The people of the United Kingdom are in the midst of a challenging moment.
Queen Elizabeth II, a quietly galvanizing presence in British life for 70 years, died in September. The country is on its third prime minister in as many months. Rocked by inflation, Brexit and record energy costs, the economy is in dire condition.
Plus, a new season of “The Crown” awaits.
The Emmy-winning series about Elizabeth II’s reign returns to Netflix on Wednesday, just two months after the queen’s death at age 96. The timing, though coincidental, is undeniably awkward: Just as 73-year-old King Charles III is finally settling into his role as monarch, the 10-episode season will take viewers back to the most unseemly and turbulent chapter of his life.
Spanning much of the 1990s, Season 5 of “The Crown” dramatizes the very public unraveling of Charles’ marriage to Diana, the Princess of Wales, and the untold damage it inflicted on the monarchy.
Writer Peter Morgan revisits several of the most notorious scandals from this time period, including Diana’s 1995 tell-all interview with BBC News reporter Martin Bashir, obtained using forged documents, and the incident known as Tampongate, the leaking of an intimate phone call in which Prince Charles expressed his desire to become a sanitary product so that he could live inside Camilla Parker Bowles, his longtime mistress (now his second wife and the queen consort). Viewers are not only excited about the new cast — Dominic West as Charles, Imelda Staunton as Elizabeth and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana — but also curious to see how Morgan will navigate the melodramatic minefield of the ‘90s.
Even though these events have been rehashed countless times before, in a slew of TV documentaries, podcasts, books and biopics, a who’s who of British society — including a few former prime ministers and at least one Oscar-winning actor — have been fulminating with preemptive outrage over “The Crown,” condemning a show most haven’t seen yet based on incomplete secondhand reports. The drama, in their view, is nothing less than a monstrous carbuncle on the face of British society.
While the royal family has officially remained silent about the controversy, members are circling the wagons.
“[Buckingham] Palace is clearly very sensitive about this, as Charles has only become king and is keen to build up his own distinctive image as monarch,” said Philip Murphy, director of history and policy at the Institute of Historical Research in London. “The events of the 1990s clearly don’t reflect particularly well upon him.”
At the time, the public largely sided with Diana, “because she was young, beautiful and vivacious, and Charles was stuffy, disengaged, pompous and remote,” said Stephen Bates, author of “Royalty Inc: Britain’s Best-Known Brand” and a royal correspondent for the Guardian newspaper for more than a decade. “He was portrayed, by and large — certainly by the tabloid press over here — as the villain of the piece. He had a very slow rebuilding job to do with his sons, but also with the British public, which gave him a hard time for a number of years.”
Three decades later, attitudes have shifted.
Thanks to projects like “The Crown,” Diana is understood posthumously not as a blushing naif but as a woman who was as media-savvy and manipulative as she was magnetic. The public that once despised Camilla for being the other woman has gradually accepted her and even come to admire her accessibility. (“She knows what it is to shop at a supermarket,” as Bates put it.) Charles has earned high marks for his leadership in the wake of his mother’s death.
That broader shift might explain the monarchist backlash against Season 5, which began when former Prime Minister John Major denounced “The Crown” last month as “a barrel-load of nonsense.” Successor Tony Blair and royal biographers Jonathan Dimbleby and Sally Bedell Smith have since joined the chorus of naysayers.
Then, Judi Dench, an international acting treasure who also happens to be friendly with the royals, poured gasoline on the fire by publishing a letter in the Times of London. She slammed the series as “an inaccurate and hurtful account of history” and called for Netflix to add a disclaimer to the new season “for the sake of a family and a nation so recently bereaved, as a mark of respect to a sovereign who served her people so dutifully for 70 years, and to preserve their own reputation in the eyes of their British subscribers.” And who among us wants to be on Dench’s bad side?
Conservative outlets like the Daily Mail have sounded a drumbeat of indignation for weeks, churning out dozens of stories about the show and the supposed mendacity of its creator (while breathlessly poring over every detail of the sumptuous production). Even the liberal Observer, hardly a bastion of monarchist sentiment, deemed the new season “so tasteless it’s enough to make the staunchest republican wince in sympathy for the royals.”
