The handwringing around the upcoming fifth series of The crown borders on hysteria. Prince William would be upset that it will feature his mother Panorama interview, Buckingham Palace apparently tried to delay its release in the wake of the Queen’s death, Dame Judi Dench blasted the series for its “gross cruelty” and John Major, the Prime Minister played by Jonny Lee Miller, dismissed his portrait as “a barrel of nonsense”.
After watching the series and with the painful embargo now lifted, I can now tell you that everyone is worried for nothing.
Taking us back to the 1990s, one of the Royal Family’s most tumultuous decades (the Queen once called 1992 her “annus horribilis”), the fifth series covers Charles and Diana’s divorce, the Windsor Castle fire, the “revenge dress”, the rise of the al-Fayed family, Diana’s interview with Martin Bashir, “tampongate”, the Firm’s ties to Russia, Prince Philip’s close friendship with Penelope Knatchbull And much more. The crown never hesitated to stick the knife in, but here he refrains from twisting it even more.
Take ‘tampongate’, the scandal that saw a very private phone call between then-Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles splash across the newspapers. Josh O’Connor, who played Charles before the current iteration of Dominic West, declined to describe the appeal in series three and four, but creator Peter Morgan finally got it right and the infamous phrase ‘particularly in and out’ is spoken loud and clear by our current king.
But it’s not described as salacious, or raunchy, or even particularly grumpy. Instead, it’s pretty cute, just two people in love, whispering sweet nothings over the phone. Camilla (Olivia Williams) also gets the victim treatment and isn’t portrayed as the man-stealing monster she was supposed to be back then, but as a woman hounded by the press simply for falling in love. In series five, the public, with its insatiable appetite for royal drama, and the tabloids cashing in on it, are the bad guys.
This does not mean The crown has completely lost its appeal – it’s still sumptuous, nuanced and more with brilliant acting that goes beyond mere imitation. I also don’t necessarily want to see a meteoric dismantling of the British monarchy (although I’m sure many would). It’s just softer and more forgiving than expected.
Compare it to “Aberfan”, an episode of the third series which proved particularly damning for the late queen. Following the 1966 mining disaster that killed 116 children, the Queen (then played by Olivia Colman) was unmoved and reluctant to visit the Welsh village. In fact, the Queen said waiting eight days to visit was one of the biggest regrets of her reign, but The crown did not refrain from portraying her as cold and reckless.
That coldness pops up occasionally in series five – when she orders the Prime Minister to pay for repairs to the royal yacht Britannia, when she tries to deny Princess Anne’s second marriage – but it’s largely very easy to drive. Her sense of duty to her country and her role as monarch, so often praised after her death, underline every scene of Imelda Staunton.
The crown exists as entertainment, but an accidental byproduct was its humanization of the royal family, encouraging us to see them as flawed people with emotions and inner lives beyond their status. Accurate or not, it offers an alternate, more personal narrative than that provided to us by the press and its PR machine (which features prominently throughout series five).
When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in the 1950s, public opinion of the royal family was largely positive; The crownThe outlook for their personal life, however, was tumultuous. In the 90s, we questioned the relevance of the dusty old institution and wondered why it was up to us to pay for their lavish lifestyle; The crown portrays them as victims of a system they never asked to be part of.
There is one exception. Charles is particularly ambitious this time around, courting both Major and Tony Blair and surreptitiously convincing them that he would make a better monarch than his mother. He is also oddly insensitive when it comes to Diana, more exasperated and indifferent than angry or upset. But now that he’s finally king, it’s hard to say how much it all matters.
The anguish we have about The crown damaging the reputation of the royal family is more sensationalized than anything the series could produce. Footage from the set of series six showing a recreation of the accident that killed Princess Diana is already causing outrage among family advocates. How or why Morgan included such stories is apparently irrelevant, mere acknowledgment of them is enough to warrant cries of “cruelty”.
But the royal family isn’t — or at least shouldn’t be — beyond reproach. They are held accountable by very few, leaving popular culture to intervene. Their story is our story, and Morgan has the right to interpret it however he wishes, nice or not.