Patrick Jephson, former private secretary to HRH Princess Diana, was on high alert for falsehoods in The Crown, but couldn’t find any – article from The Telegraph.
I didn’t watch The Repair Shop: a Royal Visit in October, but from several accounts it was an enjoyable and wholesome slice of palace PR – a chance to see the Prince of Wales (as he was at the time it was recorded) as the relatable, accessible and sympathetic figure he surely is. No former prime ministers or archbishops jumped into print to tell us not to watch it. Which is a pity, really, because if they had, the programme might have achieved even higher ratings.
By contrast, a cauldron of disdain has been upended over the latest season of The Crown by these and other august personages. As a result, it’s a fair bet they have successfully pushed the award-winning Netflix series’ viewing figures even higher.
This goes to the heart of a dilemma faced by royal press secretaries. In a perfect world, all TV shows about royal folk would show them as admirable, lovable, hard-working servants of the common good. But sadly, the world is not that tidy and nor are the lives of people born to royal status. This creates an opportunity for dramatists to fill the gap between the sanitised talking points dispensed by courtiers for public consumption, and what we might suspect is the more pungent reality.
If the creative classes decide to fill that gap, how they do it is up to them. That’s called freedom of speech and it’s a right worth defending, even against those who live and work in palaces. In fact, especially against those who live and work in palaces, given their controlling instincts. What’s more, no playwright ever did as much harm to them as they have done – and continue to do – to each other. Ultimately, if the luvvies get it wrong then the market (and the courts) will punish them accordingly.
But if they get it right, they will have added something valuable to our understanding of how the most famous and revered national institution actually works. They will help us judge for ourselves how close their interpretation of the truth comes to the version the palace would prefer us to believe. With that understanding may even come a more informed and nuanced appreciation of how much royal people pay for what many of us see as a life of privilege. That is the challenge the writers and actors of The Crown have set themselves.
Having already seen most of Season 5 (and having had no involvement in Season 6), I think they’ve made a remarkably good effort. Since I was witness to quite a few of the original events portrayed here, I accepted the producers’ invitation in early 2019 to contribute my first-hand perspective on what really happened. After all, it was my life too and I wanted to make sure they got the bits I knew about as authentic as possible.
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I sat in a screening room to see the final version. I was on maximum alert, watching for malicious twisting of words and dishonest presentation of historical facts. I was looking out for lies and cruel falsehoods that would have allowed my inner critic to throw metaphorical tomato soup all over the picture the artists were painting.
I didn’t find any. True, dramatic artifice was sometimes used to make a point more concisely than might have been the case in real life, and some chronology has been adjusted to cram years of events into the time constraints of a TV series. That’s a challenge faced by all creators of historical drama. Surely the acid test is whether any contrivance serves the overall cause of authenticity in the picture being presented.
For example, in Episode 1 Charles borrows a Greek billionaire’s yacht for a family cruise in the Mediterranean. The Crown portrays this, touchingly though improbably, as a “second honeymoon” and gets considerable dramatic value out of the contrast between the romantic ideal and the fractious reality. A cheap and cynical invention?
Not at all: a second honeymoon was exactly how the media reported it in 1991, encouraged (I was told that summer) by sources in the prince’s office who calculated that such an apparent show of romance and generosity would counteract rumours of his adultery (also – coincidentally – angrily dismissed as “lies” at the time). The public, understandably, was happy to buy into the falsely optimistic illusion.
During the same holiday, Charles is seen scathingly dismissing Diana’s suggestion that some shopping might be squeezed into the programme alongside visits to archaeological sites and cultural attractions. In reality, this conversation didn’t happen on the yacht, but it did certainly happen – in much more damaging circumstances – during an official visit to the Middle East in 1989.
Does that make it a damnable Crown lie – or a truth justifiably transposed to meet the demands of coherent and essentially accurate storytelling? If so, it has the incidental effect of mitigating the prince’s ill-judged jibe by shifting it from a very public setting, in front of royal hosts, to the relative privacy of a family holiday.
A further example sees one of Charles’s advisors eagerly showing his boss an opinion poll apparently indicating public support for the Queen’s abdication so that the crown can pass directly to the Prince as Regent. We later see Charles discussing the poll and possible regency with the prime minister. Again, this is not strictly accurate: the discussion was actually held with a previous prime minister. A legitimate sleight of hand – or a wicked untruth?
What’s not in question is that the poll – one of several during this period – was published in The Sunday Times (in January 1990) and, in subsequent discussion with a journalist from the newspaper, I was told this was recognised inside the paper as one of several kites flown by elements in the prince’s office to test the public mood and encourage perception of the then beleaguered heir as a credible monarch-in-waiting. Buckingham Palace moved swiftly to close down the subsequent discussion, but the damage was done.
As an example of legitimate dramatic invention – as opposed to transposition – it’s hard to beat the scenes depicting Diana allegedly summoning up her courage and dropping on the Queen the bombshell news that she had secretly recorded an interview with Martin Bashir for Panorama. This part of the story was made up, and therefore might reasonably earn the ire of The Crown’s scholarly-exact detractors.
