“You sometimes have to forsake accuracy, but you must never forsake truth”. These are the words of The Crown’s creator and writer Peter Morgan, in response to criticism around the latest series’ dramatisation of the Royals’ lives in the 1980s. But what does ‘truth’ mean in the context of a historical drama, and why has this season in particular created such a stir?
Ever since season 4 landed on Netflix on 15 November, reporters, commentators and the wider public have been discussing the factual inaccuracies of this series, and its implications. From royal historians like Hugo Vickers to the former Palace Press Secretary Dickie Arbiter, the extent of Peter Morgan’s “fabrications” regarding the Royal Family have proved to make this the most problematic season so far.
For example, Vickers outlines in an article in The Times eight significant falsehoods in season four, ranging from the trivial (like the fact that the Queen was dressed incorrectly at Trooping the Colour) to what he feels to be borderline slander (for example, that Charles continued his affair with Camilla even in the earliest days of his marriage to Diana). Such inaccuracies, Vickers and other commentators such as Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins, have serious implications for the reputation of the Royals; for instance Jenkins argues that younger viewers who did not live through these events may take their portrayal as fact.
It is undoubtedly true that the latest series of The Crown does not present the Royal Family in a good light – from Charles’ cruel treatment of Diana throughout the series to the Queen’s cold parenting, the Royals do come off as pretty heartless most of the time. However, this has been the case since series one of The Crown, and whilst those earlier series did have similar critiques levelled at them, it was nothing on the scrutiny season four is now under.
Even the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has said that the show should carry a “fiction warning” to make it clear, particularly to a younger generation of viewers, that it is not factually accurate. So why has this series provoked such intense controversy?
There are two main aspects to this answer. For one thing, it is the most recent series, depicting events that happened just 30 years ago. Given this, many people still remember living through the real events, and moreover many of the participants are still alive. There is, then, more scope for people to speak out against the show’s version of truth, as it very likely will not chime with their own. The second element is more emotive, namely that the Charles/Diana storyline in particular was perhaps, to use the words of TV talk show This Morning, “too close to home”. It’s a deeply personal and ultimately tragic story in which Diana is depicted mostly as a victim and Charles as a villain. The worry then is that viewers will take this as fact rather than a dramatisation, thus arguably rendering the show slanderous to individuals and damaging to the institution of the Royals. It is also true that we owe a duty of care to the individuals whose private lives are being dramatised for our entertainment.
It all sounds very dramatic and generally accusatory, but from a historical point of view very little is actually at stake in this artificial ‘fact v. fiction’ debate. The bigger problem here is not that people are getting fed false history from The Crown (do we really think that the public is so gullible?), but that there are so few honest accounts of our country’s complicated past that we need a Netflix drama to lay it bare. In a sense, The Crown has more truth to it than our public history.
Perhaps we can consider the furore around the apparent ‘fake history’ (Jenkins) in this season as symptomatic of a wider British culture that does not want to be confronted with the ugly or difficult parts of its past. If young people are relying on The Crown for their historical education, it’s because so far there has been little else sufficiently truthful in our public history of the Royals. In this case, Peter Morgan is correct when he says that whilst the show is not always accurate, it is always true. Telling fiction and telling the truth, far from being mutually exclusive, often go hand in hand.