A collage of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Emma Corrin, the actress who plays her in The Crown
Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

The Crown’s Majestic Untruths

The blockbuster series treads an uneasy line between fact and fiction.

The Crown is not a documentary. The presence of actors is a strong clue; the members of the Royal Family wish they were this good-looking. Do viewers need to be warned about this? One British politician thinks so. “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,” the Conservative culture minister, Oliver Dowden, said this week. “I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.”

Perhaps, like me, you feel the itch to call Dowden an idiot. It’s a drama! But doesn’t he have a point? We all acknowledge that there are limits to how far “historical fiction” can bend the truth and stay within the genre. Peter Morgan, The Crown’s lead writer, could have created a series that explored the monarchy’s attempts to adapt to changing social values by having the Queen get arrested alongside the Chicago 7 or take a lesbian lover—I would watch the hell out of either of those shows—but no one would call them historical fiction.

The real source of unease with The Crown comes from the dissonance between the high naturalism of the program’s costumes, staging, and set design and the liberties taken with its plotlines. The current discussion would not be happening if the show were not so rigorously faithful to the historical record in every department except for its script.

This season’s prerelease marketing focused on details such as Diana’s wedding dress, which was remade at enormous expense—only to be featured for all of two seconds, seen from behind. A minute-long scene at the start of episode eight flashes a sequence of international vignettes across the screen, to make the point that the Queen is the head of the Commonwealth. It must have cost a bomb. When a historical drama is setting pallets of $100 bills on fire with every second of screentime, it creates an expectation of authenticity.

The performances bolster this high naturalism: The show’s actors have been chosen for their physical resemblance to the people they portray, and are dressed in replica clothes while mouthing replica accents, despite their absurdity to modern ears. This is another conscious artistic choice. When Shakespeare’s history plays are performed now, there’s a good chance that Richard II will be Black, or Henry V played by a woman, while the court might be dressed in modern suits, fetish gear, or identical robes. Theater sits comfortably in the realm of the metaphorical. Some more experimental biopics, such as I’m Not There, do too. But The Crown offers a kind of artificial transparency.

It also gains luster from its association with the world’s poshest global brand: the House of Windsor. You can watch any number of fictional dramas about unhappy marriages, by playwrights from Aeschylus to Ibsen. This one involves Prince Charles, a man who walks among us, waving, smiling and pointing gamely at flower beds—and who will one day be king. The promise of The Crown is that what we’re seeing is true, perhaps not literally, but close enough to draw power from the connection. When there’s real blood at stake, real lives, real futures, that acts as a short circuit to the audience’s amygdala.

Questions about the liberties The Crown is taking with the historical record arise whenever a new season airs. This time, however, the outcry is bigger, and not just because of the intervention of a politician who apparently has nothing more pressing to do. (You would think that the possible collapse of Britain’s live-arts sector thanks to months of COVID-19 closures would keep Dowden busy, but no.) The program’s arc is moving closer to the present, where wounds are fresher and grievances not yet burned out. It is also sharper in its criticism of the Royal Family, particularly Prince Charles.

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This season raises two ethical questions. The first is about how much responsibility The Crown has to its subjects. Members of the Royal Family are public figures, but they are humans, too. Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, retreated to Los Angeles to gain some control over the circus, if not to escape it entirely; Harry cannot relish the prospect of future seasons restaging his parents’ divorce and his mother’s early death. The rest of us might feel a twinge of guilt even as we binge-watch a blockbuster show about a woman whose personal life became a real-life soap opera. (As the musician Neil Hannon wrote of Diana’s death: “A mourning nation weeps and wails / But keeps the sales of evil tabloids healthy.”) For the show’s more minor characters, meanwhile, The Crown will define their public perception forever. The widow of a British army major asked that his death, in an avalanche while skiing with Charles, not be depicted on the show. The producers did not honor her request, but I hope they seriously considered it.

The second, more difficult, question is what responsibility The Crown has to history.

Drama creates order out of chaos; the writer, and then the director, turn many possible pathways into one. Direct Hamlet and you need to decide who sees the ghost, whether Claudius really killed Old Hamlet, and when the prince is crazy versus when he’s just acting. Those choices affect our sympathy for the characters in front of us.

