With series three of Peter Morgan's royal drama getting rave reviews, The Daily Telegraph ask whether or not its many embellishments are justified.
Altering the facts feels manipulative, argues Harry Mount
As Prince Andrew's disastrous Newsnight interview showed, the real life of the Royal family is compulsively gripping. So why has Peter Morgan, creator and writer of The Crown, made up so much in the third season, launched on Sunday?
I must admit I binge-watched the lot. But, throughout, as I watched, I consulted my laptop on my knees for the truth. And, again and again, Morgan was telling porkies to sex up the already engaging truth. He ends up getting the best of both worlds. You think the outrageous fiction is the truth, and so grow more astonished – and addicted to the series.
It's a sneaky trick. Morgan's ploy is to take a kernel of truth and then add a juicy lie on top. So, yes, it's true that Anthony Blunt, surveyor of the Queen's pictures, was a Russian spy. But it isn't true that, as Morgan writes, Blunt then blackmailed the Duke of Edinburgh over his fictional involvement in the Profumo Scandal. Again, it's true that Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon visited America – and the White House – in 1965.
But, no, Princess Margaret didn't attack the late President Kennedy in front of President Johnson. And, no, she didn't leap up on a chair on the dance floor at the White House or start reciting rude limericks with the President. Morgan also uses lies to service his overarching view in the series that the Royal family – and the Queen, in particular – are cold, unfeeling sorts.
So, yes, it's true that the Queen took eight days to visit Aberfan, after the tragic coaltip disaster in 1966, while Lord Snowdon raced to the site. And it's also true that she regretted taking so long to visit, but she only delayed that visit because she didn't want to hold up the rescue operation. Morgan uses the incident to falsely claim that the Queen faked her crying at Aberfan, and that, only after the visit, did she manage to cry real tears. This muddles the idea of who the Queen really is.
In the same way, the fictional storyline that the Queen Mother and Lord Mountbatten conspired to stop Prince Charles marrying Camilla Shand dials up the sympathy for Charles. The viewer loses any understanding of what the Royal family are really like – there is a sense that even the emotional truth has been varnished, which feels particularly manipulative. The fabrication of fact is harmful because a lot of the people in The Crown are still alive – not least the poor Queen who, unlike her second son, knows better than to appear on television to take on accusations.
Although The Crown is a drama, the high production values and close observation of things like royal clothes and speech mean a lot of viewers will take it as truth – particularly if it's their first encounter with these events. Ultimately, the series is a distortion of events that diminishes the power of the drama. I will go on watching it – with a pinch of salt in easy reach.
The Crown's main purpose is to entertain, argues Ben Lawrence
In the sixth and best episode of series three of The Crown, we see Prince Charles (played by Josh O'Connor) spend a term at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, amid unrest from the country's Nationalists as his investiture at Caernarvon Castle looms.
As depicted by writers Peter Morgan and James Graham, this is a move thrust on the young prince by his cold and unfeeling family, who care little about his burgeoning thespian interests at Cambridge. He writes a speech for the investiture in the Welsh language with the help of his antimonarchist tutor Edward Millward (Mark Lewis Jones), making serious revisions that his family regard as a personal attack.
The reality was rather more prosaic. The speech was approved by George Thomas, the secretary of state for Wales, and the day passed with little incident. And yet, The Crown's dramatisation of events not only makes for brilliant, gripping drama but it also humanises, for better or worse, all concerned (not least Prince Charles, made manifest by O'Connor's career-changing performance).
It seems unlikely that he ever had such a showdown with his mother over the need to modernise the Royal family, but the drama does a more important job in unlocking a complex character. Such embellishments serve a greater truth, helping us get to the heart of who our future monarch really is. We can see a tortured soul, constantly questioning his role at the heart of British life, which is far more powerful than an obsessive fidelity to historical documentation could ever be.
Did Shakespeare ever let the truth get in the way of a good story? The transformation of Henry V from dissolute prince to warrior king feels both acutely thrilling and psychologically real. And while the play has led to much scorn from academics keen to correct the Bard's historiography, his depiction is enduring. It's worth noting that episode six ends with Charles reciting the Hollow Crown speech from Richard II, in which the King glumly meditates on the nature of kingship. Yes, it's hyperbolic, but it is also an incredibly powerful moment, fitting perfectly into the fabric of the story.
The "fact police" need to remember that The Crown's primary duty is to entertain, and much of this series' set of fictions have done this overwhelmingly – Princess Alice's interview with a newspaper journalist; Princess Margaret's dirty limerick competition with Lyndon B Johnson. It's not as if Morgan has been outrageous with his suggestions. Everything is in character. Perhaps if Princess Anne attempts to stage a military coup in Togo in series four then I will revise my opinion.
Ultimately, none of us were there for the Windsors' most intimate encounters, so we need to imagine them, to try to make sense of that family who, for most of us, will remain unknowable.
The Crown is available on Netflix