When does a historical retelling go too far? How responsible is it to take creative license with real-life events? Is it better, safer, to tackle distant historical subjects that can’t engage with your version of history? What about when still-living subjects of biopics and docudramas argue that by regurgitating their pasts, you’re making things worse for them in the present?
These complicated questions, and what feels like increasing hostility surrounding them, have coalesced around a predictable target: the newest season of Netflix’s The Crown. While earlier seasons of the show won the British royal family’s interest, the latest seasons — which deal with Charles and Diana’s troubled relationship and the ongoing fallout — have increasingly alienated them, and garnered support from royal allies who say the show is damaging the monarchy.
The implications for the show, the royal family, and for the culture at large all point toward a view of fiction that refuses to allow it to stand on its own terms as a creative work. So what does it mean when, instead of trying to separate reality from fiction, we blame fiction itself for creating harm in the real world?
The Crown’s relationship to the truth isn’t as contentious as you might think
Like all docudramas and biopics, Netflix’s messiest prestige drama enjoys a fraught relationship to reality. For four seasons, the show alternately courted and criticized the real British royal family. While some royals (including the late Queen Elizabeth, if rumor is to be believed) tuned in enthusiastically, others (reportedly including King Charles) criticized the show’s accuracy. With the release of season five, which delves into the scandals that plagued Charles and Diana in the 1990s, the monarchy’s concern over fallout has sharpened into controversy.
Cries for Netflix to issue some sort of disclaimer that the show is fictional have dominated headlines here and across the pond, with figures like Dame Judi Dench (who has portrayed Queen Victoria — twice! — and Queen Elizabeth I on screen) and former prime minister John Major (a major figure in The Crown’s current season) castigating the show for its fictional liberties and asking the streamer to clarify that it is a work of fiction. The royal family has stayed silent; though individual family members, including Prince Harry, have commented on the record about watching previous seasons, the silence from the monarchy while the debate rages around them over season five has been resounding.
Netflix has so far declined to add a clarification to the show credits, although it did add a disclaimer to the YouTube description of its season five trailer: “Inspired by real events, this fictional dramatisation tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II and the political and personal events that shaped her reign.”
At least one actor has gone to bat for the show’s right to be un-disclaimed: Claudia Harrison, who plays Princess Anne this season, told the Guardian that the idea was condescending. “To think people are genuinely sitting down thinking this is a documentary and that everything they see is fact, I feel uncomfortable with that,” she said. “Patronise an audience at your peril.”
Where The Crown gets slippery is actually in how historically accurate it frequently is, particularly when it comes to events that the real royals would prefer no one rehash.
Season two shocked audiences by exploring multiple family members’ connections to the Nazis. Season four depicted the institutionalization of five young women from the Bowes-Lyon family with developmental disabilities, after which two of them — the Queen Mother’s nieces — were falsely declared dead. Much of the time, The Crown insists on letting you know that what’s on screen really did happen; for example, it ended the Bowes-Lyon episode with real photos of the abandoned, institutionalized women.
It’s not that The Crown is largely false, but rather that it’s usually pretty on the money. As the Washington Post put it when fact-checking the Duke of Windsor’s relationship with Hitler, the history is “not totally as depicted, but darn near close.” Because it’s so often right, the show’s fictional liberties merge seamlessly with the truth and make it easy to take the whole series as gospel.
Among the biggest charges critics have laid against the production throughout its most recent two seasons is that showrunner Peter Morgan presents the affair between Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles as something that did not fully end prior to Charles dating Diana, thus dooming an unwitting Diana to a disastrous marriage from the start. King Charles has denied that he was initially unfaithful, though others claim that he and Camilla rekindled and maintained their relationship just a few years into Camilla’s marriage to Andrew Parker-Bowles, well before he met Diana. In The Windsor Knot: Charles, Camilla and the Legacy of Diana, author Christopher Wilson recounts numerous instances throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s in which Charles and Camilla were openly flirtatious during the early parts of Charles’s first marriage; indeed, Camilla and Andrew were present for Diana’s “Balmoral test” — the weekend trip in which she first met the royal family.
“There was virtually nothing she could do,” Wilson wrote of Diana. “Camilla appeared to be holding the reins and Charles was content with that. ‘Diana had to swallow her feelings,’ said a friend at the time. ‘She had to bide her time — she wasn’t even his fiancée yet.’”
