In the Season Five premiere of The Crown, we see Prince Charles (Dominic West) in a secret meeting with then-Prime Minister John Major. It’s the 1990s, a period of peak scandal for the British monarchy: Charles’s marriage to Diana is in shambles, the economy in recession, public support for the Queen at a historic low. The heir to the throne, meanwhile, is getting tired of waiting for his mother to either step down or kick off so he can finally get a promotion. “For almost 60 years, my great-great grandfather Edward VII was kept waiting in the wings,” says Charles, pleading his case as Major (Jonny Lee Miller) looks on, unsure of how to respond to this shocking display of royal candor. “He longed to be given responsibilities, but his mother refused.”
Charles’s words land a bit differently now. As The Crown was being filmed, its real-life protagonist–Queen Elizabeth II–died at the age of 96. An early abdication, as we know, was not in the cards. The longest-serving Prince of Wales in the monarchy’s 1,000-plus-year history was kept waiting in the wings for 73 years, far longer than his great-great grandfather. And now, as Charles prepares for his coronation in May, millions of people all over the world will tune in to watch Netflix’s critically-acclaimed, binge-worthy–and yes, fictionalized–historical drama when it drops on Nov. 9, only to witness the King of England behaving at his absolute worst: scheming to oust his mother, gaslighting his wife, and declaring to his mistress that he would like to be reincarnated as a tampon.
Netflix couldn’t have timed it better. For the monarchy, the situation is less than ideal.
The focus of this season has resulted in a King-sized furore in Britain, with defenders of the real Crown trashing The Crown in the press before it even airs. Irate over reports of the scene between Prince Charles and John Major in Episode One, the former prime minister issued a statement a couple of weeks ago calling the show “a barrel-load of nonsense peddled for no other reason than to provide maximum–and entirely false–dramatic impact.” A few days later, we heard from Oscar-winning actress Dame Judi Dench, demanding that Netflix add a disclaimer to each episode, “as a mark of respect to a sovereign who served her people so dutifully for 70 years, and to preserve its reputation in the eyes of its British subscribers.” Last week, a spokesman for former prime minister Sir Tony Blair, who is played by Bertie Carvel in the season finale, added his voice to the chorus of condemnation, telling the UK’s Daily Telegraph that the show is “complete and utter rubbish.”
It isn’t the first time that battle lines have been drawn between defenders of the House of Windsor and the House of Netflix. In 2020, a few months after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced via Instagram that they were going to “step back” as senior royals–a move derided by the British press as “Megxit”–the couple formed a production company and signed a multiyear deal with the streaming service, with a reported value of around $100 million. As Tina Brown put it in her book The Palace Papers, “the Duke and Duchess of Sussex made a choice between the commonwealth and Netflix and followed the money.” So we can assume that they are probably on Team Netflix. Prince Harry hasn’t commented specifically on his feelings about Season Five of The Crown, but in an interview with Oprah last year, Meghan Markle confirmed that they do, in fact, watch the show, and in an interview on the The Late Late Show with James Corden that aired last February, Harry stated what should be obvious to anybody who watches: “[t]hey don’t pretend to be news. It’s fictional.”
Thus far, Netflix has responded to the criticism by adding a statement below the trailer for Season Five on YouTube. It reads, “Inspired by real events, this fictional dramatization tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II and the political and personal events that shaped her reign.” Did anyone seriously believe that the show was anything but? Having watched the season in its entirety, I predict that most viewers will find that, far from being disrespectful, creator Peter Morgan dealt with the struggles of the royal family, particularly those of Charles, with extraordinary generosity of spirit. As Morgan told Variety, “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.”
We need look no further than the casting of Dominic West, an actor most would agree is way too conventionally attractive to play Charles. Known for his roles as sexy, complicated characters on The Wire and The Affair, West cuts a dashingly ‘90s figure in a double-breasted suit. His Charles is smart, ambitious, and passionate about reforming the monarchy. Even the scandal known as “Tampongate,” addressed in Episode Five, gets handled with care: we see Charles and Camilla (Olivia Williams) on the phone, having a sweet and intimate conversation, only to discover that an amateur radio enthusiast has tapped their call and sold a recording to the tabloids. Although Charles was ridiculed at the time, in retrospect the incident was an outrageous violation of his privacy. The end of Episode Five bizarrely transforms into a full-on advertisement for Charles’s non-profit The Prince’s Trust, as West busts a move on the dance floor with a bunch of underprivileged kids while a chyron informs us that the organization “has assisted one million young people to fulfill their potential.” It feels almost as though Morgan is trying to apologize to Charles for dredging up the mortifying scandal.
