For the past five years, my life has been governed by a simple rule. No matter how often people told me how good it was, I was never, ever going to watch The Crown.
Why? Not because I have anything against Netflix, the show’s creator Peter Morgan, or fine actors like Matt Smith and Claire Foy.
But having written a series of history books about Britain since the early 1950s, I could think of nothing worse than spending my spare time watching more of the same.
I spend most of my working day writing about people like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, as well as the Queen herself. Why would I want to spend my evenings with them as well?
The character who dooms the entire enterprise is Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher. When she first hove into view as the Iron Lady, I burst out laughing
However, with the show’s fourth season, which covers 1979 to 1990, igniting a firestorm of controversy, I thought it was time for me to break my embargo. So I put aside my prejudice, fired up the iPad and prepared to break my rule for the greater good.
I dived into the show’s first season, which — as diehard fans will know — covers the transition from George VI to Elizabeth II in the early 1950s.
And yes, I admit it — I was hooked. The sets, the costumes and the acting are just as brilliant as everybody says.
But the real surprise was how clever it was, how nuanced and agile. It was impossible not to be moved by Jared Harris’s George VI, confronting the shocking reality of his terminal cancer, or by Claire Foy’s equally superb Elizabeth, faced with the loss of her father and the loneliness of life on the throne.
Everybody seems as if they’ve been watching too much Spitting Image. Colman’s Queen (above) is a stolid grump, Tobias Menzies’s Philip a squinting reactionary
I could have stayed in the 1950s for hours, but time was pressing. So after a few episodes, I skipped to the third season, which opens in 1964 with Olivia Colman’s Queen welcoming Harold Wilson as her first Labour Prime Minister.
As most fans admit, there is a definite diminution of quality. The performances and scripting are clumsier. Colman’s Queen is more inert, more predictable, and although Jason Watkins is terrific as Wilson, his stock-Yorkshireman dialogue never quite rings true.
So I moved on to the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands, Diana and Camilla. By now, almost to my surprise, I was looking forward to it.
And then… crushing disappointment. The careful scripting, the layered performances, were gone, replaced with a cartoonish parody that painted everybody — not just the Queen, Philip and their children, but Camilla, Diana and Thatcher herself — as caricatures.
The new season’s first episode sets the tone. The production values are as lavish as ever, but the accents are now so strangulated, and the characters so grotesque, that it is hard to believe any of these people really existed.
Everybody seems as if they’ve been watching too much Spitting Image. Colman’s Queen is a stolid grump, Tobias Menzies’s Philip a squinting reactionary.
But the character who dooms the entire enterprise is Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher. When she first hove into view as the Iron Lady, I burst out laughing. Her Thatcher is so over-the-top that she seems to have escaped from some deranged 1980s pantomime.
It’s well known that Thatcher deepened her voice when she became Tory leader, so she would sound less shrill on TV. But The Crown’s Thatcher speaks so deeply, so huskily and so slowly that it is impossible to take her seriously.
Her style, mannerisms, even her hair are all wrong. This is the very late Thatcher — haughty, regal, a stately liner heading for the rocks rather than the passionate, energetic populist elected in 1979.
She never smiles, except in a ghastly grimace. She tells the Queen that women are ‘too emotional’, and ‘not suited for high office’ — the exact opposite of what she really thought, since she always told interviewers that women were better than men because they were more level-headed.
The script misunderstands her economic policies, telling us again and again that she is pushing through spending cuts that will ‘decimate the public sector’. In fact, public spending went up during the Thatcher years. It was high interest rates and a cripplingly overvalued Pound that pushed the economy into recession.
The portrayal of Thatcher’s Britain is pure Left-wing agitprop. Michael Fagan is shown breaking into Buckingham Palace because he has been brutalised by the Tories’ economic policies and wants to discuss them with the Queen.
Fagan has condemned this as nonsense, complaining that the producers ‘never thought to speak to me before they made this rubbish’.
Since he’s not a public figure, and has suffered from poor mental health, you might have thought they’d have treated his story more carefully. But no.
After the fictional Fagan is apprehended, the Queen interrogates her Prime Minister about her economic approach. Thatcher comes out with some bleak Darwinian stuff about how she wants people to forget about ‘collective duty’ and ‘look after number one’.
If you invited Jeremy Corbyn to give a definition of Thatcherism, this is probably what he’d come up with. But the idea Thatcher would say something so unapologetically malevolent, especially to the Queen, is simply laughable.
It’s true that Mrs Thatcher’s policies were divisive and that there were heavy costs as well as rich benefits. But The Crown talks only of the costs.
The only person who defends her government is Philip — but since he has been turned into a ridiculous caricature, few viewers will be persuaded.
None of the political scenes rings true. A particularly dreadful example comes when we get to the Falklands, which Mrs Thatcher’s civil servants — many of whom actively disagreed with her other policies — universally acknowledged as her finest hour.
Officials have testified that from the start of the crisis she was at her best. Here, she is a hysterical, tearful wreck, obsessed with the disappearance of her son Mark during a Sahara car rally.
In reality, the Sahara affair was over months before the Falklands imbroglio began.
But Peter Morgan conflates the two, depicting Mrs Thatcher as so distracted by Mark’s disappearance that she refuses to focus on the crisis in the South Atlantic.
So the first female Prime Minister emerges as just another flaky, over-emotional woman, unable to separate the professional and the personal. At least, that is history according to The Crown.
Even more egregious is the treatment of Lord Mountbatten’s assassination in 1979. He was killed by an IRA bomb while fishing off the coast of Ireland with friends and relatives. In The Crown’s version, Mountbatten gets on to the boat only after scribbling a last letter to Prince Charles, urging him to ditch Camilla forever. This is pure fiction — and given that Charles and Camilla are still alive, fiction of a remarkably heartless kind.
Unforgivably, The Crown frames this episode with two long monologues from a Sinn Fein spokesman, explaining how Britain has oppressed the Irish people and how the Royal Family are symbols of imperial wickedness.
No context is offered, and there’s no attempt at balance. A montage blends footage from Bloody Sunday, the Catholic civil rights movement, British Army raids in Belfast and demonstrations supporting IRA hunger strikers. The IRA itself could not have put together a better recruiting video.
Even Mountbatten’s funeral feels like it was scripted by Gerry Adams. The pictures show the Queen and her family grieving amid a setting of bleak pomposity. The soundtrack is given to the Sinn Fein spokesman, glorying in his victory.
All this is pretty inexcusable. Incredibly, though, it’s not even the worst thing in the series.
That distinction surely belongs to the second episode’s ‘Balmoral Test’, in which the Queen and her family conspire to humiliate the visiting Thatchers.
Everything about this is ridiculous. The script asks us to believe that Margaret and Denis would turn up at Balmoral with the wrong clothes and no sense of how to behave, even though he was a public school-educated millionaire and she had been Leader of the Conservative Party since 1975.
When they arrive, Denis tries to tip one of the staff, while Margaret is shocked when the servants offer to unpack for them. Yet as Prime Minister, she had a country house of her own, Chequers.
So why wouldn’t she and Denis know how to behave? Is it remotely plausible that the leader of the Tory Party would be bewildered at the idea of pre-dinner drinks?
Is it likely that the Queen would deliberately humiliate them by forcing Mrs Thatcher to go stalking in her best clothes? Is that really how we think our monarch behaves?
Indeed, while The Crown’s Thatcher is a maniac, the real monsters are the Windsors themselves. Previous seasons took care to show the human beings behind the cut-glass accents. But this season turns them into spoiled, loutish cartoon villains.
Everybody behaves abysmally. The Queen and Philip are remote, stupid and emotionally constipated. And they never seem to do any work — no ceremonies, no charities, nothing.
Given how hard the Queen has worked all her life, fulfilling thousands upon thousands of public engagements without putting a foot wrong, this seems grossly unfair.
Then there’s Josh O’Connor’s Charles: hunched, brooding, utterly self-pitying. ‘What does one have to do to get some kindness in this family?’ he moans at one point. By contrast, Emma Corrin’s virginal Diana Spencer is a lamb to the slaughter. Indeed, much of this series might have been dictated by Diana’s former divorce lawyers.
Spurned and ignored, wretched and bulimic, she appeals to the Queen for help. But Colman’s Queen, a hatchet-faced battleaxe, ignores her. When Diana asks for a chat at the end of the series, the Queen says coldly: ‘The dogs need feeding,’ and turns away.
So St Diana finds solace in her mission to the downtrodden. Charles dismisses this as ‘calculated vulgarity’, mocking her eagerness to ‘theatrically hug the wretched and dispossessed’.
‘You barely find it in yourselves to hug your own,’ Diana snaps back, and we are clearly supposed to agree with her.
As for poor Camilla, she is little more than a demon lurking in the shadows, cigarette in hand. When Diana goes to New York and embraces Aids patients, for example, the action cuts straight back to Britain, where a grim-faced Camilla watches on TV, brooding over a half-finished bottle of wine.
It all feels so predictable, so obvious: the saintly martyr and the raddled witch. Whatever happened to the nuance of Season 1?
Isn’t it just fiction? Maybe. Didn’t Shakespeare twist the truth in Richard III? So what does it matter? Well, it does matter. The Crown’s producers have gone to great lengths to trumpet its historical fidelity.
A montage blends footage from Bloody Sunday, the Catholic civil rights movement, British Army raids in Belfast and demonstrations supporting IRA hunger strikers. The IRA itself could not have put together a better recruiting video
They are rightly proud of the cars, the clothes, the hairstyles, the décor, all of which give a sense of immersive authenticity. They want viewers to see it not as a glossy soap opera, but as history.
Many viewers will conclude that the real Queen is a heartless automaton, and our real future King a monster of vanity and self-pity. Indeed, what are they to think of the monarchy itself, if it breeds such a menagerie of misfits? Of course, our institutions should never be above criticism. And politicians can hardly complain about being mocked, since they chose their lives for themselves.
But the royals didn’t. They were born into it, whether they liked it or not. And which of us would genuinely swap our own lives for theirs? Which of us would like to see our own family publicly traduced in this way?
That, to me, is the most shocking element of the entire enterprise. Whatever The Crown’s producers may say, these are real people, with real lives, which are as meaningful to them as ours are to us.
Putting them on screen might be justifiable, if they were responsibly handled. And Morgan showed in the early seasons that he was capable of doing just that, especially when blessed with actors such as Foy, Smith and Harris.
But nobody watching the grotesque Diana-Charles-Camilla love triangle could say that of this series. This is little more than a cruel, exploitative cartoon.
Only two months ago, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan signed a multi-million-pound deal with Netflix, who make The Crown.
Is the Queen’s grandson happy to take money from people who have turned his father into a ludicrous caricature, aired his mother’s dirty linen and depicted his grandparents as cold, callous brutes? If so, he has no shame.