CRAIG BROWN: Why Dame Judi is right about The Crown
Dame Judi Dench (pictured) recently complained that The Crown ‘seems willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism’
This is why The Crown is so irritating, and, finally, so pernicious: it piously suggests that the viewer is for once being given the ‘true story’ behind real events, while at the same time giving itself carte blanche to invent any old scene, no matter how ludicrous.
A few years ago, I took part in an on-stage discussion about depictions of the Royal Family at the Mumbai Literary Festival with Stephen Daldry, who produced and directed The Crown from 2016-2020.
He is a popular figure, and instantly likeable, but I happened to be suffering from jet-lag, and was feeling irritable. This meant that I was rather less obliging than I might otherwise have been.
On stage, Daldry robustly defended The Crown from my repeated accusations that it invented stories while presenting them as true. With great charm, he insisted that this was not the case.
I don’t have a recording of the event itself, but this is what he said, on the same topic, to a magazine called British Heritage: ‘What’s interesting about The Crown — and The Audience, actually — is everything is meticulously researched. Almost every situation we know happened.
‘Obviously, a lot of the dialogue is different; we make that up. What’s remarkable is certain things that you’re not expecting to be absolutely true were researched — and are, in fact, true.’
But is this actually the case? Wouldn’t that last sentence read more accurately if its final word was ‘false’?
Everyone who has properly researched the Royal Family knows that The Crown is riddled not just with artistic licence but with blatant falsehoods.
Sir John Major (left) went further, calling one particular scene, in which Prince Charles (right) complains that his mother should be sent to prison for her deficient parenting, ‘a barrel-load of malicious nonsense’
Last week, my colleague Robert Hardman, who is a trusted expert on matters royal, examined the latest series and found it to be ‘ten hours of cruel conjecture and fabrication artfully wrapped around a skeleton of real events’.
He offered plenty of examples, including the idea that the Queen tried to pressure the Government to keep the Royal Yacht afloat (‘monumental nonsense’), and that Prince Charles tried to draw John Major into a campaign to oust his mother (‘risible tosh’).
At one point, the Queen is seen ticking off the Russian president for demolishing the house in which the Tsar and his family were murdered. She tells him it is ‘an act of great disrespect to my family’. Hardman rightly calls this scene ‘off-the-scale drivel’.
Dame Judi Dench recently complained that The Crown ‘seems willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism’, adding that it was at times ‘cruelly unjust’.
Sir John Major went further, calling one particular scene, in which Prince Charles complains that his mother should be sent to prison for her deficient parenting, ‘a barrel-load of malicious nonsense’.
In Mumbai, I challenged Daldry about one particular episode he had directed, in which, as a schoolboy at Gordonstoun, Prince Philip misbehaves, and is punished by not being allowed home to Germany at half term.
This means his elder sister, Princess Cecilie of Hesse, who is pregnant, is obliged to fly to Britain, but her plane crashes, and she is killed.
At her funeral, their father, Prince Andrew of Greece, rounds on Philip, saying: ‘It’s true, isn’t it, boy? You’re the reason we’re all here, burying my favourite child.’
In Mumbai, I challenged Daldry about one particular episode he had directed, in which, as a schoolboy at Gordonstoun, Prince Philip (pictured) misbehaves, and is punished by not being allowed home to Germany at half term
I pointed out to Daldry that this never happened: yes, Philip’s sister was killed in a plane crash, but Philip had nothing to do with it.
He hadn’t misbehaved; his sister was not flying to Scotland to see him, but was on her way to her brother-in-law’s wedding.
The death of his sister was, says royal expert Hugo Vickers, ‘one of the great sadnesses of Prince Philip’s life’.
When I pointed all this out, Daldry hummed and hawed in his charming way, and talked about artistic licence. But basically he stuck to his guns, maintaining that the series creator, Peter Morgan, had researched everything meticulously, and it was all ‘based on truth’, etc, etc.
After our session, my wife chatted with Daldry, while I signed copies of my book about Princess Margaret. Daldry told her that he had in fact been very uncomfortable with this particular episode.
He had, he said, remonstrated with Peter Morgan. Prince Philip was still alive when that episode was broadcast: was it really fair to falsely accuse an elderly man of being responsible for his beloved sister’s death, all those years ago?
But Morgan is the all-powerful figure behind the series, and so the episode went ahead just as he had written it, regardless of the truth.
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