The other major hot-button event dramatized on the show is the controversial 1995 interview that Princess Diana gave to journalist Martin Bashir on the BBC program Panorama. Who among us hasn’t seen the iconic clips of Diana sitting in Kensington Palace, her eyes darkened with kohl, explaining to Bashir that “there were three of us in this marriage so it was a bit crowded”? In the run-up to the release of The Crown, the British press has worked itself into a lather over the prospect of seeing the interview recreated on screen. “The Crown IGNORES William’s pleas not to exploit Diana’s 1995 Panorama interview with Martin Bashir by recreating it in TWO episodes and even shows the young prince watching it on TV and Charles CRYING,” read the Daily Mail headline. The Telegraph went with “Prince William’s anger as The Crown profits from pain of Diana in BBC interview.”
In reality, Prince William has never commented publicly on the upcoming season of The Crown or its intent to address the interview. Here’s what really happened: Following the release of a BBC report last year that revealed the deceptive tactics used to obtain the Panorama interview–yes, it took 26 years for this report to come out–William said that he doesn’t think it should ever be aired again, which is not the same thing as saying it shouldn’t be dramatized on a fictional television show. On The Crown, viewers will see that the interview, and the awful way in which it was obtained, was handled deftly. Although The Daily Mail is correct that the subject consumes two whole episodes–Seven and Eight–only about four minutes of what was, in real life, a 54-minute conversation are actually shown on screen. The drama here is focused on the unethical tactics employed by Bashir to convince Diana to tell her story. We see Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah) behaving like a manipulative little worm, creating fake bank statements that were used to persuade Diana’s brother Earl Spencer, and then Diana herself, that she was being spied on by British intelligence services. The psychological toll that these lies took on Diana’s already paranoid state is painful to watch.
Diana is played this season by the 6’2” Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki, but it feels like we are watching the reincarnation of Diana herself, an actual possession. Much like Diana did in real life, Debicki steals every scene she is in, showcasing Diana’s vulnerability and loneliness, mastering her iconic thousand-mile stare and her charming tendency to overshare to anyone who enters her orbit. Debicki’s Diana is a wounded animal, hungry for attention, far too trusting and ready to burn every bridge in sight. (“She opens her mouth and hand grenades come out,” says Bashir.) You cannot take your eyes off of her as she delivers the worst news the Queen (Imelda Staunton) could ever possibly hear: “I’ve given an interview.”
And that’s one of the strangest things about this season. In a show called The Crown, in a moment following the actual Queen’s death, the title character, the one who wears the crown, is drowned out and diminished by the far more interesting people around her. Staunton is a tremendously talented actress, but her character’s tendency to adhere to the royal mantra “never complain, never explain” renders her scenes boring, largely irrelevant to the main narrative driving the series. Bookended by episodes detailing the launch and decommissioning of the royal yacht, Britannia, the series’ symbolism sometimes becomes too heavy handed. At one point, during a conversation about upgrading the old television in Buckingham Palace to one that supports cable, the Queen asks whether “everything in this house is a metaphor.” No, but everything on this show is.
And in the context of 2022, with the monarchy once again in a weakened state, that’s probably what the Netflix haters are most worried about: the current resonance of watching a storied institution descend into obsolescence. In that respect, The Crown is only the beginning. Prince Harry’s tell-all memoir, Spare, comes out in 2023, as does the Sussexes Netflix docuseries chronicling their post-Megxit life in California. During a recent segment about The Crown on Britain’s TalkTV, theater critic Quentin Letts defended the monarchy, comparing Netflix to “fleas on the hide of a magnificent Leviathan, a great sleek bear that is the royal family.” The panel discussion was immediately followed by a report about climate activists smashing a chocolate cake into the face of a wax sculpture of King Charles. Long may he reign.
Rachel Dodes is a New York-based culture writer and contributor to Esquire.
This content is imported from OpenWeb. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.