There is, Imelda Staunton crisply observes as I speak to her on Zoom, “a great comfort” in The Crown, and how it “puts history in context” and helps us to “understand the past”. And it’s hard to disagree with the show’s new Queen.
At a moment of spectacular upheaval in British public life – two monarchs, three prime ministers and four chancellors in the space of just a few months – the latest season is a consoling reminder that one day the mad and bad antics of late 2022 will make for great period drama.
Future scriptwriters may show that the royal family have seemed like a ballast of decorum in all the recent turmoil. In hindsight, we can see the period of mourning after the Queen’s death was also the calm before a dreadful storm.
Staunton says she was “surprised how moved” she was by the funeral and “felt thrown by seeing her [the Queen’s] photograph from just a few days previously… unfortunately with Liz Truss”. And how we thrilled to Charles’s comment of “back again? Dear oh dear” to Truss the week before her resignation as prime minister.
But, with respect to the new King, perhaps it was also a little smug. Back in 1992, the royals had their own existential crisis, which also threw up some of the richest storylines in a century and provoked horrified fascination worldwide.
In that year, which is also when the new series begins, many wondered (just as they do of the Conservative Party now), whether the monarchy could actually survive. The royals were dominating the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
There had been years of media obsession with the crumbling marriages of Charles, Andrew and Anne, and the public lapped up the lurid details: Charles’s affair with Camilla, and the famous tape in which he said he would love to “live inside your trousers” and would happily come back in another life as “a Tampax”; Fergie getting her toe sucked by Texan millionaire John Bryan.
Peter Morgan’s team of writers take their usual liberties with what might have been said as each sibling in turn discusses their predicament with the Queen.
She urges Anne not to remarry royal naval officer Timothy Laurence “while the ink is not yet dry” on her divorce from Captain Mark Philips.When Charles pleads with “mummy” that “I’ve tried to make it work [in his marriage to Diana] for 11 years, but there comes a point”, she curtly reminds him that his “troubles are in a different category [to the others] because you are heir to the throne”.
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Whether any of this has real-life plausibility is one of the perennial parlour games that accompany the release of each season of The Crown. As with each of the previous iterations, in the few weeks since screenings became available to the media, journalists have furiously cross-referred the script to gossipy royal biographies, authorised and otherwise. Judi Dench has accused the series of “crass sensationalism.”
This week the show came under fire for its depiction of the death and funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. Critics accused the programme makers of being insensitive particularly to her sons William and Harry.
“Netflix are deliberately reviving the most painful time in the boys’ lives,” Diana’s friend Simone Simmons is reported as saying. John Major, who was prime minister from 1990-97, and who is portrayed in the series, described it “a barrel-load of nonsense.”
But Jonathan Pryce, who plays Prince Philip, has little time for the objections. Anything depicted was “already more or less in the public domain”, he tells me. Of the depiction of Charles as an impatient man, Pryce says: “I think he showed his impatience in the recent situation with the fountain pen [when Charles was caught on camera getting exasperated during the signing of a visitors’ book].
“They all have these frustrations and irritations and foibles and I think it’s a fair way that they dramatise those things.”
Despite the chorus of objections, the series’ depiction of Britain’s relationship with its royal family during the period – which was one of tarnished mystique and waning support – is indisputable. With the barrage of scandals in 1992 the monarchy suffered increasingly poor approval ratings in public polls.
The family were seen as out-of-touch, a perception that is highlighted in the series in a row over the royal yacht, Britannia, which to the Queen was an important symbol of her reign and to politicians an expensive and excessive frippery. To cap it all off, in the winter of that year a fire gutted Windsor Castle.
At a speech at the Guildhall to mark the Queen’s 40th year on the throne, the monarch spoke in a tired and defeated tone about what she calls her “annus horribilis”.
It has become an immortal royal quote, a glimpse of the human pain behind the stiff upper lip. The Crown’s Queen mother (Marcia Warren) is appalled and tells Elizabeth that it is “an expression of personal sentiment, the kind that we do not make”.
Does the Queen want her public to know she is “depressed”, the Queen mother wonders. But in the age of mass media, public support could be reclaimed through sympathy. In the series, a newscaster voiceover wonders whether that is just what the Queen will get with her speech.
