Robert Lacey writes for The Times ahead of the new season of The Crown which launches this week.
Towards the climax of The Queen, Peter Morgan’s 2006 film depicting the events that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, we encounter Elizabeth II, played by Helen Mirren, lost in the Highlands of Scotland while her family are stalking deer.
Suddenly she catches sight of the prey — a magnificent Imperial stag, standing proudly in the heather. Here is a monarch under threat, as was the late Queen in those tragic days, pursued by the British media who condemned her apparent indifference to Diana’s death.
Elizabeth starts talking to the animal, sensing their common plight. Then, stricken with anxiety as she hears the stalkers approach, she shoos the imperilled beast to run for safety, which he does.
The “Peter Morgan stag scene” is taught in film schools around the world as an example of how sheer invention — a notion plucked out of the air — can bring history brilliantly to life. No one imagines that the Queen ever spoke to a wild stag, but this was the moment when many critics said they really felt the poignant and historical message of the movie — how a modern monarch lives permanently under threat.
In 2007 this episode of pure imagination helped win a best actress Oscar for Mirren and a Golden Globe for Morgan’s screenplay, along with subsequent honours, including a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), whose ribbon and medal was placed around the writer’s neck by Prince Charles himself “for services to British drama”.
Fifteen years later the row surrounding the imminent fifth season of Morgan’s TV series does not centre on imagination but on absolutely solid fact. The latest complaint is not that The Crown is inaccurate. The problem seems to be that its content is all too true — and I am happy to concur with that.
Full disclosure: I am historical consultant to The Crown, so I would say that, of course. However, through all the history that its six seasons cover, from the 1920s to the early 2000s, there has not been a decade in which the events have been better documented — and that is largely thanks to the royal participants themselves.
Charles himself presented the world with his own 620-page account of his life, and especially the 1990s — the focus of season five — with the help of his ghostwriter Jonathan Dimbleby. This was in response to Diana’s own personal blow-by-blow testimonial (just 167 pages), memorably delivered on tape to the journalist Andrew Morton, who is himself a character in several episodes.
The 1990s was the decade when the two leading royal protagonists in the drama chose to set out their own accounts of exactly what happened behind palace doors in two eye-popping volumes. However, 30 years later, the author of the larger volume, now King, is apparently demanding that the truth he was then so keen for us to absorb, his own authentic record of events, be consigned to oblivion.
Then there is the proposal from some of his friends that all the instalments of season five should be preceded by a screen “health warning”, thus actively attracting attention by alerting viewers that what they are being offered is not some boring documentary but imagined episodes of spicy fiction. That seems counterproductive.
So, it was fiction, was it, to declare in episode 5.05, “There were three of us in this marriage”?
And what about: “I want to feel my way along you, all over you, and up and down you, and in and out . . .”?
Who never said that?
Let us not even go near Camilla’s “You’re going to come back as a pair of knickers” — prompting Charles’s response: “Or, God forbid, a T****x.”
I offer my apologies for the coy asterisks but I can’t bring myself to spell out the fatal word — although all of us know exactly what it was. That’s the trouble: those cringeworthy endearments really were uttered in an exchange between Charles and his then-mistress, which was recorded by a Cheshire-based radio ham and have never been disavowed.
If you subscribe to Netflix and tune in next week, you will see the mechanics of how the royal voices got extracted from the ether — and, sorry, you will hear that word again. “Again” is the operative word, for you have certainly read these graphic and embarrassing sentiments before. They have been published in this and every other British newspaper on countless occasions. Like it or not, they are central to the history and identity of our present King and Queen. The imagery is lodged in the collective consciousness.
It is to the misfortune of the King that he happens to have come to the throne six years after the first episode of The Crown was broadcast in November 2016. Since then, the series has been ploughing steadily through successive decades of relatively straightforward history and matching drama seasons — winning critical praise and dozens of prestigious awards — with season five and the scandalous events of the 1990s now coming together, as long scheduled, for broadcast next week.
The rogue ingredient that has inspired the current furore is the sad demise of Queen Elizabeth this September and the accession of her son. The once controversial and disputatious prince has been transformed to grandfatherly monarch, elevated to a different sphere with all the reverence that doth hedge a king. While Mr Golden Globe Morgan CBE finds himself heading for Traitors’ Gate.
Enter the bended-knee brigade, led by Dame Judi Dench. How the British love to bow and scrape. “Crude sensationalism” is the term one might apply to Dench’s screen depictions of Queen Victoria, first in Mrs Brown, based on the scurrilous rumours that the widowed queen enjoyed an improper relationship with her Scottish ghillie, John Brown, and then in Victoria & Abdul, an exaggerated account of the queen’s relationship with another servant, her Indian attendant, the “Munshi”.
In fact, Dench directed this description at the forthcoming season of The Crown — although her letter to The Times of October 20 did make clear she had not actually seen the episodes she was criticising. She was taking her cue from John Major, the former prime minister, who had not seen the new episodes either but had nonetheless described them as “malicious nonsense”.
Well, call The Crown nonsense if you care to, Sir John. That’s your right. But I can assure you it is not malicious. You will see how positively you are portrayed in episode 5.01 next week, skilfully heading off Charles’s attempts to make mischief on the theme of old institutions needing young blood to renew themselves.
“I think I understand where this conversation is going,” you are portrayed as saying, artfully diverting the prince to the subject of his beloved architecture. “I understand you had some ideas relating to rural planning regulations . . .”
Season five also presents the reforming ideas of Charles in a positive light, paying due credit to his initiatives with young people via the Prince’s Trust, along with his participation in the Way Ahead Group. To labour the point, The Crown seeks to portray the central role played by our precious and complicated constitutional monarchy in Britain’s modern history, and not everything in the “decade horribilis” was totally horrible.
Look ahead to season six and you’ll see a Golden Jubilee in prospect, along with a retreat by the Queen from her conviction that Camilla was a “wicked woman”, inspiring Her Majesty to use a racing metaphor and welcome her son and his bride to the “winners’ enclosure” after their marriage in Windsor in April 2005.
Just study the history — that is the basis for it all. Wasn’t 2001 the year when William met Kate as fellow students at the University of St Andrews? Now there’s a positive and romantic story worth pursuing. . .
Could it actually be that The Crown is heading for a happy ending?
Read the article in The Times: The Crown: Never a truer word was said of the royal family | The Times
Battle of Brothers: The True Story of the Royal Family in Crisis by Robert Lacey, published by William Collins, is out now