TOLSTOY was right: all happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This, one of the most oft-quoted lines in all literature, struck me repeatedly as I delved into the fourth series of Netflix’s The Crown. The enormously popular docudrama purports to tell the story of the reign of Elizabeth II, which began in 1952 and continues to the present day. We have now reached the point in British history when, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher is elected the country’s first female prime minister. It runs to 1990 and her tearful eviction from Downing Street.
Peter Morgan, The Crown’s writer, has insisted that he aspires to accuracy but has conceded that inconvenient facts sometimes get in the way of a good story. Be that as it may, he says, “You must never forsake truth.” Quite what he means by this is unclear. This is, of course, the age of what Barack Obama recently described as “truth decay”. For us mere bystanders it has become increasingly difficult to sift the real from the unreal, the factional from the fictional. When a sitting president can contest the outcome of an election without offering supporting evidence is it any wonder that dramatists are relaxed about depicting actual, living people in a manner that turns them into soap opera fodder?
This is what distinguishes The Crown from other such productions. Unlike those, say, in Downton Abbey, many of the characters it features are not imaginary and are still very much with us. Who knows whether they watch the programme. If they do, I imagine it is in horror from behind a sofa. One would like to know what they think of how they are portrayed, but the chances of that are nil. This is what Mr Morgan and his colleagues count on. The royal family’s Pavlovian response is to observe an omerta worthy of the Mafia. Misrepresented, traduced, caricatured and reviled, they have no alternative but to keep their thoughts to themselves. While others may call for their lawyers, they must grin and bear whatever is said or shown about them.
Reading reviews of the current series, I am struck by how otherwise intelligent commentators have taken as fact scenes that seem to me to be fantastic. I say this while acknowledging that I have no idea whether I am right. Like most viewers, I must take a lot on trust. I am also dependent on experts on royal matters, such as Hugo Vickers and William Shawcross, who delight in pointing out howlers. What is certain is that Morgan has his own agenda and, through the artful use of imagery, takes sides. This is most apparent in his depiction of Diana, who is played by Emma Corrin. If Morgan’s account is to be believed we must accept that she, an ingenue, married Prince Charles after just a handful of brief encounters. Most people spend more hours planning a holiday than they did deciding to marry.
Whatever attracted her to him – and vice versa – is hard to fathom. Throughout their courtship and marriage Charles is locked in an affair with Camilla Parker Bowles of which everyone in “The Firm”, as the royal family calls itself, is aware. As impersonated by Josh O’Connor, Charles is the personification of Tolstoyan misery. His stock expression is that of a man about to undergo root canal work. His shoulders are stooped and he speaks as if the enunciation of each word causes him pain. His attitude towards Diana, who is never more herself than when rollerskating through Buckingham Palace listening on headphones to musical bubblegum, is exemplified by what he said on the day they announced their engagement. Asked if he was in love, he admitted he was, then added: “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”
That was the moment when Diana ought to have handed back her engagement ring. But she had stumbled into a milieu of which she had no experience, though her upbringing – several of her female forebears were members of the Queen Mother’s household – suggests otherwise. From the first, it seems, she was treated like a child, whose raison d’être was to produce heirs. In that regard, her role was no different from that of other young women down the ages who were plucked from obscurity solely for their ability to procreate. If The Crown is to be believed – and it is a big ‘if’ – she and the Queen had minimal contact. Indeed, we are asked to believe Elizabeth avoided taking Diana’s calls. Thus the idea is confirmed of the monarch as cold-hearted, devoid of empathy and distanced from reality.
Is it accurate? I am sure witnesses could be found to testify on either side of the argument. But what, one wonders, is the intention of the makers of The Crown, other than to feed our insatiable appetite for prurient entertainment? Britain is as deeply divided on the issue as it remains over Brexit. Many feel that what they are watching is historically sound, that what’s on-screen is what happens where there are no cameras around. Others, however, like Hugo Vickers, sense a wrong that cannot easily be righted. He feels most aggrieved on the Queen’s behalf who, now well into her tenth decade and her 68th year on the throne, deserves more respect than she gets. She is played by Olivia Coleman as “glum and schoolmistressy”, which, insist those who know her, is a travesty of the truth. And still to come is her 1992 annus horribilis, when anything that could go wrong for The Firm did. Where’s Leo Tolstoy when you need him?
(Alan Taylor was deputy editor and managing editor of the Scotsman newspaper. He was a Booker Prize judge in 1994. His latest book is Appointment in Arezzo, an account of his friendship with the novelist Muriel Spark.)
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