This article first appeared on Reaction.
The rise in popularity of TV subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime is, in no small part, due to the popularity of bingeworthy series such as Outlander, You, House of Cards, and, of course, The Crown.
The Crown, in particular, is a series that in previous decades would have been made by ITV or the BBC, yet the decline in traditional terrestrial audiences and revenues mean that it’s increasingly rare for them to commission series like this. If The Jewel in the Crown or Brideshead Revisited were made in 2020, does anyone really think it would the BBC or ITV who would be making them? Instead, our two main national broadcasters offer a permanent diet of crime dramas and reality TV.
The Crown has probably done more to drive people to subscribe to Netflix worldwide than any other series they’ve commissioned. Since it first hit our screens in November 2016 it has become the TV hit of the decade, not just in this country but the world over. Ir started with the Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip in 1947 and the current season concentrates on two relationships – the one between the Prince and Princess of Wales and the other, the much written about alleged tensions between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher.
Over the course of four series, The Crown has gradually become more fanciful. The first series appeared to be more based on fact than fiction, whereas the current series uses dramatic licence to the nth degree. The writers believe the Queen and all the rest of the Royal Family didn’t like Margaret Thatcher, despite a huge amount of historical evidence to the contrary. For instance, we know the Queen Mother was a big fan. Yet they invent a weekend in Balmoral where the whole family subjected the then Prime Minister to a two day ritual humiliation, which culminated in Mararet Thatcher inventing a political crisis so she could leave early and head back to London. None of it happened: it was total fiction.
In similar fashion, there are so many scenes depicting Prince Charles and Diana that didn’t occur, it makes one doubt those that did. Ah, say the writers, you have to look at it in the round and all we’re doing is using dramatic licence to portray a relationship. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Anyone over the age of 50 remembers many of these events as if they were yesterday, and there is no need to invent things that didn’t happen.
But it’s worse than that. There are so many instances where they get little facts wrong, that it makes one wonder what they’ve got wrong that might go unnoticed. I’ll give you two instances.
My partner, who is a car nut, pointed out the number plates on the Royal cars were all wrong. In the scene depicting Margaret Thatcher firing people in the 1981 reshuffle, she appears to get rid of Francis Pym. He left the cabinet after the 1983 election. Small things maybe, but they undermine the entire narrative. The trouble is, I could pad out the rest of this article with a whole host of other examples.
I haven’t completed series 4 yet, but am four episodes in. The writers have gone from portraying the Royal family in a vaguely sympathetic light, to now seemingly encouraging us to hate them. The only member portrayed in a sympathetic light is the Duke of Edinburgh, ironically enough. I’m sorry to say it, but Olivia Colman’s portrayal of the Queen is just wrong. She’s a great actress but totally miscast here. The opposite is true of Prince Charles, played by the 30 year old Josh O’Connor. He captures the tortured soul of the Prince of Wales incredibly well, and even captures his mannerisms and demeanour. When he’s a bit older, he could play a cracking Gordon Brown. He does “brooding” brilliantly.
And then we come to Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. When I heard she was playing the Iron Lady I did wonder whether it was her best career choice. I just couldn’t imagine how she could pull it off. She looks nothing like her and her voice is nothing like Margaret Thatcher’s. But that’s the secret of good acting – to get yourself into the character and make the most of it, and leave the audience convinced. Meryl Streep managed it, and in many ways I think Gillian Anderson has done so here. She’s clearly studied Thatcher’s posture and mannerisms and gets them off to a tee – even the pigeon walk. The hairstyling is superb and she manages to catch the flashes of indignation and trenchant emphasis that Margaret Thatcher often displayed to dramatic effect. The close and even tender relationship between her and Denis comes to the fore here, in a way I haven’t seen in other dramas.
The thing that has received most negative comment is Gillian Anderson’s effort to sound like the woman she is playing. She’s deepened her voice to such an effect, and emphasised it so much that at times it sounds more like a Spitting Image caricature. It sometimes distracts from the overall portrayal.
Overall, this series runs a danger of alienating its core audience. It won’t prevent them from watching it, or continuing to the next series, but it’s a shame it hasn’t maintained the same standards as the first two series. The writers face no small feat portraying events that seem more current than historical, but they have often descended into fiction rather than fact. And I predict that in series 5 it will get even worse. I’ll still watch it though.