The Crown Season five is here after a star-studded London premiere on Tuesday night. Even before it went on air, it became entangled in criticism and controversy which may actually help the makers of the series for the interest it has already generated. Ironically, the Queen enjoyed watching The Crown.
While the Queen was happy to slip out of Buckingham Palace with James Bond and be air-dropped to inaugurate the Olympics, and delightedly shared a cup of tea and sandwich with Paddington Bear, she also remained candid about her martini when asked by Tom Hanks what she was drinking, at a dinner. She developed a close and secret friendship with Tom Cruise and he was even allowed to fly in by helicopter for lunch with her.
She actually watched the seasons of The Crown and found some depictions “heavily dramatised”. However, after she is gone, her admirers are angered by The Crown. I doubt she would like such a fuss being thrown up over Season five.
The Queen Was Popular Amid Entertainment Industry
Actually, the Queen was quite cool, relaxed and enjoyed the company of pop stars. From The Beatles, Cliff Richard and Queen to George Michael and Take That. The Queen of Pop— Madonna nervously practiced her curtsey with John Cleese before the Queen arrived for the premiere of Die Another Day in 2002.
When the two met, Madonna explained to the Queen that she sang the film’s title track to which the Queen responded. “Oh really, did you?” She went backstage and met the Spice Girls after a performance. In 1975, when Barbara Streisand asked the Queen why “women have to wear white gloves to meet you and men don’t?” The Queen coolly said, “I’ll have to think about that one.” That is how unflappable and relaxed she was.
However, royalists, royal journalists and those close to the Royal Family have long expressed their discontent with the show, claiming it is biased and factually incorrect. But the specific outrage over Season five has many reasons.
This season covers one of the Royal Family’s most difficult and turbulent decades – the 1990s. Added to that, is the recent demise of the Queen and accession of the King which has left people sensitive about the timing of the series and calls for Netflix to carry a disclaimer before every episode have stepped up.
Dame Judi Dench— a friend of King Charles, recently wrote an open letter in The Times urging the streaming service to stipulate it is a "fictionalised drama".
"The time has come for Netflix to reconsider—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 its reputation in the eyes of its British subscribers," she said.
Author and royal journalist Robert Hardman said, “The line has been crossed. What is it? Is it only a drama or only the truth? You cannot be so cavalier about the truth.”
The Crown's Coincidental Release
This season features the break-up of three marriages— Princess Diana, Sarah Ferguson and the now-King Charles all having affairs, as well as a fire at Windsor Castle.
Royal supporters claim many storylines have been exaggerated, fictionalised and are unfair on a family still mourning the Queen. However, when the filming began, the writers had no way of knowing that by the time it would be released, the Queen would be no more.
Some critics have claimed Prince William was "upset" by the scenes of Charles verbally abusing Diana. Some have even described the "unfair" portrayal of him as "trolling with a Hollywood budget".
It is a bit ironic to see such strong criticism in a country known for its sharp satire and dark humour. At this rate many political caricatures, TV serials, caustic and satirical TV talk shows would have been banned.
Is Drama Inevitable When the Royals’ Repute Is at Stake?
Quite unreasonably, following the Queen’s death, any negative criticism of her son has become controversial as it now becomes a negative portrayal of the sitting monarch. But my question is, if he chose to create controversies, then its dramatisation cannot be restricted. As they say, think before you act.
One particularly uncomfortable episode will see the 1989 'Camillagate' tapes released, which in 1993 exposed an intimate phone conversation between Charles and Camilla when he said he wanted to be her tampon. There is nothing new about it. It was exposed decades ago.
The other bombshell will be Princess Diana's interview with the BBC's Martin Bashir which saw her detail her husband's affair, the one she had with Army officer James Hewitt as well as struggles with her mental health and eating disorders.
However, that interview remained mired in a web of lies and controversy, and in 2021, a report by Lord Dyson concluded that Bashir "seriously breached" guidelines by faking bank statements to gain access to Diana's brother Lord Spencer, in turn, convincing her to do the interview. Bashir, who was seriously ill at the time, was disgraced and the BBC forced to apologise.
Prince Charles' Portrayal Divides The British Nation
The criticism against the season also comes from two former Prime Ministers. Before the premiere, it was reported that Prince Charles was shown having a conversation with the then Prime Minister Sir John Major about the possibility of succeeding his mother as monarch.
Prince Charles allegedly tells the PM that his mother, 65 at that time, is repeating Queen Victoria's mistakes by not letting him take over early. A spokesperson for Sir John, responded: "Sir John has not co-operated in any way with The Crown. Nor has he ever been approached by them to fact check any script material in this or any other series. There was never any discussion between Sir John and the then Prince of Wales about any possible abdication of the late Queen Elizabeth II."
However, Patrick Jephson, former private secretary to HRH Princess Diana said, “Charles did discuss his regency with a Prime Minister – just not with John Major.”
Charles is also reportedly shown trying to recruit former Prime Minister Tony Blair as an ally to protect his future and pave the way for him to marry Camilla, shortly after the 1997 general election. Blair’s spokesperson responded strongly saying, “It should come as no surprise that this is complete and utter rubbish.”
The other portrayal that has irked critics is that of Prince Philip’s affair with "intimate" scenes of the late-Duke of Edinburgh with Penny Knatchbull, who was 30 years his junior and is now, the Countess Mountbatten of Burma. Dickie Arbiter, who was the Queen's press secretary from 1998 to 2000, said the storyline, so soon after Her Majesty's death, is "distasteful". He said: "The truth is that Penny was a long-time friend of the whole family. Netflix is not interested in people's feelings."
Facts or Fiction?
Andrew Morton who worked with Diana on the book Diana: Her True Story, said on Good Morning Britain: “I don’t say this slightly but (Elizabeth Debicki’s) performance really conveys the Diana I got to know for a couple of years in the early 1990s.” He, however added: “Of course, there are liberties taken but Peter Morgan has done a remarkable job.”
It was interesting to watch the stars defending Season five at the London premiere. While Debicki appeared to refer to the presence of a disclaimer, it appears that the show has arrived on Netflix without one.
Imelda Staunton defended The Crown creator Peter Morgan. She said: “Peter Morgan always wants to be respectful and give the characters dignity and empathy and let the audience imagine what it’s like to be that family.”
Dominic West, the new Prince Charles in The Crown, offered his thoughts on the “fact-or-fiction” debate. He called it a work of “imaginative speculation”, saying that debates about the show are probably rife due to the death of the Queen.
If the Queen was alive she would have taken it on the chin and definitely watched all the episodes.
The criticism is clearly not limited to Blighty. The Australian Monarchist League has called on audiences to stop watching The Crown and boycott Netflix if the streamer “does not act to correct the record” and add a disclaimer to episodes of the drama to address purported “falsehoods and inaccuracies” about the royal family.
It looks like criticisms will keep coming but this high-budget slick drama already seems set to become a huge success.
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)