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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Mark Lawson

There goes the knighthood! How The Crown blew the palace doors off

Ghost rumours … Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana with Khalid Abdalla as Dodi Fayed, in the final series.
Ghost rumours … Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana with Khalid Abdalla as Dodi Fayed, in the final series. Photograph: Daniel Escale/Netflix

It is the beginning of the end for The Crown, much praised for its A-list acting and circa $277,000-per-minute production values, but widely criticised for its screenwriter Peter Morgan inventing dialogue for the royal family in actual and imagined situations. On Thursday, Netflix releases the first four parts of the sixth and final series, with the last six to follow next month. This run is expected to begin with the death in Paris of Princess Diana – though with actress Elizabeth Debicki rumoured to reappear as the princess’s ghost – which suggests that Morgan and the producers (Left Bank Pictures) have not been cowed by rows over taste.

But as it ends, it’s increasingly clear what The Crown started: a seismic shift in royal representation on stage and screen. Take two new plays just opened in London: Backstairs Billy, by Marcelo dos Santos, imagines the relationship between the queen mother and her closest servant, Billy Tallon; while Jonathan Maitland’s The Interview explores the 1995 Panorama interview Diana gave to Martin Bashir.

Both shows overlap with The Crown: The Interview closely parallels its season five episodes which dealt with negotiations between Diana and Bashir and the secret editing of the programme at an Eastbourne hotel; and Penelope Wilton is playing the queen mother in Backstairs Billy, a play that is on newer ground, Billy Tallon being one of the few royal characters not animated by Morgan, possibly because so little about him is known. (Backstairs Billy has been criticised for not crediting the one biography by Tom Quinn.)

It’s hard to imagine, though, that either play could exist without the example of The Crown. Nor that two films about Prince Andrew’s disastrous Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis would currently be in production: Netflix’s Scoop and Amazon Prime’s A Very Royal Scandal with, respectively, Rufus Sewell and Michael Sheen as the prince, and Gillian Anderson and Ruth Wilson as the interviewer.

Dog dirt metaphor … Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton in Backstairs Billy.
Dog dirt metaphor … Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton in Backstairs Billy. Photograph: Johan Persson

Clearly inspired by the genre Morgan started, the Andrew-Maitlis films could be seen as continuations of The Crown, as the ill-judged interview falls after its timescale. There is a royal protocol term, “morganatic”, meaning a marriage in which a spouse of lower social standing and any offspring are unable to inherit royal titles. But the series has spawned a remarkable number of Peter-Morganatic offspring: shows that consciously or unconsciously claim a line of descent from the writer’s work. Others include Red, White & Royal Blue (Amazon Prime), in which the son of America’s first female president has an affair with the grandson of the British king. And Young Royals (Netflix), in which a scandalous Scandinavian prince is sent to a boarding school for rehab.

This spate is a result of Morgan breaking with the long tradition of cultural reverence towards the Royals that started as legal restriction and continued as regal cringe. Until 1968, all British theatre scripts had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain, a member of the royal household. While generally censorious, the blue-blood blue-pencillers were especially protective of their employer.

In Politics, Prudery and Perversions, his history of theatre censorship, Nicholas de Jongh points out that it was not until the accession of George VI, in 1936, that the censor would even read scripts featuring Queen Victoria, who had died 35 years earlier, and was unlikely to pass them even then. Ironically, British stage censorship ended after the Chamberlain’s failed attempt to ban private “club” performances (a way around censorship) of Edward Bond’s 1968 play Early Morning, which involved Queen Victoria in a lurid plot featuring lesbianism and cannibalism.

Even so, a perceived prohibition on playing a living monarch (also enforced on TV) survived another 20 years, through a combination of residual obsequiousness and fear of criticism from royalist politicians and press. In 1988, when the National Theatre scheduled Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution, with Prunella Scales as the Queen, artistic director Richard Eyre faced (his memoirs reveal) “threats” from two Labour peers on his board. He feared he would have to resign.

Early warning … Florence Nightingale kissing Queen Victoria in Edward Bond’s Early Morning.
Early warning … Florence Nightingale kissing Queen Victoria in Edward Bond’s Early Morning. Photograph: Keystone Press/Alamy

Eyre won, the production pleased audiences, frightened no establishment horses, and a 1991 TV version on the BBC – an organisation terrified of offending the royals then and now – further liberated the subject. Gradually, the palace gates inched open, with new widenings later forced by Morgan. His 2006 movie The Queen and spin-off stage play The Audience, both starring Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II, led to The Crown.

It is said that Netflix is the only network with the money to make The Crown, which costs an estimated $15m per episode. That may be true, but it is equally the case that only a streamer based in the US, where the royals have showbiz rather than constitutional significance, would have taken the risk of making a factually loose fiction about the Windsors, further emboldened by not being subject to Ofcom.

In the UK, royal fiction distanced itself through broad satire and comedy. Four years before the Queen was portrayed at the National she had been lampooned in ITV’s Spitting Image, while a similar cartoonish humour infused Channel 4’s The Windsors, which premiered close to The Crown in 2016. The fact that this was the year of the monarch’s 90th birthday showed how far outlooks had shifted. But the crucial – and, it would prove, controversial – innovation of The Crown was to depict royalty with the quasi-documentary realism of acting and lavish scenery.