Peter Morgan has made similar editorial decisions. This isn’t Rashomon, a rare drama that allows competing versions of the truth to remain unresolved. Morgan’s Prince Charles is apportioned more blame than Diana for their doomed relationship, because he is older than her, and fully aware from the start that there will always be three people in their marriage. Several historical details are altered to support this characterization: According to the historian Hugo Vickers, the bracelet Charles gave Camilla was truly intended as a farewell gift, and it read GF (for “Girl Friday,” or invaluable assistant) rather than F&G, as The Crown depicts (for their pet names, Fred and Gladys). Most historians agree that Charles did not contact Camilla as often in the early years of his marriage as the show suggests.

These alterations show The Crown deliberately putting its thumb on the scale. Another version of the show was possible: Charles could just as easily have been gently excused from his sneak visits, his illicit phone calls, his evident longing for his first and only great love. Since marrying Camilla in 2005, there’s been not a whiff of scandal around their relationship, so an equally supportable reading of the 1980s is that he was a natural monogamist forced to marry the wrong woman. Like Princess Margaret in the show’s first season, Charles was instructed to deny his feelings in the service of an outdated notion of an “appropriate” royal relationship. Yet the show grants Diana a victimhood that is denied to him.

This has led to whispers that Morgan is pursuing a secret republican agenda. It’s a cute theory, but the key change in Season 4 is just as attributable to its shift in focus from the Queen (worst habit: telling people to buck up) to her eldest son (worst habit: reminding his wife she’s very much the silver medal). Elizabeth II has never talked about her opinions or her private life in anything more than platitudes, and there are no “sides” to take in the story of her 70-year marriage to Prince Philip. But Charles and Diana’s relationship ended in a hailstorm of furious briefings to journalists and ill-advised on-the-record interviews.

There is no neutral, universally accepted version of the events of the 1980s; that fracturing of consensus itself reflects Britain’s changing media climate.

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So dramatists take sides. They also create meaning. And here is a vice that The Crown shares with horse-race election coverage: the subordination of facts to narrative.

There’s an irony in The Crown devoting a whole episode to Michael Fagan breaking into the Queen’s Buckingham Palace bedroom in 1982; I once read a screenwriting book that used this incident as the ur-example of “realistic” versus “plausible.” No fiction writer would dare to have an intruder dodge multiple guards, find an open window, wander around a palace drinking wine, and then saunter out again, only to return weeks later and surprise the Queen in bed. Oh, come on, the audience would complain. That would never happen.

Morgan’s script can recount all this because it did happen. The implausibility of the plotline is answered by an appeal to truth. But he twists the incident in another way, one that demonstrates his larger ambition for The Crown. In real life, Fagan did not deliver a politically charged message about Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies and their relationship to his personal circumstances. In the drama, he does—adding that, as a decorator, he is shocked at how tatty the palace looks below the glitz and gilt.

Both of these messages speak to Morgan’s grand theme for the series: how an institution dating back to the Middle Ages has struggled to adapt to the modern world. The Queen can’t even comprehend the true state of the country, according to the intruder, because no one will be honest with her: “Everyone you meet is on their best behavior, bowing and scraping,” Fagan tells her. “That’s not normal.”

Many of The Crown’s best episodes dwell on this theme. In Season 3, Prince Charles nods to Welsh nationalism, and the British crown as a colonial power, after spending time with an inspiring teacher before his investiture as Prince of Wales. In the same season, Olivia Colman’s Queen struggles to connect emotionally with her subjects after the deaths of dozens of children in Aberfan (and this plot is itself a reworking of Morgan’s earlier film The Queen, in which Helen Mirren’s monarch failed to emote publicly over the death of Diana). The Fagan episode adds another note to the symphony. Boiled down to the bare facts, his break-in is merely something that happened. Recasting him an avatar of the downtrodden gives it meaning. That makes it a story.

