The makers of The Crown want to have their cake and eat it. They want to make a political statement about the moral depravity of the rich, famous and royal while at the same time to enjoying all the trimmings of the rich, famous and royal.
Episode six of the new season of The Crown, titled Ipatiev House, opens in the year 1918, at the breakfast table of King George V and Queen Mary. The monarch receives a letter from his cousin Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and in it, the Tsar begs him to send a ship to rescue his family. The Bolsheviks have them under arrest. As King George reads the letter and talks flippantly of pheasant shooting, the camera cuts to the Tsar and his wife and children being woken from sleep by their captors.
The Russian royal family are led to a bunker where, so they are told, they will be photographed. They line up against the back wall, smiling tensely, only a hint of suspicion on the Tsar’s face. Soldiers enter the bunker. You can imagine the rest. While these events unfold, King George V is out shooting pheasants and congratulating his posh friends on their skill: ‘A very good day, gentlemen.’ Look at all the corpses we’ve piled up.
Cut to the bunker where the dead royal children are piled on a truck, just like the posh people are doing with pheasants, do you see? Do you get it? It turned my stomach. Whether or not The Crown meant to belittle the deaths of Nicholas II and his family by comparing them blatantly to a bunch of birds, or whether they were making a critique of the British upper classes for their love of blood sports, the effect is monstrous. It made me furious to watch—even more so because I thought at first we were going to get a nuanced, beautiful, tragic portrayal of the final moments of the Tsar’s family. Nope. Netflix thought it more important to take a swipe at the British upper classes instead, while at the same time revelling in their pomp and pageantry. This has become an appalling show.
It’s the people behind the scenes that have ruined it. At its best The Crown portrayed the lives of our late monarch and her family with care. Claire Foy and her era nailed that, the whole show once handling tense political and historical events with grace and nuance.
At its worst (like in the Ipatiev House episode) it is downright horrible and offensive. The first half of season five is a series of extravagant caricatures, the stunning sets and costumes the last vestiges of attempts to portray reality. The sets remain, but they are now peopled by actors in pantomime performances. Dominic West’s mouth twists so violently when he’s scheming to bring down his mother that his performance approaches Scooby Doo-villain levels. That was in the first episode and West has since brought his considerable charm to Prince Charles, especially in the episode that features his and Camilla’s leaked phone conversation (the really dirty one).
Elizabeth Debicki looks quite a bit like Princess Diana but she overdoes the craning neck and sidelong glances— probably because Debicki is so tall. A more subtle performance would have rendered her extreme height irrelevant. Debikci is good in the third episode, ‘Mou Mou’, about Dodi Fayed’s father’s efforts to join the British upper class. That is the only truly good episode, and it happens to be about someone other than the royal family.
The Queen in season five bears almost no resemblance to the real thing, except perhaps for her silhouette. It was the same with season four, starring Olivia Coleman—great actress, nothing at all like Queen Elizabeth II.
Who’s in charge of casting by the way? Surely Netflix can cast whoever they want. Why do they cast Olivia Coleman and Imelda Staunton to play Elizabeth II? They have both made a name for themselves in playing tragi-comic roles, both very good at playing needy and pathetic. Like, the opposite of Elizabeth II, famous for her stoicism and resilience. Imelda Staunton as Elizabeth II does come across as needy and pathetic and I am beginning to think it is was a conscious choice.
I think The Crown wants to mock the late Queen. How about this scene as an example of the depths to which the new season has sunk. In the first episode the Queen complains to John Major about HMS Britannia, her royal yacht. It needs updating she says, but Major argues spending public money on a royal yacht won’t go down well. Imelda Staunton is not pleased: ‘When I came to the throne, all my palaces were inherited; Balmoral, Windsor, Sandringham. They all bore the stamp of my predecessors. Only Britannia have I truly been able to make my own…From the design of the hull to the smallest piece of china, she is a floating, seagoing expression of me.’ The Queen is hurt. She takes John Major’s comments personally. She looks as though she’s about to cry in front of John Major.
There’s even a moment in the first episode in which the queen sits alone, reading a newspaper article about how the public think she’s irrelevant and old. She sheds a tear while literally wringing her hands. In the second episode she says she needs a break so she can ‘decompress’. Can you even imagine the late Queen Elizabeth II saying or doing any of it? The caricature is so laughable they must be trying to poke fun. I can’t see any other explanation.
If only Elizabeth Debicki and Dominic West were given a better script— they are at least trying to do some justice to their roles. There are glimpses of brilliance from them, but nothing more. The ghastly first episode contains a scene in which Charles and Diana argue over whether they should all go see the ancient archaeological sites of the Amalfi coast, or go shopping in Naples.
They spar at the lunch table while a dozen guests and their two sons watch. Charles belittles Diana and makes her look like a bimbo: ‘A show of hands—would anyone apart from Diana like to go shopping?’ His guests squirm. Little Harry chirps up in defence of his mother: ‘Me! I want to go shopping!’ he says. His father gives a tight smile and his mother a grateful wink, and the guests sigh with relief.
This is some of the most tragic TV I’ve seen. An eight-year-old boy plays mediator in his parents’ unstable marriage, and the awful truth is we know this kind of thing happened. It’s just that we don’t know exactly how, and it’s tasteless to try and imagine how this stuff played out in front of a global audience.
In film and television there’s an unspoken rule that you can’t show a marriage breaking down, especially when kids are involved. No one will touch the topic except indie arthouse types, and those ones are probably doing it out of catharsis. Divorce is too common, too painful, too complicated, each one unique to the family that is falling apart. This shouldn’t be an unspoken rule—we should have more storylines about divorce, but not about real, living people who still feel the aftershocks.
The real Harry doesn’t speak to his brother or father. He lives 5,000 miles away across an ocean, and their feud plays out in tabloids all over the world. In portraying the Wales’s divorce so bluntly, with so little restraint, The Crown is no longer above the tabloids. It’s rolling in the mud with them.
Season five focuses on Diana’s rebellion against the firm and the release of her first biography, Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words. Notice this part of the show comes out just before the release of Prince Harry’s memoir (expected January 2023). It is either carelessly timed, or precisely and cruelly timed, and knowing Netflix, I doubt it’s the former.
As it teeters towards tabloid sensationalism, The Crown no longer has the right to claim it is telling a true story. Judi Dench called for Netflix to release a disclaimer for this new season. The show, she wrote, “seems willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism”. Netflix has since added ‘fictional dramatisation’ to the new season’s trailer—and only time will tell how that affects its popularity.
If the show is no longer good on its own, people will start to watch it just for the juicy gossip. We don’t need a $260 million Netflix series to give us tabloid trash. We can just whip out our iPhone for that. The Crown can, and should, be above such cheap thrills.