Royal drama accused of rewriting history

Crowning glory? Claire Foy as Elizabeth II and Matt Smith as Prince Philip. © Netflix

Today Netflix launches The Crown — the most expensive TV show ever. It portrays the life of the current British queen in lavish detail but much of it is pure fiction. Is this morally wrong?

Elizabeth Mountbatten was sitting in a treehouse in Kenya with her husband Philip on February 6th, 1952, when it happened. She had been filming wildlife with a cine camera, and ate scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast.

Seven thousand miles away, her father was dying peacefully in his sleep. Without knowing it, she had become the Queen of England.

This moment is retold in The Crown, a new Netflix series released today which has spent £100m recreating the life of the young Elizabeth II. But in the show, it is not elephants and rhinoceros that she was filming at the most crucial moment of her life. It was her husband’s bare bottom.

The show’s writer Peter Morgan — who wrote about another important time in her later life in his 2006 movie The Queen — had a team of historical researchers to warn him when something was ‘ridiculous’.

But The Crown’s two main characters, now 90 and 95, had ‘no involvement’ in the show, says Morgan. And telling the story of one of the most private families in the world involves using a lot of imagination. ‘It’s as if I was painting a portrait,’ says Morgan. ‘If absolute accuracy was all you were after you would take a photograph.’ Instead, personal conversations and feelings had to be invented.

Sometimes historical details are wrong. At other times, history is deliberately spun to make a better story — such as a plot line in which the Queen and Winston Churchill disagree over the Great Smog which engulfed London in December 1952. This is a ‘wholly bogus constitutional crisis’, complains the long-time royal writer Robert Hardman.

Overall, Morgan has been praised for his ability to imagine the inner lives of a royal family which almost never lets them show. ‘That’s what you’ve got to aim for, the truth rather than the accuracy,’ he says.

Royal treatment

And yet Hardman argues that it ‘leaves a sour taste in the mouth’. These are not fictional characters, or stuffy historical figures. They are a real couple, soon to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. It is ‘tawdry’ to put an imaginary version of their relationship on screen. ‘William Shakespeare had much to say on the monarchy. Yet had he done so while the kings he wrote about were still on the throne, he would not have lasted long.’

But nudity aside, The Crown is quite a positive portrayal of the royals. It ‘humanises’ them, says one reviewer, a useful bit of PR for people who can sometimes seem almost alien. So what if the details are fictional? The broad themes ring true. As for Shakespeare: we live in the second Elizabethan era, not the first. Writers should never be afraid of tackling powerful people — even if they might be watching on the royal TV.

You Decide

  1. Will you watch The Crown on Netflix?
  2. Is it disrespectful to create a semi-fictional drama about living people?

Activities

  1. Write a review of another TV drama that you watched recently.
  2. Write the opening scene for a television script about the life of a real person you admire — living or dead.

Some People Say...

“Fiction is far more truthful than fact.”

What do you think?

Q & A

It’s just a show…
True. But some people still feel uneasy when it comes to fictional portrayals of living people — especially well-known or controversial ones. Take The Iron Lady, a film made about Margaret Thatcher before she died. ‘It’s a fantastic piece of acting,’ said David Cameron at the time. ‘But why do we have to have this film right now?’
Will it change how people feel about the Queen?
Maybe. She is currently very popular among the British public, perhaps because she reveals very little about her inner life. ‘There is barely a person in Britain for whom she hasn’t been alive for every day of their life,’ points out Morgan. ‘She is my mother; she’s other people’s grandmother, and great-grandmother.’ It will be interesting to see how a more personal portrait affects that point of view.

Word Watch

Cine camera
By the 1950s, home movie cameras were readily available to those who could afford them.
Father
King George VI, who took the throne in 1936 when his brother abdicated in order to marry a divorced woman. George died of lung cancer and other illnesses when he was just 56.
£100m
Much of this was spent on recreating the costumes and sets of 1950s Britain. Or, as Matt Smith jokingly put it, ‘wigs cost a lot of money.’
Important time
The Queen was set in the period just after Princess Diana’s death in 1997.
Historical details
For example: when Philip is made a duke, a sword is placed on his shoulder as if he is being knighted. This is not how dukes are created. At another point, Lancaster bombers fly over Windsor Castle in a flashback to 1940 — but they were not invented until 1942.
Great Smog
The severe air pollution was created by the cold weather combining with emissions from nearby coal factories. It had a serious impact on Londoners’ health, and eventually led to the Clean Air Act.

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