Oh, for goodness sake – what an exasperating ‘debate’ to be tediously dragging ourselves through in a year that’s gloomy enough already. I am talking, of course, about the so-called outrage about The Crown being (gasp) a drama not a documentary, with even the Culture Secretary stepping in to tell the Mail on Sunday that he feared The Crown’s viewers “may mistake fiction for fact” and that Netflix ought to “be very clear at the beginning” that this is a work of fiction.
Netflix could put it in the drama category, for a start. (Oh wait, that’s where it is already.) Or they could make an official podcast detailing how real events were translated into drama. (Oh, they’ve done that too.) Or could they at least create a whole YouTube mini-documentary series about the truth behind the Crown? (Yep, done that too.) Or could the actors talk extensively in interviews on that subject? (They have.) Or perhaps publications could write an absolute ton of guides to the real history behind The Crown? (We’ve done just that at RadioTimes.com, and you should take a look, hint, hint.)
It all seems like a storm of manufactured outrage. Not that I can see the harm of Netflix adding a content warning flagging that “some scenes have been invented for dramatic purposes” or some such – but isn’t that just blindingly obvious?
Still, the funny thing is this: even though The Crown clearly employs dramatic licence (and has never, ever tried to hide this fact), it is actually an intensely well-researched TV show that is fundamentally a lot more truthful than the current ‘debate’ suggests.
Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert on royal affairs. But The Crown is a huge show for us at RadioTimes.com, which makes it a huge show for me as Drama Editor; accordingly, as soon as Netflix sent me previews for season four I scurried down to my local library and began madly researching and fact-checking.
Over the course of the month, I took out so many books about Margaret Thatcher and the Royal Family that I probably have a reputation there as some kind of eccentric über-Conservative royalist. I combed through Richard Coles’ autobiography hunting out references to Derek “Dazzle” Jennings; I read the transcripts from Andrew Morton’s interview with Princess Diana, and from Prince Charles’s interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. The face of the heir to the throne still stares balefully at me from a book cover atop a tall pile in my living room.
And aside from the books, there was also the internet to provide us with plenty of old news reports, while my colleague dived deep into the newspaper archives to uncover even more. We were clearly treading much of the same ground covered by The Crown’s Head of Research Annie Sulzberger and her team.
So having read all of this material, what struck me was how true-to-life The Crown is; even the invented scenes and conversations are generally based on a germ of truth.
For example, Lord Mountbatten (played by Charles Dance) probably didn’t send Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) a scathing letter just before he was blown up by an IRA bomb, thereby imploring his grand-nephew from beyond the grave to give up Camilla and find a suitable bride.
But in real life, he did instruct Charles to “choose a suitable, attractive and sweet-charactered girl before she met anyone else she might fall for,” adding: “I think it is disturbing for women to have experiences if they have to remain on a pedestal after marriage.” He was also keen for Charles to marry, and soon. You can see where the storyline came from, even if it has been heightened for the purposes of good TV.
So is that story in The Crown fundamentally misleading? Personally, I don’t think so.
I’d say the same for the storyline about Winston Churchill’s secretary Venetia Scott in season one (invented to tell the story of the Great Smog), and I’d say the same about the Prince Philip and the moon landing astronauts episode in season three (exaggerated to explore the character of Prince Philip).
Then there’s the big storyline at the heart of season four: the affair between Prince Charles and Camilla, and the disaster of Charles and Diana’s marriage. (The arrival of Diana in The Crown probably explains why this is all suddenly so contentious and political.)
Now, it’s an obvious truth that none of us – including The Crown screenwriter Peter Morgan – were there, in the room, watching Charles and Diana fighting or watching Charles and Camilla doing… whatever they did, at whatever point they did truly restart their affair. Any viewer of The Crown must be aware that these private scenes and conversations are fictionalised.
But we do know certain facts. We know about Diana’s bulimia, and the troubled relationship between her and Charles, and their respective affairs. We know about the Balmoral Test, and we know about Diana’s pain when she discovered the “Fred & Gladys” bracelet destined for Camilla; we know about Princess Diana’s Uptown Girl dance with Wayne Sleep. We’ve heard Diana’s version of events, and we’ve heard (to a slightly lesser extent) Charles’s version of events.
If Prince Charles and his second wife Camilla watch this show, they certainly won’t have enjoyed season four. But, frankly, The Crown didn’t invent the affair between Charles and Camilla; the core plot points that we see on screen did genuinely happen in real life, and Netflix can hardly be blamed for reminding people of that (or informing younger viewers for the first time).
And if The Crown is sympathetic to Diana in its telling of the story, I can’t muster any outrage about that either. After everything I’ve read, and everything I’ve watched, I feel pretty sympathetic towards Diana, too.