This season also depicts Prince Philip having an unconfirmed emotional affair, which he describes to Elizabeth as “spiritual companionship” in the show. Other alleged fudging of facts are more anodyne: timelines can be compressed, some lesser family members are not dealt with, Charles and Di are given a fictional meet-cute — all normal parts of translating a historical narrative into a work of art.
The Crown is doing what every work of historical fiction does: striving for accuracy while allowing itself some creative license. The Crown enjoys a good deal of autonomy; the royal family did not cooperate in the show’s production, and key scenes taking place in the royal properties are all filmed elsewhere. What’s ironic is that despite that separation, The Crown’s relationship to the crown IRL kneecaps season five. Which brings us to the most revealing conflict of all: Camillagate.
Its Camillagate episode might just be The Crown at its wussiest
Episode five, “The Way Ahead,” deals with one of the more infamous moments in recent British monarchy history: the leaked private conversation between Charles and Camilla known as “Camillagate,” or sometimes “Tampongate.” Throughout the show, The Crown has depicted Charles as a jerk who left Diana to discover his ongoing affair on her own and made no serious effort to commit to her, then demonized her for being unable to navigate her way around his infidelity.
If ever there were an opportunity to zoom out and explore the cultural reception to this dysfunctional marriage and the journalistic frenzy to devour the monarchy because of it, it’s the moment when an amateur radio scanner inadvertently captures — and a tabloid then leaks — audio of Charles half-jokingly telling Camilla (over the phone while her husband and children are in the next room) that he wants to live inside her trousers, before joking about being reincarnated as a tampon.
We see almost none of the subsequent tabloid frenzy onscreen, and besides a long shot of her holding her head in her hands, we are barely party to Diana’s reaction. The show chooses this crucial point to back away from its “Charles is a jerk” characterization, instead spending the episode’s second half showing what a good leader the future king is and how he rallied from the scandal by focusing on community outreach and educational development for working-class children. Although he founded the Prince’s Trust 17 years before Camillagate, the episode presents it as the solution to the prince’s publicity problem. The episode ends, after a montage showing the fictional Charles helping countless happy children, with closing titles informing us that “The Prince’s Trust has assisted one million young people to fulfill their potential and returned nearly £1.4 billion in value to society.”
We might explain the oddity of this framing as a choice born from pure sympathy — after all, what happened to Charles and Camilla was a horrible privacy violation. The Crown showrunner Peter Morgan has made no secret of his own overriding compassion for the royals, though he’s claimed to have “sympathy and criticism in equal measure” for Charles himself. But on the balance, the show’s handling of this event seems sympathetic to a fault, especially considering that a few months prior to Camillagate, Diana’s own privacy was seriously violated. This occurred with “Squidgygate,” in which Diana’s phone was almost certainly tapped by the British secret service, and conversations were recorded and then leaked to the airwaves for radio scanners to find.
Though her conversation — in which she flirted with a lover, lightly shaded the royals, and spoke of being suicidal due to Charles’s treatment of her — wasn’t as damning as Charles’s own conversation, the scandal was very real. Its omission from The Crown as a precursor to Camillagate not only seems overly biased, but serves as a kind of gaslighting of Diana. Later episodes paint her conviction that her phone is bugged as growing paranoia that makes her vulnerable to being manipulated, rather than the experience of someone who was indeed living under constant unwanted surveillance.
These choices seem designed to placate the real royal family, to the show’s detriment. It’s unclear why that shift might be occurring now, five seasons into a show that rarely pulls its punches. Perhaps, Morgan — whose previous work includes 2006’s acclaimed film The Queen, which follows Queen Elizabeth after Diana’s death — has gotten more fond of his subjects with time. “I came at it as completely anti-monarchist and I’ve turned around utterly,” he told the Radio Times in 2017. “I’m a royalist now.”
It could also be that he agrees with The Crown’s critics that any dramatization of the scandal-laden incidents that plague the monarchy’s more recent history should be done with heightened sensitivity. In fact, if the show were less indebted to its real-life moorings, it might have told a more accurate version of this part of the story — or at least one more aligned with its typical clear-eyed storytelling.
