The Crown


Over the course of ten hours Peter Morgan’s royal drama features the implosion of several marriages, low dealings in high places, vicious squabbles over money, and at least one scene of Princess Margaret wearing an admiral’s cap at a jaunty angle.

So, business as usual then for The Crown, streaming from Wednesday, 9 November, on Netflix.

Except it is not. From Dame Judi Dench to Tony Blair and down through the ranks of commentators, the word has gone out that this time Morgan has gone too far. Has he?

The fifth and penultimate series opens in Clydebank, 1953, where honest Scottish toilers have built a yacht for a new young queen. Ah, Britannia. Her glamorous beginnings. Her fall into disrepair. Her search for purpose in a modern age … why, it’s just like the monarchy, innit?

Morgan is jolly pleased with this metaphor, so much so that he bookends the entire drama with it. Its lack of subtlety matches the series as a whole. This is the messy 1990s, when the doors to royal lives were not so much eased open as blown off their hinges.

There is a new Queen in town in the shape of Imelda Staunton. This is the monarch’s third Doctor Who-style regeneration after Claire Foy and Olivia Colman’s portrayals and it is largely a triumph. While Staunton only resembles the monarch from a considerable distance, she plays her perfectly as the woman the public imagined her to be – a wise old bird, bit of a hoot on the quiet, rock solid in her duty to the country.

Other new faces include Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki as the new Charles and Di. West looks nothing like Charles but he whines and fusses convincingly, while Debicki has the shy Di, upwards Bambi glance off to a tee. An irascible Jonathan Pryce is a snug fit for Philip, while Lesley Manville is a divine Princess Margaret by way of Joan Crawford.

The one who wins a watch is John Major, played by Trainspotting’s Jonny Lee Miller. As casting decisions go, that’s like hiring George Clooney to play John Swinney.

The Conservative PM features in some of the drama’s more controversial scenes, the ones that have had The Crown’s critics calling for an on screen “health warning” before each episode. There was no such declaration on the review copy I watched, though the Netflix home page describes The Crown as “a fictional dramatisation” which is “inspired by real events”. Major has described the series as “a barrel-load of malicious nonsense".

You will make your own mind up easily enough. Basically, any scene in which only two people are present should be approached with scepticism. Did Charles, for example, really lobby the Prime Minister to get an early start on the job of king? Given what we know of his keenness for a more active role – see the “black spider” memos to Ministers – it sounds vaguely plausible, or at least not wholly incredible. Such is the foggy realm in which The Crown sometimes operates.

As for the rest, the genuinely shocking stuff, there is no need to make it up because it was true. The Prince of Wales really did say *that* to Camilla during an intimate phone call. Diana did tell her biographer, Andrew Morton, about suicide attempts.

Charles and Diana, via television interviews – his and hers – and books, put their own lives in the public domain and the media did the rest. They were royals for the red top age.

That all this should resurface now, with the Queen’s funeral still so recent, is either unfortunate or brilliant timing depending on how cynical one wishes to be.

That said, it is impossible to watch certain scenes without feeling, to use an expression of the times, as if you are dabbling your fingers in the stuff of other people’s souls. Especially the scenes featuring William and Harry. No-one, no matter how old they get, wants or deserves to see their parents like this. It is cruel and unnecessary.

The drama’s other failings seem trivial in comparison but are worth mentioning. While the staging, as ever, is of caviar standard the dialogue is frequently mince. In the episode where the BBC justifiably gets it in the neck over the Bashir interview, the young gun from Panorama is seen trying to convince Diana he is on her side. “I know what it’s like to be disparaged and persecuted, what it feels like to be an outsider in one of Britain’s most cherished institutions,” wails Bashir (played by Prasanna Puwanarajah). Seriously? Who talks like this?

There are no vintage episodes in this run, nothing to compare with the one set at the time of the Aberfan disaster. Some of the contrivances are deeply unconvincing and downright cheesy.

As ever, The Crown’s saving grace is its humour. “He still talks about it,” says Prince William to his granny as they discuss Charles’s (hated) schooling in Scotland. “Not still, surely,” coos the Queen.

Or when she asks John Major to mediate between Charles and Diana. “You’ve done such good things in Northern Ireland.”

Morgan’s drama is still immensely entertaining. It is not what it used to be, though. In its day, for my money series one and two, it was solid gold, Succession without the swearing, The Sopranos in chintz, ambitious, sweeping, epic. Now it is merely ordinary, something a royal drama should never be.