What a strange first autumn for King Charles. Two major publicity storms are approaching—one containing a weather system he knows only too well, and one an unknowable, rumbling thundercloud. (And this being the royal family, who knows what other unknown storms are waiting to flare up?)
The recently released Season 5 trailer of The Crown confirms that this season of the award-winning Netflix drama—streaming from Nov. 9—will focus on the lead-up to and then full breakdown of Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana, the so-called “War of the Waleses.” (Diana’s death will feature in the sixth and final season.)
Then there is Prince Harry’s memoir, still scheduled for release “later this year,” and still an unknown quantity. The latest rumors are that Harry wanted to make changes to it in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s death. But seeing as earlier rumors had the publisher wanting rewrites, presumably ensuring it had juicy enough material, will Harry be able to de-juice whatever he has written?
Brits of a certain age may remember the “all-out war” era the new season of The Crown is about, but younger fans of The Crown, who have latterly co-opted Diana as a hero, will now hear all about that time the future King of England imagined himself as Camilla’s tampon, will see both the re-enactments of Diana’s TV confessional (on the now-discredited Panorama), and his to his biographer Jonathan Dimbleby. And, of course, on that very same night, The Crown will surely show Diana rocking up to the Serpentine Gallery in the Christina Stambolian black cocktail “revenge” dress that blew her husband off the next day’s front pages.
Season 4 of The Crown caused much consternation at the Palace, showing Charles’ cruelty, cluelessness, and jealousy as Diana’s star rose. Matt Smith (Prince Philip in Season 1 and 2) recently revealed Queen Elizabeth watched the show, and so did Harry. Maybe many of them do, drinks of choice to hand.
The official anger was, of course, personal, as these are some potent royal skeletons to dislodge. But they are also political and culturally significant—making Charles’ crimes and misdemeanors clear to a generation who may have never known about his adultery and the all-consuming drama of the time that also included Queen Elizabeth’s annus horribilis of 1992, which included multiple scandals and the Windsor Castle fire.
Netflix has indicated that the season has not been re-edited or changed in any way in response to the queen’s death.
Season 4 produced a gale of criticism from within royal walls. It was denounced by royal sources as “drama and entertainment for commercial ends being made with no regard to the actual people involved who are having their lives hijacked and exploited. In this case, it’s dragging up things that happened during very difficult times 25 or 30 years ago without a thought for anyone’s feelings. That isn’t right or fair, particularly when so many of the things being depicted don’t represent the truth.”
At the time, a Palace source told the Mail on Sunday: “The new series paints the Prince and Duchess (Charles and Camilla) in a very unflattering light but at least at the start of reality shows like The Only Way Is Essex they admit that some scenes have been invented for entertainment. There is no sense of telling carefully nuanced stories—it’s all very two-dimensional. This is trolling with a Hollywood budget. The public shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this is an accurate portrayal of what really happened.”
Unsurprisingly, the Palace has already declared war on Season 5, even before broadcast. A Palace source sniffily told the Telegraph that The Crown was “a drama not a documentary.” (The Daily Beast reached out to the Palace for comment for this article.)
A friend of Charles described the drama to the Telegraph as “exploitative” and said Netflix would have “no qualms about mangling people’s reputations,” even the late queen’s. “What people forget is that there are real human beings and real lives at the heart of this,” the source said.
One well-placed source also implied that part of the fightback this time will be not just to brief and kvetch from the sidelines, but will also feature Charles and Camilla being seen out and about. “You will see the king and the queen consort on state business in the U.K. and abroad and people will have more of an opportunity to compare the real people with the fiction they see in The Crown. In the past they didn’t get so much coverage, so in that sense it was harder for people to be able to compare and contrast the drama with the reality.”
The Crown has never paraded itself as a documentary, and the trashing of it as such is unfair and disingenuous. It is a drama based on real people and real events and some imagined events. It features scenes that are scripted, and some words that were actually said. It is well-researched, and beautifully acted and directed. It is the Rolls-Royce of soaps—full of sex, intrigue, and tittle-tattle, but so gorgeously dressed and enunciated. What may be painful and embarrassing, inevitably, is seeing those events dramatized.
But the series, even as it shows the royals behaving in bizarre and sometimes vindictive ways, humanizes them. It is odd for the Palace to so concertedly denigrate the show when watched as a whole it actually shows a (very rich, very powerful) family in the round. It is fair and even-handed, with an air of alternately sharp and whimsical mischief. Its creator Peter Morgan did the same in The Queen, starring Helen Mirren.
Perhaps its ranging focus and inquisitive deconstruction is what rankles the Palace so much about The Crown. Perhaps, like the fly-on-the-wall documentary Royal Family in 1969, its real crime for the royal family is that it lets too much light in; it demystifies too much.
Perhaps, as a psychological study, it is too astute and too close to the bone. It isn’t so much the events it shows, or the wrongly perceived character assassinations it is often accused of. It is its deft analysis of past events and motivations, with the smooth and glossy wrapping of melodrama making it so delicious to watch to so many. It is an unforgiving, very ornate mirror.
It is telling that for all the complaining about such-and-such incident never happening, no Crown detractor every says, “They really get that character wrong, he/she is nothing like that.” It is fairly undermining to the palace case, and all in The Crown’s favor, that even its fiercest critics have never challenged both the broad and refined rendering of personalities.
The Palace is especially nervous because this season will air just as Charles’ reign begins. The fifth season will be tougher to criticize because everything Charles said and did as his marriage disintegrated has been well documented, and also said by him. The anger at the Palace may well be more intense than it was for Season 4: Here Charles is, 73 years old, finally on the throne—and the most damaging and publicly unedifying of his years are about to be played out to a global audience of many millions. And then there is Harry’s memoir.
However, this already well-known and well-excavated era also presents its own pressures for The Crown. The “revenge dress” is a moment well-documented on fashion pages, in TV documentaries, and even on stage in the bonkers Diana: The Musical (the Broadway audience was waiting for it, and went wild when it happened). How will The Crown this season translate a series of well-known royal flashpoints into something beyond a recitation of familiar soap opera crescendos, snacky as they will be to watch? And after that, what will Harry say in his memoir, if it is published and contains as-yet-unknown revelations about his father and family?
For King Charles, the storms of this autumn won’t just be borne by the winds of dramas past but by unknown revelations or conclusions yet to be made. It may take a lot more than just smiling royal walkabouts by him and Camilla to offset what he and the Palace may be about to see and hear.