win.” But that bit of dialogue may be putting a nice spin on things. According to Margaret, the only time she saw her sister cry was after reports of her feuding with the prime minister appeared in the press. In The Crown, Shea is made the fall guy for the rift going public, and is shown dramatically leaving Buckingham Palace with his possessions in a box. This never happened. “Shea left royal service the following year, although he denied that there was any connection with the earlier controversy,” as Wikipedia puts it. But what kind of drama is there in that?
The Fairytale Falls Apart
Easily the best scene in the whole season, for me anyway, is when Queen Elizabeth finally asks her daughter what in the world is going on with Charles and Diana. Well, Princess Anne begins, “Once there was a beautiful young girl who fell madly in love with a handsome prince. Unfortunately, the prince was in love with someone else” — and as Anne drops one horrifying fact after another, you can see the mortification building on Elizabeth’s stoic brow. “The Wales marriage,” Anne assures her mother, “is a rare example of something that is actually worse than the newspapers report.”
There’s no record of this conversation, which in hindsight makes the princess seem perceptive and wise to everything. Then again, she probably was, having no real stake in the matter. At any rate, it’s true that upon learning of the fragile nature of her son’s marriage, the Queen finally intervened and demanded that Charles and Diana work things out, and that the couple complied for a while. However, by the time Diana went to America for her celebrated tour of a pediatric AIDS ward in Harlem, she was stepping out on the prince and the marriage was in shambles again. At this point, the royals — even the formerly supportive Philip — began to freeze Diana out.
If only Charles were as insanely jealous of Diana’s lovers as he was of her media coverage… but then, The Crown wouldn’t be as interesting, would it?
The Crown's fourth season drops on Netflix November 15th.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: The Crown, Netflix, Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles Dance, Emma Corrin, Gillian Anderson, Josh O'Connor, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Fagan, Olivia Colman, Peter Morgan, Prince Charles, Prince Philip, Princess Anne, Princess Diana, Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II, Tobias Menzies