It’s ironic that the trailer booms: “The royal family is in genuine crisis.” The same could be said of Peter Morgan’s creation. Of course, there’s an element of overkill to some of the criticism. The Crown, basically a big-budget royal soap, has (finally) been forced to admit it’s a “fictionalised dramatisation”, so the likes of Dame Judi Dench need to get over the inaccuracies. Lest we forget, the first two series, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith, sexed up the royal family to a risible degree (where was all the righteous indignation then?). If the next series is made, The Crown would hardly be the first to portray Diana’s death. Elsewhere, the hypocrisy is deafening: the media has been “reimagining” true/untrue royal stories forever, so it needs to get off its high horse.
Still, there’s no denying that The Crown has a batch of new problems. The first regards people who rather inconveniently remain alive. Former prime ministers have complained, with John Major denouncing depictions of his private conversations with the Queen as “malicious nonsense” and Tony Blair calling his scenes “complete rubbish”. You wonder if other non-royals depicted in the latest series could potentially go further and sue.
There’s also a new monarch, Charles III, who may not turn out to be as uncomplaining and non-interventionist as his mother. This brings us to The Crown’s other major problem: those who are recently dead. With Prince Philip dying last year and the Queen dying mere weeks ago, the question, “Too soon?”, isn’t entirely unwarranted.
None of which would matter as much, if it weren’t for The Crown’s other major problem: it is poorly executed television. Diana looks imploringly doe-eyed while she throws sticks of dynamite. Charles pushes for his mother’s abdication like a Game of Thrones baddie. Philip pushes for his “intellectual friendship” with Penny Knatchbull (grottily, the death of Knatchbull’s young daughter from cancer is deployed as a dramatic device), in one scene basically telling the Queen she isn’t clever enough for him. In fact, everyone takes potshots at the Queen, from Princess Margaret (still banging on about Peter Townsend) to Charles (wailing about how if they’d been an ordinary family, her children would have been “taken into care”). Where taste levels are concerned for a woman who died mere weeks ago, the dial is stuck firmly at zero.
That’s without even getting into the hilariously tacky stuff: Tampax-gate or Diana shown putting the hand of her new love interest, surgeon Hasnat Khan, on her breasts during their first date (some complicated flirtation involving him explaining heart surgery). Or the monotonous amounts of filler, from the overdone scenes featuring the decommissioning of the royal yacht Britannia (who cares?), to a depiction of the massacre of the Romanovs in Russia in 1918.
The Crown goes (rightly enough) for the BBC journalist Martin Bashir (who fakes documents and lures Diana into doing the Panorama interview), but sidelines Prince Andrew and elsewhere tries to have its cake and eat it. Mohamed Al Fayed, whose son, Dodi, died with Diana in the Paris car crash in 1997, is given a bewildering amount of backstory, presumably to soften how he is otherwise depicted as a social-climbing desperado. An approach that becomes another problem with this series.
Whenever a scene looks particularly “fictionalised”, it shovels in some sycophancy, ostensibly in the name of balance. Charles is a disloyal brute of a son… but let’s recall the sterling achievements of the Prince’s Trust. Similarly, the Queen is shown lavishing praise on Major, Blair is depicted nobly worrying about Charles trashing his mother and it’s made clear that Charles Spencer eventually saw through Bashir. It’s all as if Netflix is nervously saying: “Look, we’re being nice about you. Please don’t complain or – god forbid – sue!” The result is tonal chaos.
What could The Crown – which in fairness postponed shooting when the Queen died – have done? Short answer: delay, for at least a year, perhaps “re-reimagining” some off-colour scenes. Here, the real world intrudes: Netflix is itself struggling and may feel it needs to release its highly bankable title. However, where is the sense of responsibility? Yes, many of these stories are known, but drama has a habit of amplifying faux-reality. You also have to factor in American and other overseas viewers believing it’s the truth. With the royal deaths, and subsequent saturation coverage, you also have to wonder whether there is even an appetite out there right now for the airing of real or fictional royal dirty laundry.
Once the series was going ahead, it needed to be respectful (reshooting scenes where necessary) but also bold and this is where Netflix most demonstrably fails. The fifth series of The Crown has to be the least confident, most jittery and self-loathing drama I’ve seen in some time. While I’m not convinced that The Crown ever told us about ourselves, the opening series – dealing with the young Queen and Prince Philip – at least told us a fairytale about ourselves. And, first airing post-Brexit in 2016, arguably one – of past glories – that the British public needed to hear. By contrast, this fifth series feels like the last thing the British public needs right now.