Morgan started cautiously, especially with Elizabeth II, played by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and now Imelda Staunton. Perhaps to get round American incomprehension at a head of state who is not the head of government and officially stays above politics, Morgan makes Elizabeth a presidential figure who solves the Suez crisis, plots to remove Winston Churchill as PM, and is deeply involved in Commonwealth and Falklands politics. A viewer who learned history from the Netflix series would be mystified by last week’s spectacle of Charles III reading a king’s speech that significantly differed from what seemed to be his opinions while Prince of Wales.

However, the fact that we will never know if Charles privately baulked at what Sunak gave him to say – or what the Queen actually said to PM Anthony Eden during Suez – provides the space that Morgan has filled. His lucrative genius was to realise the Windsors are a blank screen on to which speech and scenarios can be projected – especially once a writer no longer risks imprisonment, unemployment or social disgrace for doing so.

Cartoon humour … Spitting Image.
Cartoon humour … Spitting Image. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

For me, the show’s finest two hours are Smoke and Mirrors, in which the 1953 Coronation is watched, from his exile in France, by the Duke of Windsor, the abdicated King; and Terra Nullius, about Charles and Diana’s state visit to Australia. In both, so much biography and journalism had already been written that Morgan had no need for his mortal sin of distortion. As Charles and Diana had each given long TV interviews about their marriage, it was reasonable for drama to take on the story. And near-hologram acting gave plausible accounts of the two marital disasters that threatened the House of Windsor.

But from early on, there were warnings – in subplots falsely implicating Prince Philip in his sister’s death and gossiping about the Queen’s relationship with her racing trainer – that the show would be more concerned with visual rather than factual accuracy. Morgan favours a narrative in which two stories are entwined, even if they actually happened years apart. In Bubbikins, the exiling to England of Prince Philip’s mother occurs during the filming of the 1968 BBC documentary The Royal Family (it didn’t), and the plot is resolved by a fictional Guardian journalist writing a piece that never existed.

Altering chronology could be justified for narrative neatness, but Morgan seemed increasingly guilty of casual emotional cruelties, with one aristocratic family particularly targeted for some reason. In season four’s Gold Stick episode, teenager Nicholas Knatchbull is murdered and his brother Timothy seriously injured, in the IRA assassination of their grandfather Lord Mountbatten. This happened, but Morgan uses their tragedy as background images to Charles reading a damning letter from Mountbatten, for which no evidence exists. In The System, the death of another Knatchbull – Leonora, from cancer at the age of five – is simply used as a plot device to show Prince Philip comforting and becoming insinuatingly “close” to her mother, Lady Romsey. What is the justification for this painful invasion of private grief?

Not amused … Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II in the new series.
Not amused … Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II in the new series. Photograph: Justin Downing/Netflix

Such drive-by biographical knifings caused a lot of political and journalistic outrage, resulting in Netflix agreeing, before season five, to place a disclaimer saying The Crown is a “fictional dramatisation”. But that warning was a small concession, with no financial or creative consequences. And The Crown’s redefinition of issues of privacy and accuracy has had a vivid effect on other royal fictions, claiming a Morganatic creative lese-majesty.

In the recent Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe, the king and queen are crowned wearing replicas of Charles and Camilla’s coronation kit – a bold allusion, given how ruinously unsuited to office Macbeth proves. At the National Theatre (patron: Queen Camilla), a new play – Death of England: Closing Time by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams – included a scatological monologue mocking the new monarch as “a 74-year-old man who’s never worked a day in his life”.

That’s evidence of how far we have come since 1968 – and it was The Crown that showed the way. If Diana’s ghost does turn up in season six, she’s already been seen on stage in The Interview, endorsing playwright Maitland’s view that the Panorama interview should not have been withdrawn by the BBC. And Backstairs Billy includes an invented scene showing the queen mother brutally humiliating her page (it involves dog dirt) to remind him who’s in charge. This seems a reasonable metaphor for the Windsors’ treatment of assorted in-laws and employees, but would never have been seen before Morgan. In Backstairs Billy, Penelope Wilton stays close to her own warm, round tones, rather than the queen mother’s actual clipped, chillier voice - which can be seen as another nod to The Crown, where all three queens used diction less posh than archive footage suggests, to lessen viewer alienation.

While friends of the King – John Major, Judi Dench – criticised season five for invention and intrusion, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know what senior royals themselves think, although there is an intriguing hint. One actor in The Crown and another in The Windsors – both having previously met the royals through charity work and showbiz premieres – told me they had been quietly advised by the palace to stay out of recent hand-shaking “receiving lines” lest offence be caused by an encounter between the actor and the royal they played.

Such is the Morgan effect. Thanks to The Crown, there may soon be few Equity members left who can expect an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party.

• This article was amended on 15 November 2023. An earlier version said that in Young Royals a Scandinavian prince was sent to a British boarding school for rehab. In fact the school he goes to is in Sweden. Also the Crown premiered in 2016, which coincided with Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, not 80th.

• The Crown returns to Netflix on Thursday. Backstairs Billy is at Duke of York’s Theatre, London, until 27 January; The Interview at Park Theatre, London, until 25 November.

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