Entertaining experiences are rare in these grim times of the covid pandemic and their devasting health and economic impact, but one of them – for viewers of Netflix - is the latest series of The Crown, the story of Britain’s royal family from the 1940s to modern times. According to one newspaper, the first episode attracted a staggering 29 million viewers worldwide.
The fourth series, depicting events taking place between 1977 and 1990, is dominated, as ever, by Queen Elizabeth II, now the world’s longest-reigning monarch - played superbly by Olivia Colman. Attention-grabbing newcomers are Lady Diana Spencer, the late wife of the Queen’s son and heir to the throne, Charles, Prince of Wales, and Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister – played by Gillian Anderson.
The Crown kicked off in 2016, winning extravagant plaudits for its lavish production, good storylines and talented cast - and for the pleasure of peeking behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and other royal residences. It dramatizes the story of the Queen and her family since she ascended the throne on the death of her father George VI in 1952. Previous high points include the antics of her younger sister, Margaret, who died in 2002, and her eyebrow-raising behavior in the “Swinging Sixties.” It is also the most costly TV series ever made.
The latest season covers dramatic periods in recent British history including the Falklands war of 1982, when Argentinian forces invaded the South Atlantic island known to them as the Malvinas, and a resolute Thatcher oversaw a British victory – which could not be taken for granted. Pre-dating that, in 1979, was the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, by the Irish Republican Army. He was the most senior royal killed since Charles 1 was executed in the mid-17th century.
The marriage of Charles and Diana in July 1981 – at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral - was accompanied by huge public celebrations and watched by 750 million people worldwide. But the honeymoon did not last long. This series provides insights into Charles’ previous (but ongoing) relationship with his married girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles, who he wed eventually after divorcing Diana, who died in a car crash in 1997.
Another episode has the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, challenge her to name the favorite of their four children. It is clear that this is Andrew, the third child, but that has had a disturbing echo since 2019 when Andrew insisted in a notorious BBC TV interview that he had not had sex with an under-age girl allegedly procured by his former American friend, the financier and convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. This season is the first to have been broadcast since Andrew stepped down from his royal duties. It is therefore especially hard to separate fact from fiction. (Prince Philip’s favourite is Anne, their only daughter).
The fifth episode of The Crown’s new season is a fictionalised account of what the notorious intruder, an angry, unemployed and unhappy man called Michael Fagan, spoke to the Queen about after breaking into Buckingham Palace in 1982. Fagan is famous for climbing the palace railings and managing to enter via an open window – an astonishing breach of royal security.
Another of the 10 episodes deals with Charles and Diana ‘s visit to Australia and New Zealand in 1983 – when it became clear that something was amiss with their marriage, not least because Diana burst into tears at a public event but also attracted attention by her beauty. It was made worse by the realization that the princess – played by the rising star Emma Corrin – suffered from an eating disorder.
An especially riveting episode purports to tell the story of a clash between the Queen and Thatcher about the sensitive issue of imposing sanctions on South Africa in the apartheid era. The Queen believed that sanctions were necessary to fight racial segregation and bring the Commonwealth nations together, while her prime minister argued that this would damage UK trade. British press reports claimed that the Queen was "dismayed" with Thatcher’s approach.
The second episode has Thatcher – a grocer’s daughter and middle-class in origin - paying an uncomfortable visit to Balmoral Palace in Scotland with her husband Denis, in the course of which she accompanies the Queen on an excruciating hike across the countryside, obviously overdressed and wearing inadequate shoes for the muddy ground.
Royal sources have been quoted as saying that the Queen, now aged 94, enjoyed the first season of the Crown, but it is not known whether she has seen any of the later ones. Her youngest son, Prince Edward, is reported to have encouraged his mother to watch it. Historians of the monarchy have expressed scepticism about whether the latest series is factually accurate, with one critic complaining that the characters were “caricatures” and “villains” who bore no relation to their true selves. No surprise then that current members of the Royal Family are said to be finding series four “hard to stomach” and are nervous about what will happen in seasons five and six of this remarkable programme.