All truly great historical dramas, memoirs, and biopics are about something greater than their ostensible subject. If they are not, they become a dutiful, forgettable checklist—in the words of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, “just one fucking thing after another.” Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus dwells on the destructive power of envy (as does Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which borrows Schaffer’s framing device of a thwarted rival). Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth explores politics as religion, with Cate Blanchett’s monarch giving post-Reformation England a replacement icon for the Virgin Mary. Hidden Figures asks us to confront how much potential has been wasted because of racism and sexism.

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Oliver Dowden’s intervention might inspire groans, but it is not philistine or unsophisticated to challenge what a writer has chosen to pull from the messy stuff of mere events. It is vital. Entire books have been written about Shakespeare’s reliance on partisan chroniclers; his hatchet job on the last Yorkist king, Richard III; his flirtation with danger in depicting the removal of a monarch when his own Queen was old and heirless. His plays are transcendent works of poetry. They are also incubators of a national mythology.

The Crown might attract that label too, because it tells Britain a story about itself, one in which politicians are well-meaning but stymied by events, in which princesses have the common touch, and in which reverence for the monarchy is the eternal default. (More controversially, the program might be the last refuge for the “special relationship”—Season 3 had plotlines about astronauts and about Princess Margaret charming Lyndon B. Johnson whose only function seemed to be reminding Americans that they exist in this dramatic universe.) Viewed objectively, there is something peculiar about a woman who wears a diamond hat forged by her ancestors lecturing Prime Minister Thatcher about poverty while the pair drink tea brought to them by a butler, in a palace. But it would be a twist too far for The Crown to take republicanism seriously. Despite the anguish over the new season’s occasionally acid tone, it does the Windsors one huge favor: It makes them seem eternal.

I know that comparing The Crown to Shakespeare will prompt gnashing of teeth. And yes, its heavy-lifting dialogue cannot compete with, say, John of Gaunt’s elegy for England, “this precious stone set in the silver sea.” But there is no doubt that Morgan’s ambitions are Shakespearean. Remember that Gaunt’s speech is delivered as a rebuke to his wastrel nephew, Richard II—“That England, that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself”—and serves the same dramatic function as Fagan’s real talk to Queen Elizabeth II, a warning delivered at great cost. (Those are John of Gaunt’s dying words, while Fagan is last seen being dragged away by police.) In case anyone misses the Shakespearean motif of a decaying kingdom, The Crown later has Prince Philip judge the intruder “a lunatic and a fool,” only for the Queen to reply: “Yes, but in the best sense. Like Lear’s fool.”

As it happens, Fagan, now 70, is sanguine about being turned into an emblem of anti-Thatcherism. But the real danger is that audiences will expect history to have the neatness of drama. In his book Homicide, David Simon argues that crime procedurals have created an expectation among juries that a trial will present them with a clear motive, a logical sequence of events, and some slam-dunk evidence for good measure. Many are surprised to find that real life is rarely so generous.

Historical dramas might similarly warp our attitude toward history, encouraging us to expect that cause and effect are obvious, or that world events hinge on single decisions by identifiable individuals. Academics have been trying to demolish the great-man theory of history for more than a century; television dramas put it back together, brick by brick.

What matters here is that we are having the right arguments about these ethical and dramatic decisions, not lobbing grenades at each other from opposing trenches of the culture war. Reasonable people can disagree over artistic license and the writer’s duty of care to her or his subjects. And none of this would be an issue if so many people didn’t love The Crown. Dowden is right to argue that the show is so popular that its interpretation of history will become the definitive one for millions of viewers.

That is something Netflix could mitigate, if it wanted to. Not with a pointless disclaimer, but with an accompanying documentary, rounding out the stories told in the drama. (There is a Crown podcast, featuring Morgan, but I mean something packaged more obviously alongside the main series.) There is certainly an appetite for one: Three unrelated Diana documentaries now clog up my Netflix home screen, and newspapers have published multiple articles separating fact from fiction.

Ultimately, it is not illegitimate to create narratives out of real lives. In fact, a good historical drama has to do so. But when we talk about the monarchy, modern Britain, and the legacy of divisive politicians like Thatcher, The Crown should be the start of a conversation, not the last word.