The release of Series 4 of Netflix’s The Crown in November of this year has provoked conversation about the level of truth in the depiction of the royal family; the history which lies behind the drama. In fact, articles abound online questioning the accuracy of the show and purporting to reveal “The Real History” behind what The Crown shows – as if the category of “History” is stable and immutable, and not a subjective and superfluous concept.
In considering The Crown’s depiction of “history” and its relation to the genre of biopic, I cannot help but remember the similar swathes of article which followed the release of the 2018 film The Favourite, which similarly presents the life of royalty, but this time the 18th century monarch Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman). The Favourite’s depiction of Anne led to controversy due to its portrayal of her relationships with her courtiers Abigail Hill (played by Emma Stone) and Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz). The film centres around the sexual relationship between Anne and the two women as each tries to win her affections and therefore the power she holds, contending with each other and Anne’s fickle nature. The Favourite and its cast were nominated for ten Oscars in 2019, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Picture, and Colman won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as the Queen. Evidently, the film was a critical success. Yet, people were not satisfied with the film’s critical merits; they wanted to know the truth behind what was presented. Was Queen Anne really a lesbian? Did Hill and Churchill really fight over her? What is the “real history” behind it all?
It seems, then, that any depiction of royalty, from any period, is subject to criticism in its blurring of fact and fiction. Unlike The Favourite, however, the main problem (or strength perhaps) of The Crown lies in its setting in recent history. Series 4 covers a period spanning from 1979 to the early 1990s; depicting events which many viewers will have experienced firsthand. For example, the 1981 wedding of Charles and Diana is carefully re-enacted, as is the death of Lord Mountbatten in 1979. But it is not the depiction of these well-documented events which is causing the controversy; it’s what lies behind these famous weddings and funerals, the undocumented words of the royals, which the writers have had to guess at, and then dramatise, that seems to have caused a problem. Did Queen Elizabeth really go about seeking out which child was her favourite (as in episode 4)? Did Michael Fagan (who broke into Buckingham palace in 1982) really give an impassioned speech about the effect that Margaret Thatcher’s policies were having on the working class?
The question I want to ask though, is do those details really matter?
I think, when it comes to any biopic, “real history” has to be deprioritised. If an accurate and chronological rendering of history is what you’re looking for, watch a documentary! The Crown may play fast and loose with history here and there; for example, Fagan was reportedly annoyed at the depiction of himself in episode 5 of the show, saying that the actor playing him, Tom Brooke, was “too ugly”, and that a lot of what was depicted during his break-in was pure fiction. But the dramatisation of this event adds to the overall theme of episode 5. Whilst not entirely faithful to reality, Fagan’s character acts to highlight the dichotomy between the royals and the general populous during the 1980s; something which Brooke handles well, despite his “ugliness”.
The historical events depicted act more as metaphors for the interactions between the royal family that we’ll never be privy to. The fights between Charles (played by Josh O’Connor) and Diana (played by Emma Corrin) may not have happened as depicted, but the actors do a brilliant job of bringing out the instability in the relationship, and how unalike and unsuited Charles and Diana were, showing both of their flaws (Charles’ long-standing affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, and Diana’s lack of understanding of Charles’ aversion to publicity stunts). Neither vilified nor sanctified, Charles and Diana are represented solely as humans with problems of their own. Despite criticism that The Crown depicts Prince Charles as cold and uncaring towards Diana, the writers also can be sympathetic, leaving out the ‘Tampongate’ scandal between Charles and Camilla. The writers do an excellent job of taking into account both sides of the story, with three previous series of exposition and context as to why certain characters act like they do.
What The Crown succeeds so well in, then, is taking a subject matter which is as simultaneously secretive and publicised as the royal family, and presenting them as what they are: a family with problems, arguments, affairs, divorces, laughter, jealousy (the list goes on) just like our own family. And if it makes for good television, does it really matter that there’s a bit of exaggeration?
Artwork by Emma Hewlett