An Aberfan survivor has said he is “uncomfortable” with Netflix’s “callous” portrayal of the Queen and her response to the tragedy.
The small Welsh mining village of Aberfan was left devastated when, on 21st October 1966, a coal waste tip suddenly collapsed from the nearby mountain slope. A total of 116 children and 28 adults died, with most of the victims killed when the avalanche of slurry hit Pantglas Junior School.
The Crown season three dedicates an episode to the disaster and its aftermath, including the Queen’s visit to Aberfan eight days after the event.
Jeff Edwards was eight years old when the disaster took place, and was the last child to be rescued alive from the school. He has since met Queen Elizabeth II several times during her subsequent visits to the area.
In an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com, Edwards criticised how Netflix depicted the monarch’s immediate reaction to the tragedy.
“I thought they portrayed her very, very callously,” he said, a few days after watching a preview of the episode.
In the episode, Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) initially dismisses the suggestion that she should visit Aberfan. After pressure from Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) and trips to the disaster site by her brother-in-law Lord Snowdon (Ben Miles) and husband Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), she does eventually travel to Aberfan eight days after the tragedy – but on returning to Buckingham Palace, she admits to Wilson that she had to pretend to weep for the crowd and the cameras.
Jeff Edwards as he was rescued from Aberfan’s local school, 1996
“[In the episode] she says, ‘We don’t do disasters sites, we do hospitals’,” Edwards recounted. “[When] I first saw that, I thought, ‘Well that’s rather callous’. And knowing the person, I don’t think she would have said that, personally.”
But at the end of the episode, the Queen does genuinely weep as she listens to a recording of the hymn sung by the mourners at the victims’ burial – a moment which Edwards has praised.
“There’s a redeeming feature at the end… I think what they’re trying to portray is her upbringing, her need to be not showing, as head of state, any emotion at all. But at the very end of the programme it showed the tears coming down her eyes, which effectively shows that emotional part.”
He added: “Up to that point, she was portrayed as a very callous person. Totally unfeeling. Totally unfeeling.”
Edwards also said that the onscreen moment where the Queen “artificially wiped her eyes with her handkerchief” hadn’t occurred, asserting that in real life she wept during her first visit to the grieving community, when the granddaughter of the local councillor handed her a posey in private.
He recalled: “We know she did cry, because she went to Jim Williams’ house – and when she came down from the cemetery she was visibly crying.”
Asked about how he thought the episode would be received by audiences, he said: “I am uneasy about the way in which the Queen was portrayed… I think she came over as a very uncaring person who didn’t show her emotions, and in reality that wasn’t the case, and isn’t the case today.”
Edwards added: “I think in terms of the Aberfan perspective itself, it told the story as it happened. All I was uncomfortable with was the callous way in which they portrayed the Queen. That was my only concern about the film.”
Netflix told RadioTimes.com: “Producers of The Crown worked closely with the people of Aberfan to research this episode and met a wide range of people with first hand experience of the tragedy, including Jeff Edwards and other community leaders.
“While it is a fact that Queen didn’t visit the scene of the disaster for eight days we do not feel that this depicts her as either ‘callous’ or ‘totally unfeeling’. We show a monarch who is naturally restrained, while advisors around her question her stoicism in the face of such a terrible disaster.
“We strove to make it clear that her delay in responding to the disaster is one of the greatest regrets of her reign. We state that she has maintained a strong bond with the people of Aberfan for over 50 years, and have heard first hand of the respect and loyalty she commands in the village.
“We have gone to great lengths to depict the days after this tragedy with respect and with a duty of care to the residents. We hope that by bringing this event to a global audience people will have a greater understanding of one of the most tragic events of the Queen’s reign.”
The Crown season three is available on Netflix now
Watch Olivia Colman explain how she got the part of Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown