This is long, and (a bit) spoilery. (Episode recaps are here.)
Tracing a decade of royal, political and worldwide events – from the assassination of Earl Mountbatten, through general elections, the Falklands War, two Royal Weddings, division between Britain and the Commonwealth and the ascendency of the Princess of Wales – there is a lot covered by season 4 of The Crown, and plenty left out too.
Almost missing in action is Sarah Ferguson, only briefly shown; and the letter A in nearly every Royal’s pronunciations, which seems to have been the victim of a coup by the letter E.
Some characters pop in and out, their characters drawn with a toothy grin and a snooty greed (Andrew), or a toothy grin and a defensive mean streak (Edward). Anne, toothy and snooty yet hardworking, balancing charity, horses, family and her own collapsing marriage, is often present as the Queen takes refuge in gossipy lunches with her mother, sister and only daughter.
I rarely have time to watch TV, though as a royal virgin – I knew I had something in common with Lady Di – I was given dispensation by avid Crown watchers to jump straight into Series 4, “as long as you promise to go back and watch Series 1 later, or I’ll unfollow you.”
It’s great fun and madly compelling, though often less about events and more about the effects of those events on the Royals. That means no massive weddings, though much about them; lots of fabulous outfits; and a finely-tuned balance between family, country and world politics.
Still, despite being ostensibly about the Queen, series 4 is most keenly focused on two 1980s interlopers, both women, both of whom defined and changed the decade.
One emerged as a last gasp from a worn-out old guard, which in a misguided attempt to preserve itself landed on a young woman whose eventual steely resolve threatened everything she was originally meant to represent; while the other destroyed communities, driven by a desire for a self-reliance and meritocracy in a country that has ever since equated inherited wealth with virtue. Both enjoyed, at times, great personal popularity but were also divisive and polarising figures.
Yes, I’m taking about Diana and Margaret Thatcher. Think of this series as about two different, very famous blue suits: Diana’s in her public engagement photos, and Thatcher on the night of her 1979 election win.
Although the Queen and the Prime Minister dance around their commonalities, there is also a lot that links Maggie and her monarch’s most famous daughter-in-law: both blue-eyed blondes, both mistresses of the through-the-eyelashes upwards look, both users of copious amounts of Elnett hairspray, and both shaking down the Establishment before discovering that early victories in battle do not win a war.
Having grown up in Newcastle in the ’70s and ’80s, I wouldn’t say The Crown left me feeling sorry for Thatcher, though it certainly highlighted the misogyny and snobbery that is often woven into legitimate criticism of women in public life. In The Crown it emanates from the Royals, setting class-based tests on the Thatchers’ first trip to Balmoral, and grandees in her own party.
Thatcher is portrayed by Gillian Anderson, and luckily her interactions with the Queen, Dennis and her ministers are entirely believable; because she walks like a scurrying crab and looks about 75. (When she came to power in 1979 Mrs T was 53, as was the Queen, who looks increasingly robust as the series unfolds.)
The PM also sounds as if she smokes 30 a day, and though Anderson is playing a woman known to have been putting on a performance – changing the pitch of her voice so she sounded more masculine, hair and handbag as defensive weapons – from what I recall her public voice was low, loud and clear (and both hectoring and nannyish, which admittedly Anderson has down to a tee).
While Princess Di is sticking a firework up the backside of the Establishment, the series gets its structural support from the weekly meetings between the Queen and Thatcher. The Prime Minister is in thrall to the institution and formalities of monarchy but not remotely deferential when talking about her own political realm. Their discussions and arguments provide insight into why each acts and thinks the way they do. They’re often an uncomfortable watch, as they probably were for the participants.
The relationship between a monarch and their Prime Minister is rather like the two parties in an old-fashioned royal marriage: getting to know one another, surviving tetchiness and disagreement, looking for common ground and eventually learning to rub along in the pursuit of the good of the nation. The difference is, the monarch has to teach the process to each new Prime Minister, while only having to go through it with one spouse, Henry VIII notwithstanding. It takes these two women 11 years to reach accommodation and understanding, and then it’s over.
Olivia Colman, as Her Maj, is hugely entertaining: alternately haughty, jolly and witty. I doubt Elizabeth II is really that funny, though after watching all ten episodes over a couple of days I felt that without Colman I would have drowned in a mire of royal self-obsession and tone-deaf introspection. (I’m also now completely over allegorical stags being stalked and shot at Balmoral.)
Obviously, as an anti-monarchist far too interested in the minutiae of their lives (isn’t that a sure sign of middle class republicanism?), that was exactly why I was glued to it, but in retrospect watching The Crown as it should be watched – every Sunday night at 8pm, on a goggle box rented from Rumbelows in 1983 – might have felt more in keeping, and been easier to digest.
I wasn’t much of a fan of Diana in the ’80s, though I warmed to her after spending a quiet summer in the early ’90s reading Diana: Her True Story under the counter at my bookshop holiday job. Emma Corrin is superb as the princess, from her sympathetic portrait of a teenager thrown in at the deep end to a lonely powerhouse who sometimes struggles to separate in her head why she’s doing something, and, in truth, for whom.
Initially giggly and diffident, her hair becomes more bouffant and her outfits sleeker as she finds her feet. Her clothes move from cutesy jumpers, pastel dungarees and checked taffeta ballgowns to elegant day dresses and designer gowns then jeans and Chanel suits.
She adores Charles from the off, and is a delight as she first meets him at Althorp while dressed as a tree. Moving from her warm Earls Court flat into chilly Buckingham Palace to prepare for her wedding, her aristocratic girlfriends swapped for her even chillier granny teaching her Royal etiquette, it’s a warning of what married life will be like: lonely and scrutinised at the same time.
Her power flip with her husband occurs in episode 4, Terra Nullius, when the royal couple tour Australia with baby William in tow. It gets off to a bad start, but she’s soon attracting large crowds. She thrives under their approval, which leads to bigger crowds and blossoming confidence. By the final episode, her triumphant late-80s solo visit to New York sees her using her power to connect with ordinary people for good, hugging a young boy with AIDS when she visits a paediatric hospital.
Charles (Josh O’Connor) is furious. In fact he spends much of the series furious with Diana. O’Connor is brilliantly petulant, though sometimes a little too hunched. He’s most fun to watch when he observes, aghast, her latest attempts to centre him, which only showcase her and the vast gulf between them: her dance on stage with Wayne Sleep to Uptown Girl, and her cringy (and thankfully audience-free) song from Phantom of the Opera recorded on a video tape for their anniversary.
Despite his mother’s tough talking in episode 10 – that they are “two spoilt, immature people, endlessly complaining unnecessarily” – Diana remains a more sympathetic figure, until the last few minutes of the series when she rebuffs the friendly overtures from her father-in-law and he finally realises Diana is determined to follow her own path, whatever that should mean for the monarchy.
Camilla Parker-Bowles – expertly portrayed by Emerald Fennell as the earthy, sexy breed of posh, permanently with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth – takes Diana for lunch before her wedding. It’s at Menàge a Trois of all places, and they sit at the centre table in everyone’s view, a glimpse into their joint futures. Camilla is accidentally brutal in her uncalculated honesty, Diana wilting as she realises how little she knows about her fiancé.
The contrast between this meeting and that with Charles and his parents to discuss their marriage in episode 9 is stark. Diana plays a blinder, interrupting Charles and his lengthy notes to declare her commitment to the marriage and apologise to him. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are so relieved not to have to discuss it any longer they’re happy to leave it there.
Tobias Menzies’s Philip failed to win me over for the first few episodes though by the end of the series he was my favourite: very funny, very dry, and devoted to his wife despite his alluded-to dalliances. “Why did you not do that for me?” he asks the Queen at breakfast when they discuss, in warm terms, Diana’s dance with Wayne Sleep the night before. You had your own ballerinas, she retorts, tartly.
Thatcher’s Cabinet is recognisable even 30 years on: Geoffrey Howe is particularly good, in looks and temperament; and Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary, spot on. (I realise that won’t mean much to most people but fair play to Casting for making an effort.)
Clearly much of The Crown is made up, which doesn’t particularly bother me considering how monarchs have been manipulating their public image for centuries. Fact, fiction and artistic licence based on kernels of truth co-exist mostly smoothly. Real footage of key events is mixed with newly created footage in montages and news reports the Royals watch on TV.
Still, I was surprised how many incidents brought back memories, even as they mix truth and fiction. Episode 5’s Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke), the intruder who sat on the Queen’s bed (true) and talked to her about the state of the country (not true, says the man himself), is a wise Shakespearian Fool (with the odd glimpse of Wolfie from Citizen Smith) – though his backstory, and the devastation wrought by Thatcher on working class communities as unemployment climbed to three million, is neither glossed over nor over-egged.
Episode 4, Favourites, where the Queen surprises all her children by meeting up with them to try to get an idea of where, and who, they are (they call the Duke of Edinburgh in shock) is rather moving but fictional. Episode 7, The Hereditary Principle has Margaret discovering that several Bowes-Lyon cousins suffering with a hereditary condition causing developmental disabilities have been put away in a psychiatric hospital; it is based on fact, though Margaret didn’t discover them. (I did like how Margaret mentions each cousin by name, after they’ve been ignored for so many decades.)
With the “spare” suddenly finding her position in the royal pecking order, physical health and mental wellbeing declining, series 4 is also a time of introspection for Margaret. Helena Bonham Carter highlights her role as Royal Family conscience, though only when Margaret can link it straight back to how she herself has been treated.
Sometimes a breath of fresh air blows in, in the form of royal friends we’d never otherwise hear about, like Dazzle (or as the Queen calls him, “Dezzle”) Jennings leaving Margaret in episode to become a celibate priest.
Unsurprisingly The Crown is heavy on the exposition, though the formalities of royalty provide many opportunities for explanation and back story to be sneaked in. Occasionally it unrolls clumsily: Camilla, who has known Charles for decades, explains to him they should carry on as mistress and married heir to the throne, just like her great grandmother Alice Keppel and his great great grandfather Edward VII, who were lovers for years.
I always thought the main trait linking British Royals and senior aristocrats was looking like a horse – considering their love of all things equine, I doubt they mind, and they’re probably just relieved they avoided the Habsburg chin – though if The Crown is to be believed, they’ve also all inherited tiny mouths which only open on one side. The result is they all look as if they’re trying to talk to someone on one side of them while hiding that conversation from the person on the other. Which after watching the intrigue going on her, they probably are.
The Crown is available on Netflix.
Watch the trailer for The Crown series 4 now: