Six years ago, when Netflix debuted a plush, true-ish drama about the British royal family, it was a period saga set in the half-forgotten past, and a production with a direct link to modern times: incredibly, the woman we saw becoming Queen in 1952 was still on the throne. Season five of The Crown now arrives as the first to be shown since its protagonist’s death – and the show itself feels as if its time has come and gone.
The continuing documentation of the late Elizabeth II’s reign – we have reached the years 1992 to 1997 – is not the issue, since the end of her era in real life ought to increase the need for a complete dramatisation. Nor should the show’s increasing proximity to the present day present a problem for its writer, Peter Morgan, whose reputation pre-Crown was for finding new angles on statespeople’s recent exploits, the royals included. Yet these new episodes are bitty and often just boring, with Morgan casting around for side plots to hide the fact that everything he has to say about the Windsors has already been said.
For actors, too, the task has awkwardly evolved. An odd-numbered Crown season means a cast change, and the new one is landed with embodying the royals as anyone under 50 instinctively pictures them: the Queen (Imelda Staunton) old rather than middle-aged; Charles (Dominic West) toddling disaffectedly around with his left hand lodged in his jacket pocket; Philip (Jonathan Pryce) the vigorous pensioner flapping naysayers away with outsized hands and ears. The temptation to offer more of a party-piece impersonation than a believable character proves hard to resist.
At its best, The Crown is about flawed people coping imperfectly with cursed privilege, visiting unhappy personal lives upon themselves in the process. But there are only so many times we can see the Queen, whoever she’s played by, tell a family member they can’t marry this man or must remain married to that woman. Charles, Anne and Andrew get the lecture here, as does Margaret (Lesley Manville) when she revisits her feelings of frustration at not being allowed to stay with her true love, Peter Townsend.
The retreading of old ground feels forced, and this is not the only point at which a 10-part season is plugged with filler. An episode centred on Boris Yeltsin and the disinterring of the Romanovs, and particularly a standalone instalment about cartoonish aristocratic wannabe Mohamed al-Fayed, could have been binned without disrupting the main narrative too much.
The boldest of Morgan’s deviations from the palace action is his depiction of ordinary couples going through the same divorce court as Charles and Diana, their failing relationships imagined via short, sad sketches – the point being that all sorts of marriages end due to differences that in retrospect make the unions look doomed. However, this only underlines the difficulty season five has in finding fresh human drama. Near the end, with the decree nisi signed, Charles and Di’s final barney is the same as all the others: she says he was inattentive because he loved Camilla Parker-Bowles from the start; he says she was naive about royal priorities and turned vengeful when her unrealistic demands were not met. The ordinary people’s anguish is more interesting.
The more important stuff happens when C and D are apart. The real John Major – sympathetically portrayed here as a methodical, wise diplomat by Jonny Lee Miller – has already come out to decry the moment where Charles unsubtly suggests to the new prime minister that the royal family might also benefit from a different leader. It’s a just-acceptable fiction, putting into words something Charles was probably thinking while helping to set up the impassive Major as a cautious traditionalist who was always going to side with Elizabeth. But the scene points up that, rather than there being a rolling subtext of how change threatens the Windsors’ position, now the future of the monarchy is the main topic of discussion. Dramatically this is a dead end, leading to an awful lot of dry speeches where characters spell out what would be more effective as underlying themes. More than once the script resorts to an ageing, increasingly unviable edifice such as HMY Britannia, the decommissioning of which is the season’s framing device, being referred to directly in dialogue as “a metaphor”.
The big Di news, meanwhile, is her consenting to a television interview – Elizabeth Debicki, another performer leaning towards caricature, nails that coquettish Panorama head tilt. The fable of the dishonest Martin Bashir’s ignoble journalistic ambition meeting an unstable Diana’s desire to be heard, with that explosive mixture being ignited by personality clashes clouding judgments at the top of the BBC, is vintage Crown, recasting major public events as the result of relatable private foibles.
This, though, is a knack The Crown has largely lost. Without it, the show’s relevance is waning.
The Crown is on Netflix on 9 November.