The Crown has slipped: how the Netflix epic captures our relationship with the royals

While the fourth series has come under fire for factual inaccuracy, it is just one of many series to reflect the royals’ long history of mythmaking

‘Let’s get it over with,” sighs Prince Philip as he reluctantly prepares to venture towards a crowd of adoring subjects. On the one hand, this moment in The Crown has the ring of truth: realistically, why would members of the royal family be enthusiastic about meeting yet another mob of curtsying, awestruck plebs? It must be tremendously boring. And yet, on the other hand, how dare they? Who pays their wages?

A few things have become clear during the fourth season of Peter Morgan’s Netflix epic. Firstly, it’s just as well The Crown isn’t on the BBC. Because if it was, the nation’s enraged rightwing culture warriors would have descended upon Broadcasting House and stormed it. Secondly, this is a portrait of managed decline. And finally, The Crown means The Queen. But Olivia Colman’s Elizabeth II is more Canute than Britannia – not ruling the waves but nobly, if eventually absurdly, trying to hold them back.

Jenna Coleman as Victoria and Daniela Holtz as Baroness Lehzan in Victoria.
Jenna Coleman as Victoria and Daniela Holtz as Baroness Lehzan in Victoria. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

The rest of her family are a hindrance more than a help. After her, there’s nothing. Well, there’s Prince Charles but Josh O’Connor’s portrayal locates the heir to the throne halfway between Alan Partridge and The Simpsons’ Montgomery Burns; petty, emotionally stunted and inadequate. The Crown isn’t so much a drama about the monarchy as a drama about how the monarchy might die. Furthermore, the suggestion is that this would be a merciful release. Frequently, relations between the Queen’s children play out as a toxic game of performative unhappiness. Of course, as she did in most areas, Princess Diana’s arrival and swift descent into misery trumps them all, leaving everyone, Diana most of all, even unhappier than they had been before.

Much of the criticism of this series of The Crown has stemmed from the perceived inaccuracies of the “history” on offer. It’s a peculiar complaint, not least because this has always been an issue, so it seems strange to raise it so late in the day. After all, as far back as season one, the series was dabbling in alternative facts – for example, there’s no convincing evidence that the Queen took Winston Churchill to task for his handling of the London smog crisis. This was a device intended to show Elizabeth II’s sense of devotion to her subjects. It seems there was no problem with altering history when it painted “The Firm” in a good light.

In truth, TV treatments of the institution of monarchy have been subtly shifting for a while. And why shouldn’t they move with the currents of the times? After all, what is the institution of royalty if not a constructed narrative; a story we allow ourselves to be told? Arguments about accuracy are, at root, arguments about the whole concept of storytelling – which is the speciality of supporters of the monarchy and the Windsors themselves. What was the Charles and Diana match if not exactly that? A stage-managed “fairytale” wedding between two palpably ill-suited individuals working towards the continuity of a longer story. If series four of The Crown emphasises the misery of that marriage, it’s simply reminding us that even in so-called real-life, there’s no such thing as a consistently reliable authorial voice. If myths can be built, they can be dismantled, too, when the dramatic need arises.

In terms of its content, The Crown is unusual, in that it represents a break from certain traditions governing small-screen royal mythmaking. Most serious TV dramas portraying the family have either imagined possible futures – such as King Charles III (BBC Two) which posited a constitutional crisis triggered by Elizabeth II’s successor refusing to sign a bill into law – or mined Britain’s deep past. Until recently, there seemed to be an unspoken rule forbidding the exploitation of royal secrets for scurrilous entertainment until a century or so had passed. Shows such as ITV’s Victoria and BBC/Showtime’s The Tudors were essentially origin stories.

However, The Crown engages with the events of our lifetimes and this gives it much of its potency, not to mention its potential to cause controversy. In fact, you can sense the parameters of royal narrative building shifting even as you’re watching. In the latest series, there’s a tragicomic moment when Prince Andrew – then at the height of his public popularity as the helicopter hero Action Royal – talks to the Queen about his private life. “I was shocked,” she later reflects to her husband. “If he doesn’t change …” The sentence is left hanging, a gaping hole that the viewer is invited to fill with thoughts of Jeffrey Epstein and Pizza Express in Woking. We know too much now to believe in fairytales, so The Crown is constantly having to make allowances for our changing perceptions.

Princess Diana was, of course, where the function – and the aesthetics – of royalty began to change. She coped by establishing herself as a celebrity in the most modern sense of the word. And accordingly, she became a walking paradox: her charisma kept the royals relevant while signposting their doom. In the wake of Diana, deference has begun to dwindle. The 2011 TV movie William & Kate seemingly escaped from the pages of the most low-rent gossip mag in the supermarket, covering the titular couple’s courtship in hilariously and unapologetically trashy style. And Channel 4’s comedy The Windsors delights in treating the family as essentially one step up from the most gormless reality TV personalities. Tellingly, the Queen never appears. Her presence would be a category error; correctly, the show’s writers have recognised that she doesn’t belong in that world – a hangover from the age of deference.

So where does the story go next? In the context of The Crown itself, it’s obvious. But in terms of our relationship with this family and the way our national narrative intersects with theirs, it’s anyone’s guess. But while Prince Harry is essentially a character actor in the Windsor story, his fate might represent the shape of things to come. In King Charles III, there’s a subplot in which Harry falls in love with a working-class republican. The affair is fleeting but oddly prophetic – the Prince shaking the bars of his gilded cage.

Harry Enfield as Prince Charles in The Windsors in 2016.
Harry Enfield as Prince Charles in The Windsors in 2016. Photograph: Adam Lawrence/Channel 4

In some ways, The Crown represents the culmination and acceleration of a process that has been going on for some time. The show began in the post second-world-war period – the fortunes of the young Elizabeth dovetailing with rose-tinted memories of that idealised period of British life. The country was bruised but unbowed; putting itself back together after a painful victory. As the empire dissolved and global British influence declined, the period was the beginning of an ending. But superficially, it looked like a fresh start. Accordingly, in the early seasons of The Crown, the Windsors strike an uneasy balance between duty and happiness. In many ways, their self-sacrifice seems noble.

But increasingly, the narrative emphasis and the emotional tone of TV portrayals has shifted. Whether comic or dramatic, there’s a distinct scepticism emerging; a republican fist in a respectful velvet glove. Harry and Meghan’s withdrawal from the whole, ever-renewing box set of a story feels more and more like a logical response to the unhappiness and impotence dramatised in The Crown and the frivolity mocked in The Windsors. As long as Elizabeth II reigns over us, the line will hold. But the next generations – of royals and commoners alike – might well wonder whether it’s all worth it.

Phil Harrison’s book The Age of Static: How TV Explains Modern Britain is available now


Phil Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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