Reality couched in fiction can be a tough pill to swallow
The whole controversy begins to make sense if we think less about how the show is telling its story — lose the fact-versus-fiction scorecard — and more about what it’s doing. The monarchy’s presumed anger isn’t actually about the show confusing the public; it’s resentment at storytelling that the monarchy itself cannot control.
Such mythmaking prior to the Diana era (created by an adoring public, a largely uncritical press, and often the monarchy itself) served the royals by enabling their lavish lifestyle, the adoration of the public, and the conceit — itself entirely fictional — that the monarchy held together Great Britain and all the members of the Commonwealth. When stories about the royals began to move into the hands of tabloid journalism and fully out of the family’s control, storytelling of any kind began to be a suspicious endeavor to the royals. This is an institution that prides itself on being a uniting symbol above all else, as the fictionalized Elizabeth reminds us at the beginning of the season. It was never going to embrace a drama that exposed its human flaws to a whole new generation.
This doesn’t fully explain why other people are so upset, however. Why are celebrities like Judi Dench — whose turns as Queen Victoria in two different films were each criticized for being less than historically accurate — suddenly accusing The Crown of being egregiously fictional? Canadian outlet The Star did a lengthy cataloging of complaints about the show from historians, biographers, politicians, and fans — minor quibbles meant to back up a larger complaint that the show’s entire existence has “a corrosive effect” on the monarchy, as one historian worried.
What few of these contributions to the discussion seem to want to admit is that as a work of fiction, The Crown is allowed to have a thematic narrative and a point of view about its subjects. It is not required to be a documentary, and in fact, many documentaries also evolve from observed reality to subjective narrative. The boundary between what is real and what is mediated through the imagination always creates dissonance, especially when concerning famous subjects.
The growing pressure on The Crown may be due in part to significant changes to the entertainment landscape. In an age of expanding demand for content, television producers and streamers have latched onto reality as an endless source of intellectual property — especially recent history, with many docudramas appearing so fast (The Dropout about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, WeCrashed about Adam Neumann and WeWork) that their subjects’ stories are still unraveling in real-time. The boom of this kind of work shows no signs of waning; in addition to prestige dramas about bad startup founders, 2022 has seen an onslaught of fictionalized true crime series like The Staircase and Candy. Awards-bait biopics have become so numerous and so critically precious — at last year’s Oscars, almost half of the acting nominations went to actors playing real people — that they’ve almost crossed the line into self-parody:
Oh I genuinely hope that the future of the best actor Oscars has gender blind categories, one with five slots for playing a person who existed, another with five slots for original characters. The impersonation shtick is so tired. https://t.co/rFHVo2cObs
— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) February 28, 2022
The sheer number of shows and films based on real-life events has arguably made it easier to interpret such works as literal, even when, as with The Staircase, they’re deliberately exploring the line between fact and fiction. Netflix’s recent Jeffrey Dahmer drama series drew praise for its faithfulness to its gruesome subject, but also garnered backlash from the families of Dahmer’s victims, some of whom argued the series itself was “retraumatizing” in its dredging up of the worst things that have happened to them. It gets harder to make the ethical case for these works when they intersect with, and arguably harm, real people.
Does that mean, however, that there should be an agreed-upon statute of limitations after which it’s acceptable to make art about real-life events? Of course not. That is bad for artists, and worse for us as consumers. Consider what we would lose, for example, if shows like The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live aren’t allowed to parody decades of pop culture in real time because their subjects object.
Yet we increasingly see arguments that seem to be built around the assumption that fiction is somehow an attack on the real. Just look at Elon Musk’s ongoing meltdowns over Twitter impersonators. Musk seems to reject the notion that accounts trading in fictional parody aren’t inherently part of Twitter culture, but rather should be cordoned off, clearly identified with the “parody” label, and dealt with as suspicious and innately hostile if they come without that label. Like the monarchy, Musk — royalty of a different sort — is clearly threatened by anyone using the guise of fiction to speak unpleasant truths in reality, and he’s lashing out in similar ways.
Perhaps instead of looking at fiction as a threat, we might step back and remind ourselves that art that makes us uncomfortable is a strength, not a weakness. And perhaps, if you’re the richest man in the world, or belong to one of the world’s most powerful families, art that speaks truth to you is a gift, not an enemy — even if it comes in a very convincing, realistic disguise.