As someone who grew up in a household where Irish rebel songs were regularly heard and discussions about Britain’s royal family invariably featured the sentence “Never done a hard day’s work in their lives” – this lifelong anti-monarchist has always shown zero interest in watching “The Crown.” Until now.
While the first three seasons of the Netflix hit focused on “Queen Elizabeth: The Black and White Years,” the introduction of Margaret Thatcher and Lady Diana Spencer to Season 4 proved too alluring even for this critic to resist. And while I’m unable to comment on how it compares to previous seasons – does every season involve an obligatory scene in which a stag is hunted, with the noble beast serving a different allegorical purpose each time? – I’ll happily admit to being consumed by the court intrigues of the world’s most dysfunctional family after the Mansons.
Yes, this die-hard (no pun intended) republican was unable to resist the charms of what is undoubtedly the best-enunciated soap opera on television and its focus on “metters of the haaart.”
Season 4 takes place between 1977 – when Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) fleetingly meets a very young Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) for the first time – and November 1990, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) abdicates the throne of the Conservative Party.
It’s clearly no coincidence that my interest in the show coincided with my own formative years growing up in provincial England, during what was a tumultuous time in British politics. Then again, as Princess Margaret (the wonderful Helena Bonham Carter) observes early on: “Life in postwar Britain has been one long, painful, uninterrupted crisis.”
Despite the headline acts of Thatcher and Charles and Di, for me the season is at its best when it moves away from those well-documented storylines and focuses instead on the smaller, more human stories that reflect both the state of the nation and how changing societal norms impacted a family that was emotionally stunted even by English standards. A family of huggers, the Windsors are not.
Each of the 10 episodes focuses on a particular moment during those years, and I was fascinated to see which events made the cut and which didn’t. For instance, on the political front there’s no mention of some seminal moments from the 1980s: the IRA’s bombing of Brighton’s Grand Hotel in October 1984, which Thatcher narrowly survived but five other Conservatives didn’t; the miners’ strike, which lasted almost a year in 1984-85 and laid waste to northern communities (but did at least inspire “Billy Elliot”); and the “Poll Tax” riots toward the end of the decade, which precipitated Thatcher’s political demise.
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Then there are the decisions about what royal storylines to cover. Maybe it’s my anti-monarchist streak here, but I was amazed there was no mention of the royal visit to China in 1986, when Prince Philip created a diplomatic furor after telling some British students they’d go “slitty-eyed” if they stayed there much longer; and the infamous “It’s a Royal Knockout” event in 1987, when princes Edward and Andrew, and princesses Anne and Sarah, took part in a silly televised competition that was widely perceived as sullying the royal brand forever.
Fasten your seatbelts
I won’t go into too much detail about the historical stories that are covered, as that should be part of the joy of watching the show. I will say, though, that it’s dominated by two relationships: between the queen herself (the peerless Olivia Colman) and Margaret Thatcher; and the increasingly toxic one between Charles and Diana.
The scenes between Colman and Anderson serve as a reminder that “The Crown” was spun off from creator Peter Morgan’s 2013 West End hit “The Audience,” which imagined conversations between the queen and her prime ministers in their weekly audiences at Buckingham Palace over the years.
These (literal) head-to-head encounters are a particular delight, showcasing two wildly different leaders – one born into her role, the very embodiment of small-c conservatism; the other a self-made woman who defied the odds and came to embody Conservatism – and their fluctuating relations over a decade. Some of these scenes do the seemingly impossible (to these eyes at least) and generate sympathy for the devil (and I include both Thatcher and the queen there).
How refreshing, too, to have a drama where the husbands are reduced to sniping from the sidelines: While Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) snorts “That’s the last thing this country needs – two women running the shop,” Denis Thatcher (Stephen Boxer) notes: “Two menopausal women. That should be a smooth ride!” Of course, smooth rides never did make for good drama, and it’s the bumps in this particular journey that provide some of the most memorable scenes.
As well as comparisons between the two women as leaders, there’s also the not insignificant matter of how they compare as mothers. In one in of the most shamelessly enjoyable episodes (episode 4), Thatcher has no qualms about calling one of her twin children her favorite, leading the queen to wonder if she has a favorite too.
That episode also highlights how Morgan isn’t averse to tweaking history for his own dramatic ends – which is one of my pet peeves when it comes to historical drama. Here, Thatcher is shown to be taking her eye off the ball concerning events in the Falkland Islands in 1982 because she’s worried about the disappearance of her son, Mark (Freddie Fox), in the Dakar Rally. Yet these events actually took place several months apart.
Far be it from me to want to see the “Iron Lady” presented in a better light, but I do think the truth should count for something in a historical recreation where the facts are so clearly known.
Talking of iron ladies, Gillian Anderson would never have been my first choice to play Thatcher, but she’s sensational here. True, she looks more like Meryl Streep playing the prime minister in “The Iron Lady,” but she nails the voice and mannerisms to such a degree that I will be having nightmares for weeks.