Other members of the firm also want to take their private grievances to a wider audience. Charles (Dominic West) and Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) are engaged in proxy wars against each other and the wider family.
Charles lobbies the then prime minister Major (Jonny Lee Miller) to support his goal of speeding up the succession process – “What makes the Conservative Party successful? Its instinct for renewal and its willingness to make way for someone younger,” Charles insists.
Diana is working through back channels too and making her case to the people, by co-operating with a book, written by journalist Andrew Morton, which will let the public know how “awful” the last few years have really been for her.
Diana, Charles feels, “wont rest until she’s blown the whole thing [the monarchy] up”. When the fire erupts at Windsor Castle, Margaret (Lesley Manville) blithely muses that plenty of people would have had a motive to start it, Diana among them.
The Morton book was of course just the opening salvo in a feud that went nuclear a few years later when Diana agreed to be interviewed by Martin Bashir for the BBC.
Even a quarter of a century later, no royal interview, not even that of Prince Andrew on Newsnight, has been quite as explosive, with the princess famously claiming there were “three of us in this marriage from the start” to a record-breaking audience. In a sense there has always been a ‘before’ and ‘after’ that interview for the royal family.
The deception through which it was secured has meant the BBC have committed to never showing it and Morgan’s team have not recreated it in the series.
They do show the behind-the-scenes finagling that went on: Bashir forging documents and lying to Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer. In the new series Bashir insists that Diana’s baring of her soul to him, specifically, will ensure she is “protected by the best brand name in the world for integrity — the BBC”.
An entire episode of the new season is given over to the Al Fayeds – Mohamed (Salim Daw) and his son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla), who sat beside Diana in the car on that fateful journey through a Paris tunnel.
We see the sense of inferiority that drove the older man’s social climbing, but the series humanises him. His efforts to win around the aristocracy with his new money are almost touching. He has an instant rapport with Diana, perhaps because both feel spurned by the Windsors, and the scene is set for the romance with Dodi.
The series has an entirely new cast, and the actors have the unusual challenge of both filling the boots of their predecessors and finding a way to connect with the characters they play at a different stage of life.
Prince Philip is shown as a more thoughtful figure than the mischievous gaffe merchant of the headlines. “I discovered a different man than one that I’d been fed by the press over the years,” says Pryce.
“He’s a man of greater intellect than we ever thought he had. He was a man who was consistently searching for knowledge and self-knowledge and self-awareness. And I think it’s a fact that the older you become, hopefully the wiser you become.
“I know it in my relationships with younger actors who come to me for advice and I can give them 50 years of experience. And I think what’s wonderful about Phillip is that he’s a wiser, calmer man and still in a wonderful relationship with his wife.”
The Crown has been accused in the past of having an ‘Irish problem’, notably omitting key aspects of the Troubles and the relationship between Britain and Ireland, but that hasn’t stopped it from being a hit here: previous seasons climbed back into the top five of Netflix’s viewing charts in the aftermath of the Queen’s death.
Staunton’s parents came from Mayo to England in the 1950s and the actress says her mother “absolutely adored” the Queen.
“My mother was a hairdresser and she just adored that shampoo-and-set of the Queen’s which worked so well for 50 years. My Dad loved everything Irish but they [her parents] were also anglophiles who loved life in England.”
September saw the death of another queen: Hilary Mantel, who won the Booker prize twice, and who, over a long career, made royalty and the politics of the court, her principal subjects.
A decade ago, she was attacked for supposedly criticising the royals and suggesting the family, “a self-punishing institution” was facing its “endgame”. But the criticism seemed to miss the mark. Mantel was not ‘for’ or ‘against’ royalty; her voracious gaze simply penetrated more deeply than most.
When she met the Queen, moving amid the crowd at an event, she caught a glimpse of the human being behind the institution.
“For a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment,” Mantel wrote in her famous essay, ‘Royal Bodies’. “She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.”
In a way, The Crown’s much-criticised script falls into a similar category, honing in on the humanity of its royal subjects, even at the expense of fomenting outrage. “Peter [Morgan] is giving us their emotions to investigate. We’re not just appearing up there on the balcony. We’re showing the stuff behind closed doors. We feel for the Queen,” Staunton tells me.
And, in doing so, they have made a series that is deeply royalist.
Season five of ‘The Crown’ is on Netflix from November 9.