William Shakespeare had it about right: don’t write about kings and queens until they are long dead, otherwise the backlash might have been uncomfortably sharp – an axe rather than a quill, in those pre-Twitter days. Could Henry V speak French? Of course he could. Was Richard III a villain straight out of melodrama? No. But safely dead, they could be celebrated or pilloried at will.
Peter Morgan (no Shakespeare he, alas) has no such excuse. But how could The Crown pass up the events of the early 1990s without dramatising them? The spectacular break-up of the royal marriages, the Windsor Castle fire, the annus horribilis. It’s just a bit of a shame that they have all been endlessly picked over for real. How can drama compete, except by making stuff up?
First the good bits: the trappings are lavish, with yachts and Scottish pipers, and some of the posed tableau moments – the Queen leaning on the rail of the royal yacht Britannia for instance – clearly derived from original photographs that many viewers will recognise, though in that case the picture was taken 20 years earlier.
How could a stellar cast go wrong? They don’t look much like the originals, but most of them make a fair stab at their voices – though strangely the best characterisation, Jonathan Pryce as the Duke of Edinburgh, makes the least attempt to sound like him. Elizabeth Debicki’s portrayal of Diana as wilful and paranoid also seems about right, and her clandestine cooperation with the journalist Andrew Morton over his revelatory book about her in 1992 is also mainly true.
But it’s the dialogue and the situations that clunk. We correspondents often refer to the royal soap opera, but the conversations in this are straight out of a poor one (though the sets are too solid to sway). The characters go round telling one another what they must already know. Thus Prince Charles in the scene where he hints to the prime minister, John Major, about persuading the Queen to abdicate says: “One might have expected coming from Brixton, a multicultural working-class part of London, you might have concealed your past in order to fit in with the Tories, or to have a more socialist viewpoint.”
It’s a wonder Major doesn’t reply: “Cor blimey, guv – you got me bang to rights!” Of course that little exposition is intended for the US audience, who may not know Brixton from Balmoral, but we have Major’s assertion that no such scene ever happened, and I think we can take it that he’s right. He didn’t conceal his past but celebrated it – and no one ever confused him with a socialist.
The poor man also has to sit through a preposterous monologue from the Queen about the government paying for the refurbishment of the royal yacht (which the Major government certainly considered for a time, according to his memoirs). Imelda Staunton, more Vera Drake than Elizabeth II, tells him the vessel is “a floating, sea-going expression of me” and demands that the government does as she asks “without question”. It is a very long time since any monarch dared to speak so peremptorily to any first minister, probably not since her Stuart predecessors in the 17th century.
It also doesn’t ring true from everything we know of the Queen. Equally unlikely is Prince Charles asking Major what happened during his private audience. Poor Jonny Lee Miller, playing Major, generally has to sit, or stand, looking like an enigmatic mullet until he is allowed to give a speech to his wife, Norma, bemoaning the state of the country and how it will all go down the pan if the royal family’s marriages break up. Well, he was wrong there, wasn’t he?
Pryce, as the duke, seems to be followed everywhere by a mysterious bird of prey hovering ominously in the sky almost as if he has escaped from a horror movie. His lines to Diana come from a different genre altogether: “I can be a tough old nut but I’ve always had a soft spot for you, maybe because you are young, maybe because you are a beautiful woman.” We know that the duke wrote sympathetic and supportive letters to Diana as the marriage broke up but I doubt whether he took his text straight out of Mills and Boone.
Perhaps courtiers really did try to hide a copy of the Sunday Times splashing on an opinion poll suggesting many thought the Queen should abdicate (amazing that the Sunday press apparently managed to reach the royal yacht cruising off the Hebrides first thing on the sabbath 30 years ago), but it’s really much more likely that Her Maj would have been looking out for the Sunday Telegraph first.
At a reception for the media at Windsor Castle before the golden jubilee, in 2002, she summoned its then editor, Dominic Lawson, who apparently expected to be congratulated on the paper’s recent redesign, only to ask him where he had moved the crossword to because she couldn’t find it any more. That sounds much more like the Queen than the image of her silently weeping in abject distress at a Sunday paper story.
At the same reception, Polly Toynbee asked the duke whether he ever read the Guardian. “No fear!” he replied. So will the surviving royals be cowering behind their sofas, scarcely daring to watch the latest series on Netflix this evening? I guess their answer will probably be the same as the duke’s, unless they want a good laugh.
Stephen Bates is the Guardian’s former royal correspondent. His latest book is The Shortest History of The Crown (the institution rather than the series).