The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The British royal family is struggling through scandals. Can ‘The Crown’ help?

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles walk behind the Imperial State Crown as they arrive Dec. 19 for the State Opening of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London. Queen Elizabeth enjoys an enduring popularity politicians would die for. (Aaron Chown/AP)

If you want a sense of how much the world has changed since Britain’s Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, look up.

On the day she was crowned in 1953, word reached London that two members of a British-led expedition to Mount Everest had become the first to conquer the world’s highest peak. Rule Britannia, and all that. Fast-forward to last May, when a photo of more than 300 climbers queuing for the summit went viral.

Ascending Everest remains no mean feat — the endeavor has been made more dangerous because of the human logjam — but the photo by climber Nirmal Purja seemed to reinforce what many had already sensed. With too many mountaineers, too much trash, too many fatalities, Everest has lost its mojo, its mystique. Queen Elizabeth, meanwhile, hangs on to hers even as creators of the hit Netflix series “The Crown” attempt to reveal her inner psyche.

Now 93 and on the throne longer than any other British monarch, Elizabeth has been the glue that has helped to hold her fractious country together. She enjoys an enduring popularity politicians would die for — a 72 percent approval rating, according to pollsters YouGov, compared with 35 percent for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Going through the existential spasms of Brexit and the tumult that has roiled the country for the past three years, Britons enjoy a steadfast presence of Elizabeth, still attending to her queenly duties and assiduously avoiding the minefield of domestic and global politics.

But does “The Crown” harm or help the royals at a time when the waters have turned choppy of late? There is that reported rift between the princes William and Harry, and Harry and Meghan — the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — have declared war against the tabloids in the courts, an approach the royal family typically has avoided in the past. More ominously, there are the accusations of sexual misconduct against Prince Andrew, who gave a television interview generally considered a public relations train wreck. He has since, as one royals expert put it, been “de-royaled.”

Robert Lacey, a royals expert and historical consultant to “The Crown,” believes the series has done the royal family a service, especially to a new generation of voyeurs.

“Peter Morgan and modern television have brought them to life and made them so relevant and powerful,” Lacey said.

“The Crown,” over the past three seasons, strives not to lift the veil so much as tear it away. The queen, her husband Prince Philip, her late sister Princess Margaret and her eldest children — Prince Charles and Princess Anne — are fully realized as characters with all the flaws and foibles of mere jet-setting celebrities.

‘The Crown’ has returned, and royal Wikipedia pages are exploding in page views

Prince Philip is besotted by a Russian ballerina in one episode and linked to Britain’s biggest postwar political sex scandal, the Profumo Affair, in another. Elizabeth is slow off the mark and feigning tears when the coal slurry avalanche smothers the children of Aberfan, Wales, a real and nationally traumatizing disaster in 1966. She is out shopping for racehorses when her husband’s uncle plots to overthrow the socialist government. Margaret cavorts with President Lyndon B. Johnson to win a big loan from the Yanks. Princess Anne has a fling with the future husband of Camilla Shand, the same Camilla who would later marry her brother Prince Charles. The War of the Waleses — Charles and Diana — awaits viewers. Monarchists are trembling in anticipation.

Season 3, which began Nov. 17, covers the period from 1964 to 1977. The young Elizabeth of the first two seasons (played by the serene Claire Foy) is replaced by the older Olivia Colman, who is much colder but definitely not so cool. Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) is a callow bundle of insecurity and suppressed rage, and Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) is irresistibly feisty and sardonic.

“It’s increasingly embroidered,” said Sally Bedell Smith, the Washington-based biographer of Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. “Really, whole cloth in some places.”

In the episode “Margaretology,” Princess Margaret attends a White House dinner with President Johnson, disses Jacqueline Kennedy, tries to drink the president under the table and recites bawdy limericks.

“They twist them around to make them whatever they want them to be,” said Hugo Vickers, author of a new book titled “The Crown Dissected.” “I don’t mind Edward and Mrs. Simpson,” he said, referring to a now-ancient TV miniseries about the abdication of King Edward VIII, the queen’s uncle. “But the queen is still head of state. It’s too close.”

Vickers is not alone. Unlike other biographical dramas about the royals, “The Crown” has engendered a cottage industry in the forensic examination of story lines as journalists and longtime close chroniclers of the Windsors seek to separate what is known from what is depicted.

