Inside the row growing over The Crown

Annus Horribilis: Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown season five - Keith Bernstein/Netflix
Annus Horribilis: Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown season five - Keith Bernstein/Netflix

In the new series of The Crown, we see Queen Elizabeth II deliver one of her most famous speeches. “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” she begins. “It has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis’.”

So far, so familiar. But the Queen, played by Imelda Staunton, goes further. She offers a public apology for the way the Royal family has conducted its personal affairs (we are in the midst of the War of the Waleses, and in the wake of the Duchess of York’s escapades with her financial adviser). “No institution is beyond reproach. And no member of it either. The high standards we in the monarchy are held to by the public must be the same benchmark to which we hold ourselves personally,” she tells the audience at the Guildhall, there to mark the 40th anniversary of her Accession.

She finishes with a coded message to Princess Margaret – an acknowledgement that she ruined her sister’s life by forbidding her from marrying Group Captain Peter Townsend.

Save for the opening lines, the speech is entirely made up. It is another example of the Netflix series distorting the truth, under the disclaimer (although, crucially, not a disclaimer displayed on screen) that it is a “drama”. In fact, in a a letter to The Times, this week Dame Judi Dench called for such a disclaimer to be added to the show, accusing it of “blur[ring] the lines between historical accuracy crude sensationalism”.

The Crown, which began in 2016, has always played fast and loose with the truth, but its early inaccuracies were often obscured by the passage of time. As events move closer to today, what is fiction become easier to spot.

The War of the Waleses: season five of The Crown shows Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and Prince Charles's (Dominic West) marriage crumbling - Netflix
The War of the Waleses: season five of The Crown shows Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and Prince Charles's (Dominic West) marriage crumbling - Netflix

The “annus horribilis” speech, for example, is available to read on the official Royal website. Also readily available online is Princess Margaret’s appearance on Desert Island Discs. In The Crown, Townsend is prompted to get back in touch with his former love in the early 1990s after hearing her request a song that was special to them: Stardust by Hoagy Carmichael. But the song does not feature in her Desert Island Discs; nor would it have prompted Townsend to write to Margaret at that time, because the programme was broadcast a decade earlier.

Another problem with moving up to the 1990s is that many of the figures involved are still alive and able to point out that the storylines are fabricated. In episode one, Sir John Major is approached by the then Prince of Wales seeking support for the Queen’s abdication. Sir John has called the scenes “damaging and malicious fiction”. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said that a scene in which the Queen confides in him that her children’s marriage breakdowns are the result of her failures as a parent “bears no resemblance to any conversation I ever had”.

Jemima Khan joined the series as a co-writer last year to bring accuracy to storylines about her friend, Diana, Princess of Wales. She later asked for her name to be removed from the credits after discovering the show would, in her words, not be telling the story “respectfully or compassionately”.

Occasionally, one senses the hand of nervy Netflix lawyers. There are no romantic scenes between the Duke of Edinburgh and the Countess of Burma – she would be well within her rights to sue if there were. Instead, writer Peter Morgan portrays their friendship with a nudge and a wink.

The show has a team of researchers – led by an American, Annie Sulzberger – and various royal advisers. But Morgan has described his work as “conjecture” with “an underlying truth”, which gives him a lot of leeway. Netflix has so far ignored requests to add a disclaimer to the programme.

Jonatahn Pryce as the Duke of Edinburgh and Natascha McElhone as Penny Knatchbull, Countess Mountbatten of Burma - Keith Bernstein/Netflix
Jonatahn Pryce as the Duke of Edinburgh and Natascha McElhone as Penny Knatchbull, Countess Mountbatten of Burma - Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Such a warning would benefit the King, because on screen here (now played by Dominic West as a middle-aged Prince of Wales) he is petulant and conceited. Queen Elizabeth II comes out of the series as a poor mother. At one stage, a furious Charles tells her: “If we were an ordinary family and social services came to visit, they would have thrown us into care and you into jail.” Critics would say this is grossly insensitive timing, so soon after the monarch’s funeral. But, for Netflix, the Queen’s death was a ratings opportunity.

So many people sought out the first series of the royal drama in the wake of the Queen’s death that it shot back into the Netflix top 10. Viewing figures tripled in France, quadrupled in the US, and rocketed more than 800 per cent in the UK. All of which goes a long way to explain why the streaming service is not delaying the explosive fifth series out of respect for the Royal family, but going full-steam ahead for its global release on November 9.

Netflix needs hits – this year it announced its first drop in subscriber numbers in a decade – and the best way of grabbing attention is to ramp up the controversy. The streaming service has made sure that every headline-grabbing storyline from this series has been publicised in advance, in the hope of drawing in the biggest possible audience.

At first glance, then, it seems odd that the makers of The Crown are “on edge” about the filming of the sixth and final series, which covers events leading up to Diana’s death in Paris in 1997.

“There’s bombshell sensitivity surrounding this one,” a source on the production told website Deadline. But it makes sense. Diana in the show is a victim of “The Firm”, driven into the arms of the Al Fayeds. The Crown would never disparage her. Members of the Royal family, though, are fair game.

Five storylines already making waves

Charles and Diana’s crumbling marriage

By 1991, when the new season begins, the marriage of the then Prince and Princess of Wales was in terminal decline (they separated the following year), and The Crown is expected to point the finger of blame mostly at Charles – contrasting his cold, uncaring attitude towards Diana with his love for the then Camilla Parker Bowles, with whom he continues an affair.

Charles's impatience to be King

As well as showing Charles’s cruelty towards Diana, the new season will also show the heir to the throne summoning prime minister John Major to a secret meeting at Highgrove where he raises the possibility of the Queen abdicating to make way for her son. Last weekend, Sir John described the storyline as a “barrel-load of nonsense”.

Prince Philip’s friendship with Penny Knatchbull

The Crown has hinted before that Prince Philip was unfaithful to the Queen, and the new season casts aspersions on the friendship between the Duke of Edinburgh and his carriage-driving partner Penelope Knatchbull, the Countess Mountbatten of Burma. A source close to her family described the depiction of their platonic relationship as “deliberately cruel”.

The Queen and her children

In 1992, the Queen’s “annus horribilis”, both Prince Andrew and Princess Anne divorced and Charles and Diana separated. Reflecting on these broken relationships, Charles tells his mother she should look at her own failings as a parent. The Queen later admits to the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, that she feels responsible.

Diana’s Panorama interview

According to reports, there will be an entire episode devoted to Princess Diana’s 1995 bombshell interview with Martin Bashir, in which she talked about there being three people in her marriage. But the interview itself will not be recreated. Instead, Bashir will be seen forging documents and lying to Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, to persuade the Princess to take part.

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