The latest series of The Crown hasn’t even premiered yet, but it has already drawn widespread condemnation from politicians, broadcasters, celebrities and “friends” of the new king.
Former prime minister John Major, who will be played by Jonny Lee Miller in Netflix’s hit royal drama, has called a storyline surrounding a purported attempt by Charles to force the queen to abdicate a “barrel-load of nonsense” and “damaging and malicious fiction”.
Jonathan Dimbleby, the TV presenter who questioned Charles about his marriage to Princess Diana in an explosive 1994 documentary covered on this series, called The Crown “nonsense on stilts”. Friends of Charles told the Mail on Sunday that the portrayal of the monarch is “false, unfair and deeply wounding”.
Even Judi Dench took it upon herself to write a letter to The Times of London this month lambasting The Crown for its “crude sensationalism”, joining calls for Netflix to add a disclaimer at the start of each episode “as a mark of respect” for the late Queen Elizabeth.
In response to the criticism, Netflix has said: “The Crown has always been presented as a drama based on historical events. Series five is a fictional dramatisation, imagining what could have happened behind closed doors during a significant decade for the royal family — one that has been scrutinised and well-documented by journalists, biographers and historians.”
Long-time fans of The Crown will recall similar consternation over the previous series, which increasingly featured Charles, his marriage to Diana and affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Before series three, Charles was apparently so worried about the show damaging his popularity as king-in-waiting that his aides felt he couldn’t even be in the same room as the cast members.
In 2019, his staff reportedly made it clear to Netflix that he would not attend the London premiere of David Attenborough’s Our Planet without confirmation that actors from The Crown would be excluded, despite the casts of Netflix titles Black Mirror and Sex Education receiving invitations.
Now The Crown is returning to screens just two months into Charles’ reign and the show is about to reach the most unflattering moments of his royal history, he has a lot more cause to worry about how it may affect his likability.
Since it debuted on Netflix in 2016, The Crown has frequently taken liberties with the truth, and in doing so gained legions of fans for its imagining of what really goes on inside the palace walls. Yet as it reaches closer to the present day — the fifth series resumes in 1991, and ends before Diana’s death in 1997 — many of those involved in the events depicted on screen are still alive and eager to draw attention to perceived inaccuracies.
Add to this the recent death of the queen — whose passing launched The Crown back into the streaming platform’s top 10, with viewership rising more than 800pc in the UK — and heightened sensitivity about the grieving royals, opposition to the show has grown even more vocal.
Ahead of its release, we break down the seminal moments covered in series five — and whether Charles should be worried.
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1991: The Diana tapes
This series’ main focus is the War of the Waleses, the bitter dispute between Charles (played by Dominic West) and Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) that played out spectacularly in the media and led to the couple’s separation and eventual divorce.
In the early episodes, Diana is eager to get her side of the story out, and Dr James Colthurst, an Irish-born friend from her days as a nanny, is approached by reporter Andrew Morton about contributing to what would become the sensational 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story.
Colthurst was the go-between throughout the writing process, smuggling Morton’s questions in and Diana’s tapes out of Kensington Palace on his bicycle, and providing Morton with the firsthand accounts that made his book a worldwide bestseller, shifting 7m copies.
Diana initially denied any co-operation in its writing, only acknowledging that she had authorised friends to talk to Morton. Following her death, Morton hastily released a new version, confirming Diana as the primary source and sharing transcripts of her tape recordings.
Viewers will be familiar with the contents of the tapes, in which Diana speaks with astonishing frankness about her unhappy marriage, her eating disorder and her suicide attempts. Watching Debicki — who bears an uncanny likeness to Diana both in physical appearance and voice — tell these stories rather than listening to the tapes or reading her words is likely to make that candour all the more haunting.
1992: Annus horribilis
The Crown gives over one episode to what Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) considered her worst year, wrecked by the collapse of three of her children’s marriages and a devastating fire at Windsor Castle. In a rare moment of public introspection during a speech marking the 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne, the queen branded 1992 an “annus horribilis”, although The Crown embellishes her words to give them an even more personal tone.
We see the queen’s children visiting her in turn to inform her of their marital breakdowns: Princess Anne had split with her husband, Mark Philips. Within months of the divorce being finalised she would marry Tim Lawrence, the queen’s equerry (or personal assistant). Charles and Diana formally separated, a decision as announced by John Major in the House of Commons, and Prince Andrew divorced Sarah Ferguson after six years of marriage.
Viewers hoping to see more of Andrew’s antics will be disappointed that he appears in only a couple of scenes, one of which involves him warning his mother about soon-to-be-published photos of Fergie in a compromising position with her Texan financial adviser.
On top of the family’s marital problems, The Crown recreates the 15-hour fire at Windsor Castle, which destroyed 115 rooms. The British government’s agreement to fund the restoration using taxpayers’ money sparked an outcry, leading to Buckingham Palace being opened to paying visitors for the first time to help cover the repair bill, and to the queen becoming the first monarch to pay income tax since the 1930s.
Although the infamous call took place four years earlier, the Camillagate transcript wasn’t published until after Charles and Diana separated. In early 1993, New Idea, an Australian magazine owned by Rupert Murdoch, printed the full conversation, followed by the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People in the UK.
The Crown mostly sticks to the original script, including Charles’s joke about being reincarnated as a tampon (“Just my luck!”). Yet rather than treating it as a sordid punchline, the show situates the conversation in the context of an affectionate call between Charles and Camilla. Princess Anne is even shown observing that the transcript is quite touching.
