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'The Crown' and the fact vs fiction debate

Emma Corrin in The Crown.
Emma Corrin in The Crown. (Image credit: Des Willie/Netflix)

This post contains mild spoilers for The Crown. 

The Crown is far from the first historical drama to take creative license with the events it portrays — after all, this is not a documentary — and previous seasons have not been met with the same outcry as the recently released 1980s-set fourth outing. Portraying the intimate lives of the British monarchy, creator Peter Morgan has explored tabloid scandals, fiery relationship dynamics, and the sacrifices made in the name of duty. Suggestions that the House of Windsor was unhappy with this depiction are long-standing but never has it been so loud as with this latest installment. Even current British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has insisted that a ‘health warning’ should appear before the episodes so viewers don’t mistake fact for fiction. Netflix doesn’t agree and politely declined this editing note. After four years, why is there suddenly a bad-faith attack on the audience’s ability to discern truth from embellishment? 

“'It's a beautifully produced work of fiction, so as with other TV productions, Netflix should be very clear at the beginning it is just that,” Dowden told the Mail on Sunday highlighting a solution to a seemingly recent problem as to how the streamer presents its content. Citing younger viewers who didn’t live through the turbulent 1980s as his priority, the Culture Minister appears to forget that search engines exist to verify (or disprove) the accuracy of scenes unfolding in various palaces and stately homes. As one of the most documented families of the 20th century, resources are endless — including at least six other royal family documentaries or dramatizations on Netflix alone. The elephant in Dowden’s statement is the arrival of Princess Diana (Emma Corrin), which has dredged up one of the most contentious periods for the Windsor clan, while also drawing comparisons to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to step away at the start of 2020

Princess Diana and Prince Charles engagement

(Image credit: Netflix/Des Willie)

The Princess Diana Factor

Half-truths, tabloid scandal, and fabrications have long been part of the Windsor tapestry but it has taken until Season 4 for the disgruntled whispers to turn into a culture war. Prince Phillip’s (Matt Smith) wandering eye, the refusal to let Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) marry her preferred suitor (because he was a divorcé), and portraying President Kennedy (Michael C. Hall) as a drug-fueled mess are all storylines that raised eyebrows but nothing on this scale. In Season 3, Charles (Josh O’Connor) cut a sympathetic figure as he struggled with his birthright and a lack of compassion from family. A difficult relationship with his father, being bullied at school, and romantic roadblocks — mirroring his aunt’s situation — made the future king someone to root for.

O’Connor’s performance taps into the trapped-by-circumstances factor, but he is also very convincing as the petulant husband who bristles at his wife’s popularity. This turn from hero to villain has potentially impacted the rehabbed image of Charles and Camila. The official Clarence House accounts have turned off comments on social media in reaction to the negative remarks that likely mirror ones from the ‘90s — now they also have memes to contend with. Emma Corrin’s terrific portrayal of Princess Diana is not a gotcha moment because this storyline was inevitable so this particular brand of outrage is preposterous. Ultimately, it is Netflix who is enjoying a cycle of free promotion from the headlines.

Princess Margaret The Crown

Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) in "The Crown" on Netflix. (Image credit: Netflix)

What is ‘truth’ in a historical drama?  

Questions of authenticity and accuracy are not a Season 4 phenomenon, which has been a recurring conversation long before the ‘health warning’ controversy. “What is real? And what is imagined? What is truth, and what is fiction? What happened? What did not?” asks showrunner Peter Morgan in the foreword of The Crown: The Inside History. “It’s become clear that many viewers, while watching The Crown, did so while scrolling through the pages of Wikipedia, searching for answers to these questions,” adds Morgan in the introduction to royal historian Robert Lacey’s book covering the first season. As The Crown’s historical consultant, Lacey explains his approach to the stories and conversations that aren’t verbatim. "I defend very strongly that this show recreates the past very plausibly. History is a truth, but there are other truths that are conveyed in the drama,” Lacey told Town & Country in 2017. Even the imagined and embellished has some element of research and accuracy.

After finishing an episode (or even during) there is a wealth of information available to enlighten viewers. From article explainers breaking down the reality of the cousins who were hidden away in a psychiatric unit to multiple biographies about the major players. Emma Corrin referenced the 2017 documentary Diana: In Her Own Words as vital to her prep, which is available to watch on Netflix — the streamer was accused of stirring the pot when they tweeted a clip of the princess talking about the crowded marriage. Obviously, this is from Diana’s point-of-view, but it is far more damning than the events covered so far in Morgan’s series. A royal insider told the Mail this tweet was a “sinister” move to draw more ire, rather it suggests a savvy social media manager highlighting another similar title in the Netflix library. Furthermore, comments like this one promote a documentary that originally aired three years ago on Channel 4 in the UK.

Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman)

Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) in "The Crown" on Netflix. (Image credit: Netflix/Des Willie)

The Netflix Response 

"We have always presented The Crown as a drama, and we have every confidence our members understand it’s a work of fiction that’s broadly based on historical events,” Netflix told the Mail about why they didn’t feel it was necessary to add a disclaimer. Standing their ground, the refusal to bend to this suggestion from the Culture Secretary points to trust in its audience, while proving they don’t need to accommodate the royal family. It is a flex from the streamer and also ensures this conversation will continue. Dowden wasn’t the only person who agrees there should be a disclaimer. On the official Crown podcast (opens in new tab), Helena Bonham Carter (who plays Princess Margaret in Seasons 3 and 4) agreed that viewers should be reminded of the fictional element, “I do feel very strongly, because I think we have a moral responsibility to say, ‘Hang on, guys, this is not… it’s not a drama-doc, we’re making a drama.’ So they are two different entities.” Meanwhile, Diana’s brother Earl Spencer also backed this call to highlight the fictional element, "I think it would help The Crown an enormous amount if, at the beginning of each episode, it stated that: 'This isn't true but it is based around some real events.'” Meanwhile, O'Connor believes Dowden's comments are "pretty outrageous." Speaking on The Envelope podcast, the actor had more faith in the viewers at home, "You have to show them the respect and understand that they’re intelligent enough to see it for what it is, which is pure fiction.”

As The Crown’s narrative edges closer to the present day and events that are particularly painful, it is understandable why some storylines are causing consternation — expect a repeat of this conversation next year. Nevertheless, to insist on a disclaimer when previous seasons haven’t endured the same criticism is clearly a reaction to the Diana factor and the bad faith attack suggests the viewer lacks critical thinking. Fargo proved nearly 25 years ago that title cards claiming truth can also be a case of creative semantics, which frames a story that isn’t necessarily based in reality either. Long before television and the concept of ‘health warnings’ existed, the royal family has been subject to myth-making and scandal — at least now search engines can verify or disprove the larger-than-life claims with a few clicks.

Emma Fraser
Emma Fraser

Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.