The furor has grown so loud that Netflix reportedly delayed the release of a docuseries about Prince Harry and Meghan, the duke and duchess of Sussex, by a month, lest the streaming service appear to be mounting a royal pile-on. It also added a brief notice under the Season 5 trailer on YouTube describing “The Crown” as a “fictional dramatization.”
Much of the outrage has centered on the season’s first episode, “Queen Victoria Syndrome,” which opens in the early 1990s after the publication of a poll in the Sunday Times indicating that a sizable portion of the public believed Elizabeth should abdicate in favor of Charles.
In a private conversation, Charles asks Major, Britain’s new PM (played by Johnny Lee Miller), what he thinks about the poll. He comes off as restless and whiny — not treasonous. At no point does he propose overthrowing his mother or staging a coup, as has been reported.
Indeed, the possibility of Queen Elizabeth II’s abdication was widely floated in the press in those years; it’s not difficult to imagine Charles discussing these reports with his peers. (According to a Los Angeles Times story from 1991, “Some British monarchists even suggest that the 65-year-old queen, who has reigned since 1952, should abdicate within the next five, or at most 10, years in order to make way for her son while he is still at the height of his physical and intellectual powers.”)
The pearl-clutching has the air of a manufactured controversy — one that stirs up publicity for “The Crown” and page views for the British tabloids while ignoring the countless other projects that have already depicted the Windsor family saga and taken much broader creative license. (To name just two of many recent examples: “Spencer,” a gothic horror tale starring Kristen Stewart as an emotionally unstable Diana, and “The Windsors,” a satire airing on the publicly owned Channel 4, which imagines Camilla as a conniving schemer.)
There’s also a long, esteemed tradition of dramatizing the British monarchy. “If you watch a Shakespeare play about a medieval British king, you don’t expect it to be utterly, factually true,” said Bates, “and I think you should probably look at ‘The Crown’ as something similar to that.”
Thanks to a lucrative production deal Harry and Meghan signed with Netflix two years ago — shortly after they stepped away from their official duties, decamped to California and instantly became the villains in the soap opera that is the royal family — the streaming service makes a convenient target for royalist ire. Yet the most damning moments of the season are part of the historical record and not a product of Morgan’s imagination. Anyone with access to the internet can listen to Charles coo at Camilla or watch Diana spill her guts to Bashir whenever they want.
If anything, Charles should be drafting a thank-you note— and not just to the casting director who thought he should be played by the dashing West. Beginning with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The Queen” (2006), which offers a sympathetic portrait of Elizabeth in the days after Diana’s death in 1997, Morgan has spent much of his career humanizing the royals as imperfect people grappling with the confines of an unforgiving institution.
“The Crown,” which premiered in 2016, has similarly breathed life into human beings often treated as caricatures. Since grown-up Charles was introduced in Season 3 (then played by Josh O’Connor), Morgan has painted a more rounded portrait of the heir-in-waiting as a bookish young man pushed into an ill-conceived marriage by his parents.
In the new season’s fifth episode, “The Way Ahead,” he even manages to put a positive spin on the tawdry Tampongate debacle, reframing the call between Charles and Camilla (played with earthy charm by Olivia Williams) as a strangely tender moment between two people sharing an off-color joke never intended for public consumption. As if to make Morgan’s take clear, Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison) even praises her brother after the tapes come out for “being so gloriously human and entirely in love.” Improbably, the episode ends with Charles break-dancing to Eric B. & Rakim while a postscript lauds the billions of pounds his charitable organization, the Prince’s Trust, has returned to society.
Complaints about inaccuracies in “The Crown” also deflect from a greater issue, according to Murphy: a lack of access that makes it difficult for historians to write accounts based in fact and inevitably means that dramatizations like the series will carry extra weight.
“Without a firm foundation of written evidence, there’s a tendency for the history of the queen’s reign to operate at the level of anecdote and gossip,” Murphy said. “In that atmosphere, fictionalized narratives can easily merge with first-hand accounts and become part of the popular memory of a particular episode.”
But actual historians, unlike certain prominent royalists, aren’t too riled up about “The Crown” or programs like it, he added.
“They know that good history is quite different from good drama.”
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)
How to watch: Season 5 premieres on Netflix Wednesday