Netflix’s third season of “The Crown,” which debuted Nov. 17, is based on the life of Queen Elizabeth II in the 1960s and 1970s. (Video: The Washington Post)

Other biographical dramas have not engendered such scrutiny. Why? Vickers and others say that because it is based on real and famous people, because the production values are so rich and convincing and the writing and acting so polished, viewers are unable to distinguish what is real from what is embellished. The show’s creator, Peter Morgan, works in a continuum from known fact to pure fantasy but in a such seamless fashion that the viewer doesn’t know, or even care, which is which.

Smith says she has given more than 100 talks across the United States for her biography of Prince Charles, published in 2017. “Practically the entire Q and As are devoted to ‘The Crown.’ They take it as gospel. I can’t walk into a room without spending the evening explaining it. It’s quite an extraordinary phenomenon.”

Morgan has built his career as a dramatist on the royals. He wrote the screenplay to “The Queen,” the 2006 movie starring Helen Mirren set at the time of Princess Diana’s shocking death and Elizabeth’s halting reaction to it — seen as one of the few missteps in a reign of nearly 68 years. Mirren won an Oscar for her performance.

Morgan also created “The Audience,” a hit play in which he imagines the private meetings held each week between the queen and the prime minister. Boris Johnson is just the latest. She has worked with 14, including Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

Lacey says it’s the power of storytelling that breathes life into history, using what he calls “legitimate invention.”

He points to the scene in “The Queen” when Elizabeth is stranded alone in the Scottish Highlands and comes face to face with a buck, crowned with antlers. Such a deer was captured in a famous 19th-century painting titled “The Monarch of the Glen.” “No one imagines the queen in her life has spoken to a stag in the highlands of Scotland,” Lacey said. “It’s total imagination, but it contains a very profound historical truth — two endangered species looking at each other.”

The dramatic license in “The Crown,” he argues, serves to humanize the queen and those around her. “As I see it, everything in ‘The Crown’ is true, either historically or imaginatively,” he says.

Attention ‘The Crown’ fanatics: Your royal education continues with these recent books

He has joined the fact-fiction debate in a new book, “The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle, and the Years That Defined Elizabeth II.”

Smith is sanguine about the series’ liberties but voices some worries. She recently deconstructed some of the depicted incidents in an article in Air Mail. (She was an adviser to Morgan in “The Audience.”)

“Olivia Colman in the current season portrays her in a significantly less flattering light,” Smith said. “I’m not sure what they are building up to but certainly the trend in the third series is to depict her as emotionally straitened and in some ways cold and even cruel to her son.”

Vickers is still incensed over an episode in the second season, when a flashback has the teenage Philip attending the funeral of his sister. She was killed in a plane crash flying to a wedding in London, though the script has her coming to Britain to see her brother. “The worst thing they did was to cook up a story to blame Prince Philip for the death of his sister, which is so disgusting and outrageous,” Vickers says. We don’t know if the royal family watches “The Crown,” but Vickers says Philip “was very upset about it. I know that.”

Chronologies are jumbled to fit the story. In one episode, the Duke of Gloucester appears resplendent in his morning coat adorned with medals. “Good of them to take so much trouble to dress him up,” Vickers writes. “By then he had been dead for three years.”

The entire series, Morgan writes in a foreword to Lacey’s book, “is underpinned by a vast and exhaustive amount of research, analysis, thought, care and consideration.”

“The relationship between history and narrative, fact and fiction, is much more fluid and unreliable, but also more interesting, than anyone might imagine.”

The Victorian journalist Walter Bagehot seems to have hit upon the importance of the monarch’s mystique with his oft-quoted remark: “We must not let in daylight upon magic.”

“The Crown,” Smith says, “is not real people, it’s reimagined people, so I don’t know if there’s going to be any daylight brought in on the magic.” She says Princess Diana’s revelations in Andrew Morton’s 1992 book, “Diana: Her True Story,” were far more damaging because “it was a genuine inside story that stripped away a lot of that magic.”

Lacey thinks Morgan has achieved the impossible with “The Crown.” “He does shine the light, but the magic has actually been preserved and given a fresh shot of life.”

More from Lifestyle:

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