The British royal brand has been damaged beyond repair in recent decades, and here’s another example: A buddy in London returned to work last week after a protracted COVID hiatus and reports that the biggest change in his office concerns the local pub. Where once colleagues referred to it by its actual name – the Duke of York – they’ve now rechristened it something far less regal: “The Pedo’s Arms.”
Ouch. The irony is that “The Crown,” a show that is constantly being pilloried by the establishment for its supposedly offensive and inaccurate portrayal of the House of Windsor, would never stoop to such meanness about any of the royals – no matter how much they may deserve it.
In fact, you could make a case that “The Crown” creator Peter Morgan has become a one-man PR machine to restore the royals’ tarnished image since his series first aired on Netflix in November 2016, humanizing a hitherto mysterious clan.
The good news for Prince Andrew is that he barely features in season 5 (he and fellow chinless wonder Prince Edward barely get half a dozen lines between them). His downfall is hopefully still to come in the show’s final season, but only if Morgan can squeeze it in – and given that the entirety of season 5 only covers six years – 1991 to the early summer of 1997 (i.e., before Diana’s death) – it’s hard to see it being able to cover the remaining 25 years in the sixth and final season.
Morgan faced an interesting challenge this season as he’s covering some very well-trodden ground (we’ve had two high-profile movies about Diana alone in the past decade). Where all of the dramas until now took place behind closed ornate palace doors, this time pretty much everything is already in the public sphere – after the British tabloids decided to give the National Enquirer a run for its money.
- ‘The Capture' is the most disturbing thing you’ll see all year (other than real life)
- HBO's 'The Vow' finally reveals all about the crazy Nxivm sex cult
- A brilliant new Dutch thriller shames El Al for its darkest hour
Indeed, given the previous exhaustive coverage, you might wonder how much there is still to say. After all, even my 13-year-old niece is fully versed about “Camilla-gate” and Lady Di from TikTok, which was deluged with stories about the royals when Queen Elizabeth II died in September. The other place people turned to for more details? “The Crown,” of course.
Luckily for us, Morgan has never been one to follow the obvious path. And while the latest season may start in the familiar setting of Balmoral (cue more bloody bagpipes), it takes in some wonderfully unlikely destinations along the way – including postwar Egyptian Alexandria and 1917 Russia.
For me, Morgan is one of Britain’s finest screenwriters. He’s never afraid to give his characters big speeches à la Aaron Sorkin in “The West Wing.” Such as this one, which he gives to the director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, addressing his royalist boss (and the watching audience at home): “You see the monarchy as part of the architecture of this country. But more and more people have grown to see it simply as part of the furniture. Something they grew up with, but not something that can’t be arranged.”
I love Morgan’s scattershot approach to this family history, one that can see major characters disappear for episodes at a time as he focuses on someone or something else – like Egyptian millionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed and his playboy son Dodi. I’m not sure anyone else would have made the Al-Fayeds’ involvement as producers in the 1981 Brit classic “Chariots of Fire” part of a season in which so much stuff happens. But it’s a moment of beauty, including the father’s horrified reaction when his son tells him the film is about a Jewish athlete.
Morgan is the man who never met an animal he didn’t want to turn into a metaphor for royal life (hunted stags, most frequently, but he’s a big fan of a circling birds of prey this time around). But he expertly crafts what is surely the world’s most grandiose soap opera.
And those metaphors are not always bestial. This season, the main, um, vehicle for that is the aging Royal Yacht Britannia, which needs an expensive refit to keep functioning. “Sometimes, these old things … they’re too costly to keep repairing,” Prince Charles says at one point.
And the queen herself makes things even more explicit when she finds her idiot box on the blink. “It does seem to have had better days,” she tells a young Prince William, adding: “Even the televisions are metaphors in this place.” In fairness, everything in this show is a metaphor for Morgan.
That Charles line about the yacht is delivered to Prime Minister John Major, who serves as our Everyman in this tale of ultimate white privilege. “The senior royals seem dangerously deluded and out of touch. The junior royals are feckless, entitled and lost,” he tells wife Norma. “And the Prince of Wales fails to appreciate that his one great asset is his wife.”
Ah yes, that wife. Even allowing for quirky decision-making on what to include, three vital plot points had to feature this season: “Camilla-gate,” when Charles’ intimate phone conversation with lover Camilla Parker Bowles about wanting to live inside her trousers ended up being splashed all over the newspapers; the queen’s annus horribilis speech in 1992, when she reflected on her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year; and Diana’s sensational appearance on British current events show “Panorama,” when she delivered the lament of the ventriloquist’s wife: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
Typically, Morgan finds an interesting route into the well-covered “Panorama” storyline by focusing on another beleaguered British institution, the BBC, to recount Diana’s score-settling interview with journalist Martin Bashir.
Amazingly, a lot of the details here are true even if they seem like the stuff of a writer’s imagination: the actual interview with Diana really did take place on November 5, 1995 – the night Brits celebrate Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes’ unsuccessful attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605 – and it really did air on BBC1 on Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s 48th wedding anniversary.
Of course, how much of “The Crown” is actually true has always been a sticking point for some viewers (including myself at some points in season 4, which rewrote timelines for needlessly dramatic effect). But really, this is the House of Morgan as much as it is the House of Windsor and, like any writer, he takes artistic licence aiming to reveal bigger truths.
It’s best to see “The Crown” as a springboard and, if you’re interested in the tales told here, you should go online and dig deeper to find out the real stories.
I’m sure there will be viewers out there who would have preferred a more sensationalist retelling of events – like the one Ryan Murphy no doubt would have delivered if his once-mooted season of “Feud,” focusing on Charles and Diana, had ever gotten off the drawing board.
I’ve also read critics bemoaning how “The Crown” has become “boring” – but I just don’t get that. Yes, this is a restrained, respectful approach, but it’s never less than compelling given this regal collection of screwups and the drama of their lives.
My main criticism of Morgan is that he is too kind and generous on his royal subjects – none more so than Charles (though Prince Philip is also far more likable here than the media ever described him). The Prince of Wales here is a smart, wannabe reformer – the only one of the Windsors to realistically gauge the changing national mood about the monarchy. In fact, there are times when you feel like you’re watching an advertisement for King Charles III rather than “The Crown,” especially the episode showcasing the achievements of his Prince’s Trust charity.
One last thing to note is that, much like “Dr. Who” in reverse, all the characters in season 5 have regenerated into older versions of themselves – some of the new cast being more successful than others.
Despite physically reminding me a little too much of her titular character in Mike Leigh’s abortion drama “Vera Drake,” Imelda Staunton brings a stoic resilience to Her Majesty, while Jonathan Pryce now has the distinction of playing a pope and a royal in recent years with his insightful portrayal of Prince Philip.
Perhaps Elizabeth Debicki and Olivia Williams succeed best in most accurately capturing the look and sound of their characters – Diana and Camilla, respectively. In fact, it’s only really Dominic West who feels badly miscast as Charles. Not only does he not look like the prince, he doesn’t even attempt to capture what is surely one of the most easy-to-mimic accents in the whole of Britain.
Still, it’s not all bad news for Dominic West. His own son, Senan, is far more convincing as the 13-year-old Prince William, in a nepotistic piece of casting that the Windsors themselves would surely approve of.
“The Crown” season 5 is out now on Netflix.