I know it was made up because I was there, and I can tell you that the princess absolutely failed to summon up the necessary courage and delegated the job to me. So, sitting beside her in her Jaguar en route to an official engagement, I used the car telephone to call the Queen’s private secretary and break the sensational news. In a comedy of confusion – the genuine mark of reality – the only person in the Queen’s office at the time was Her Majesty’s press secretary who thus got the vital information seconds before he received it first hand from the BBC.
I suppose I could be upset that The Crown failed to spotlight my moment of glory. But it had better things in mind – a high-tension confrontation between the Queen and Diana, which spellbindingly adds authenticity and narrative value to their on-screen relationship. It didn’t happen, at least not as portrayed here. But, on balance, I think head writer Peter Morgan made the right call, as I expect you will too.
What’s also beyond doubt is that, in working with The Crown’s researchers and writers, I certainly learned the validity of Mark Twain’s observation that truth is stranger than fiction because fiction is obliged to stick to probability.
As has been repeated often, The Crown isn’t a documentary. If you want attempts at historical accuracy there are shelves of books and hours of film to satisfy your curiosity. Truth-seekers should bear in mind, however, that much of that material was authorised by members of the Royal family to serve their own agendas, sometimes even to settle family scores. In the royal world, truth is more than usually a matter of opinion.
What I saw in the preview theatre created in my mind a story that chimed truthfully with the reality through which I had lived. And not just in my mind: there were scenes so real that I forgot to breathe, my heart thumped alarmingly and my palms grew clammy with cold sweat. I didn’t have time to nitpick the minutiae – I was too busy reliving the immersive, overall experience.
That won’t suit everybody. Season 5 sometimes makes for uneasy viewing. And so it should, if it’s authentically to re-create a traumatic period in recent royal history. It brings those troubled days to life with such astonishing theatrical power that we’re left to wonder if Peter Morgan is being criticised because The Crown is all lies… or because it contains too many uncomfortable truths?
Perhaps the critics are unsettled by the (actually rather sensitive) resurrection of a furtive stage in our new king and queen’s relationship when the joint coronation now being planned would have seemed prohibitively unwise.
I’m tempted to call after them, “Hold on, chaps, it’s not the Gunpowder Plot – it’s just some talented actors performing a well-written and expensively staged historical play.” Viewers aren’t stupid: they know what “fictionalised” means.
Because of my previous service as Princess Diana’s private secretary, my attention focused on how she and her story were portrayed. And, again, this all rings true. The actress Elizabeth Debicki is utterly convincing as wife, mother and global icon, struggling to cope with loneliness, divorce and betrayal, yet still with an undimmed sense of compassion – and trademark quick wit.
Just as vividly, Morgan reminds us that Diana was far from perfect – her shortcomings accurately if fictitiously catalogued in a searing scene towards the end of Episode 8. For all her flaws, Crown Diana – very much like the real one – still attracts our sympathy for her gutsiness and grace. And before Dianaphobes cry “bias”, let me add that all the major protagonists keep our sympathy to varying degrees. That’s because the production forces us to open our eyes to the pressures, temptations and futilities of so much royal life, through which the characters persevere with a sense of duty that at least hints at the burdens carried on our behalf by the real Royal family.
Eventually, you begin to wonder if there’s an agenda behind the orchestra of outrage. Perhaps the critics are put out that an independent (and very carefully researched) new voice is offering alternative opinions on events that palace press secretaries hoped we had forgotten.
This is a familiar reflex among some single-minded royalists: the issue is not what we are being shown but the gall of those who are revealing it. Princess Diana herself faced a similar reaction when her secret co-operation with Andrew Morton in the writing of the explosive Diana, Her True Story became the sole focus of palace attention rather than the urgent need to do something to acknowledge the unhappiness the book had revealed.
For some of us, Diana’s unhappiness and its many causes have never settled conveniently into the distant past. “Draw a line and move on” works with many of life’s harder experiences. But royalty is different: its whole purpose is to ingrain in us an appreciation of its relentless continuity. Monarchy can never draw a line without losing its own reason for existing.
Yes, it’s perhaps unfortunate that Season 5 has coincided with a mood of national prickliness over all things royal, from the death of the Queen to the posturing of the Sussexes, the embarrassment of Prince Andrew or some niggling cash-for-honours questions over The Prince’s Foundation.
Perhaps that explains the intemperate reaction to Season 5. But the world it immerses us in did actually happen. The Crown’s writers didn’t have to make up the bad stuff and actually left unused quantities of even more controversial material.
How much easier to forget how we got here. How much more righteous to condemn those who dare try to understand and explain it through the language of drama. How much more comfortable, in truth, to settle down to an endless future of royal visits to The Repair Shop.
After all, that’s real reality TV… isn’t it?
Patrick Jephson was equerry and private secretary to HRH The Princess of Wales, 1988-96