The episode covers Dimbleby’s documentary about Charles the following year, during which the prince famously admitted to adultery. The Crown rewrites his words, extending it beyond Charles’s confession that he had been faithful “until it became irretrievably broken down, us both having tried”.
The Crown shows Major pointing out that the documentary was memorable for other reasons too: Charles’s words about being a ‘defender of faith’ — and not just the traditional regal moniker of ‘defender of the faith’ — resonated with communities “that have been traditionally left unreached by the monarchy”.
The episode also features scenes celebrating Charles’s charity the Prince’s Trust, which helps disadvantaged young people in the UK. Sequences of West’s Charles chatting with a diverse, engaged group of young people present him as in touch with modern Britain, and the recreation of his breakdancing at a charity event is altogether less embarrassing than the footage of Charles himself doing so in 1985.
To cap things off, the episode closes with title cards detailing how the Prince’s Trust has “assisted one million young people to fulfil their potential” and “returned nearly £1.4bn in value to society”.
1994: Russia tour
The Crown likes to use lesser-known political and historical events to examine personal issues within the family, and this series reflects on the marital difficulties between the queen and Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) through their historic royal tour to Moscow.
The queen became the first British monarch to visit Russia with a three-day trip in 1994, and the imagined tensions between the queen and then-president Boris Yeltsin afford the show an opportunity to explore a strain in the royal marriage.
Fans of the show will remember The Crown previously touching on allegations of Philip’s infidelity, including an implied affair with a Russian ballerina in the second series. In the latest season, Natascha McElhone plays Penny Knatchbull, Philip’s frequent carriage-driving companion and the only non-royal invited to his funeral in 2021.
A year after Charles’s Dimbleby documentary, Diana was persuaded to do an interview with Martin Bashir for Panorama — one which a 2021 BBC inquiry found he had obtained using faked documents. Bashir is shown forging bank statements that suggest a former employee of Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, was being paid by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and then presenting the “evidence” to Spencer to gain his trust.
Although Diana may have been duped into giving the interview, the emotional power of her words remains affecting, including the unforgettable line: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
The programme was made in great secrecy, with BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey kept in the dark because he was married to the queen’s lady-in-waiting. Even now, only clips are available because the network has pledged to never rebroadcast the interview.
The fallout from Panorama was the tipping point for the queen to acknowledge that the Waleses’ marriage was untenable. She is said to have sent a strongly worded handwritten letter to Diana ordering her to divorce Charles just weeks after the broadcast, as Staunton’s queen does in The Crown.
Fifteen years after the wedding of the century, the divorce finally went through in August 1996, following an agreement that Diana would lose her ‘her royal highness’ styling but receive a lump sum of £17m, as well as an annual allowance.
The series also portrays Diana becoming friends with Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), and anticipating her relationship with his son Dodi, which we can expect to see in series six.
The Crown devotes an entire episode to the Fayeds, depicting Mohamed’s repeated efforts to ingratiate himself with the monarch, including learning royal etiquette from the former valet of the Duke of Windsor, who abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, and later buying the duke’s home on the outskirts of Paris and returning its contents to the queen.
1996: Modern monarchy
This series begins and ends with Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia, the queen’s beloved floating palace — so beloved that its decommissioning marks one of the few occasions she was seen to shed a tear in public.
While the queen starts out series five travelling blissfully on the yacht, by the finale the cost of its upkeep is so high that new prime minister Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) refuses to cover the repairs with taxpayer funds.
Also in 1997, ITV News aired a live debate, The Monarchy: The Nation Decides, in which a third of responders to its phone-in poll said they no longer wanted the institution. In The Crown, these events are juxtaposed to raise questions about the relevance of the monarchy and whether it too needs renovation.
Today, the royals find themselves at a similar juncture. Yet while King Charles is reportedly agonising about how The Crown might hurt his reputation, in some ways he could hardly ask for better PR than this series offers.
As Peter Morgan, the show’s creator and main writer, told Entertainment Weekly: “I think we must all accept that the 1990s was a difficult time for the royal family, and King Charles will almost certainly have some painful memories of that period. But that doesn’t mean that, with the benefit of hindsight, history will be unkind to him or the monarchy. The show certainly isn’t. I have enormous sympathy for a man in his position — indeed, a family in their position. People are more understanding and compassionate than we expect sometimes.”
That sympathy is on display in The Crown’s tender reframing of the Camillagate call and flattering depictions of the Prince’s Trust, as well as the inclusion of Charles’s ideas for “radical” changes to the monarchy, such as his desire to reduce the number of working royals and a plan to abolish the taxpayer-funded Civil List, the precursor to the Sovereign Grant that funds the monarchy (a move that Charles proposed doing in 1989 and is said to still be keen to pursue as king).
Anne, often seen as the royals’ steadiest pair of hands and “the daughter who should have been queen” is shown praising Charles as strong, confident and mature, telling her family — and in essence, the audience — that not only does her brother have what it takes to be king, but that through his royal work, he has been proving his readiness for years.
The tension between the old and the new is central to this series, and in addition to laying the foundation for the coming royal crisis following the death of Diana on the next instalment, The Crown gives viewers much to think about as the UK heads into its Carolean era.
‘The Crown’ series 5 streams on Netflix from November 9