There’s a lovely scene where she and Denis are invited to the queen’s Scottish retreat at Balmoral, where they are painfully out of their social depth. “I’m struggling to find any redeeming features in these people at all,” Thatcher confides to her husband, rejecting the notion that they should sleep in separate rooms because “we don’t want to catch any upper-class habits.” Again, I really didn’t want to admire anything about Thatcher, but “The Crown” occasionally forces me to.
Unhappily ever after
While I loved the interplay between Anderson and Colman (incidentally, the latter previously played Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, in “The Iron Lady”), I was ultimately less convinced by the show’s other key dynamic: that of Charles and Diana, and their “fairy-tale romance” without a happy-ever-after.
There have been various attempts to tell the Lady Diana story on screen, most ignominiously 2013’s “Diana” with Naomi Watts. It’s a tough ask, to be fair: How do you tell the Princess of Wales’ story without simply beatifying her and playing up the “people’s princess” tag with which she came to be known?
I brushed shoulders with Diana in 1992 when she was visiting the southern English city of Portsmouth while I was a journalism student there. I’ll never forget the adoration she generated from members of the public waiting loyally in the rain to greet her. Then there was the sheer radiance she emitted when she arrived and insisted on doing a meet-and-greet with the crowd. (I won’t bore you with the embarrassing details of how this staunch republican ended up doing everything but curtsy when he somehow ended up coming face-to-face with the princess.)
I say “radiance” deliberately because that’s a word used several times to describe Diana in “The Crown,” and it’s a description I can attest to. She had something many Hollywood stars would kill for: presence. Set against “St. Diana,” the fuddy-duddy figure of Prince Charles doesn’t stand a chance – and this season of “The Crown” is definitely not going to do anything to boost numbers of the Prince of Wales Fan Club.
Permanently hunched forward and with hands slung in his jacket pockets, this Charles is presented as an egotistical, selfish wimp, a man increasingly frustrated by having to live in his glamorous wife’s shadow. He’s also drowning in self-pity over his inability to marry the mistress he loves – Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell) – and feeling railroaded into what he regards as an arranged marriage with the young and “intellectually incurious” Diana.
There’s a wonderful scene in which Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), who often serves as a kind of Greek chorus commentating on her family’s foibles, explains to her mother why the marriage is failing: “Their personalities are from different planets. They have different interests, different friends. He doesn’t understand her, she doesn’t understand him. … The Wales marriage is a rare example of something that is actually worse than the papers report.” And as Anne also notes, the 12-year age difference between them isn’t so much a gap as a chasm.
Despite the Charles-Diana drama’s centrality to the season, the three episodes in which they don’t feature are my favorites. One, involving an intruder in Buckingham Palace, is probably the closest “The Crown” will ever get to Mike Leigh territory, while another that sees Princess Margaret move center stage is definitely the most moving.
Emma Corrin delivers the most convincing on-screen portrait I’ve seen of Diana, though, beautifully conveying the vulnerabilities of a young woman thrown into the most gilded of cages. Whether she’s roller-skating through the corridors of Buckingham Palace listening to Duran Duran on her Walkman, violently vomiting due to her eating disorder or being tutored on royal etiquette, it’s impossible to ignore the feeling that this is indeed a Disney-esque princess tale – but it’s that of Rapunzel, with Diana locked in the tower and with hair much too short to allow her to escape.
There’s an intriguing, enigmatic quality to this portrayal of Diana, so you’re never quite sure how much she’s loving or loathing her time in the spotlight, even when she’s being hounded by the paparazzi. Her family nickname was “Duch,” her sister tells Charles, because “ever since childhood, she behaved as if she were destined for greater things.”
One of the pleasures of “The Crown” is that while it’s clearly a very classy drama, it’s also not afraid to indulge in some very broad nods to the audience. For instance, when the innocent Diana takes Camilla up on an offer to meet for lunch following her engagement to Charles in 1981, they dine at a place called Ménage à Trois. And when Diana insists that they split the bill, Camilla responds: “Good idea, I’m all for sharing.”
Then there’s the treatment of Prince Andrew, who is generally in a “spear-carrier” role but whose few appearances always feature allusions to his future, disgraceful association with pedophile Jeffrey Epstein: Discussing the actions of her rakish son, for example, the queen says: “As for Andrew – I was shocked. If he doesn’t change…” No marks for subtlety, but it made me laugh anyway.
Now that I’ve broken my vow never to watch “The Crown,” I’m actually in a great position: Not only do I have two more seasons to look forward to (I’m already referring to season 5 as “The National Enquirer Years”), I’ve also got the three earlier seasons to view too. I like to think that in some increasingly decrepit palace somewhere in Britain, Elizabeth Windsor will be bingeing along with me.
“The Crown” season 4 is out now on Netflix.