The end is near for The Crown, a show known for its top-notch acting and high production costs of approximately $277,000 per minute. However, it has faced criticism for its screenwriter, Peter Morgan, taking creative liberties with the dialogue of the royal family in both real and fictional scenarios. On Thursday, Netflix will release the first four episodes of the sixth and final season, with the remaining six episodes coming out next month. This season is expected to start with the tragic death of Princess Diana in Paris, although there are rumors that actress Elizabeth Debicki will make an appearance as her ghost. This suggests that Morgan and the production company, Left Bank Pictures, have not been deterred by previous controversies over their portrayal of the royal family.
However, as it comes to a close, it becomes evident that The Crown has initiated a significant change in the portrayal of royalty on both stage and screen. This is exemplified by two recent plays in London: Backstairs Billy, written by Marcelo dos Santos, delves into the dynamic between Queen Elizabeth and her loyal servant, Billy Tallon; and Jonathan Maitland’s The Interview delves into Princess Diana’s 1995 Panorama interview with Martin Bashir.
The two productions, The Interview and Backstairs Billy, both have connections to The Crown. The Interview explores the negotiations between Diana and Bashir, as well as the editing of the show at an Eastbourne hotel, similar to events in season five. In Backstairs Billy, Penelope Wilton portrays the queen mother in a play that delves into new territory. This is because Billy Tallon, who is not a character created by Morgan, is one of the few royals with limited historical information. Some have criticized Backstairs Billy for not acknowledging Tom Quinn’s biography on Tallon.
It is difficult to fathom that either production could exist without the influence of The Crown. It is also unlikely that there would be two movies in the works about Prince Andrew’s disastrous interview with Emily Maitlis on Newsnight: Netflix’s Scoop and Amazon Prime’s A Very Royal Scandal, featuring Rufus Sewell and Michael Sheen as the prince, and Gillian Anderson and Ruth Wilson as the interviewer.
The Andrew-Maitlis films draw inspiration from the genre created by Morgan and can be viewed as extensions of The Crown, as the misguided interview takes place after the events of the show. The term “morganatic” is used in royal protocol to describe a marriage where the spouse and any children are unable to inherit royal titles due to their lower social status. However, the series has given rise to a notable number of Peter-Morganatic productions: shows that intentionally or unintentionally trace their lineage back to the writer’s work. Examples include Red, White & Royal Blue (available on Amazon Prime), which follows the affair between the son of America’s first female president and the grandson of the British king, and Young Royals (available on Netflix), which depicts the scandalous journey of a Scandinavian prince who is sent to a British boarding school for rehabilitation.
This recent occurrence is due to Morgan deviating from the longstanding custom of showing deep respect for the Royals, which began as a legal requirement and persisted as a display of deference. Prior to 1968, all theater scripts in Britain had to be authorized by the Lord Chamberlain, who was a member of the royal household. Though often strict with censorship, the royal censors were particularly vigilant in safeguarding their patron.
According to Nicholas de Jongh’s book Politics, Prudery and Perversions, which discusses the history of theatre censorship, during the reign of George VI in 1936, scripts featuring Queen Victoria were not allowed to be read by the censor, despite her passing 35 years prior. Even then, it was unlikely for the censor to approve these scripts. Interestingly, British stage censorship came to an end after Chamberlain’s unsuccessful attempt to prohibit private “club” performances of Edward Bond’s play Early Morning in 1968. This play included a scandalous plot involving Queen Victoria, lesbianism, and cannibalism.
However, the perceived restriction on portraying a current monarch (which was also upheld in television) remained in place for another two decades due to a mix of remaining deference and concern over backlash from pro-monarchy politicians and media. In 1988, the National Theatre planned to stage Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution, starring Prunella Scales as the Queen. Artistic director Richard Eyre later revealed in his memoirs that he received “threats” from two Labour peers on the board, causing him to fear for his job.
Eyre was the victor, with the play receiving positive responses from viewers and causing no distress to traditionalists. In 1991, a televised adaptation on the BBC, known for its caution in regards to the monarchy, further loosened the restrictions surrounding the topic. Slowly but surely, the palace began to become more open, and Morgan’s works, including the 2006 film The Queen and the subsequent play The Audience, featuring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, ultimately led to the creation of The Crown.
According to reports, Netflix is the sole network capable of producing The Crown, with each episode estimated to cost $15 million. While this may be accurate, it is also worth noting that only a streaming service based in the United States, where the royal family holds more entertainment value than political power, would have taken on the challenge of creating a loosely based fictional series about the Windsors. This is made possible by their lack of regulation from Ofcom.
In the United Kingdom, fictional works about the royal family began to use broad satire and comedy as a means of distancing themselves. This trend was evident in shows such as ITV’s Spitting Image, which aired four years prior to the Queen’s appearance in National Theatre, and Channel 4’s The Windsors, which premiered around the same time as The Crown in 2016. The fact that this was also the year of the Queen’s 80th birthday reflects the changing attitudes towards the monarchy. However, the most significant and controversial aspect of The Crown was its use of quasi-documentary style acting and elaborate sets to depict the royal family.
Morgan approached the topic with caution, particularly when it came to portraying Queen Elizabeth II, portrayed by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, and now Imelda Staunton. In order to make the concept more understandable for an American audience who may not be familiar with a head of state who is separate from the head of government and remains apolitical, Morgan presents Elizabeth as a presidential figure who plays a crucial role in resolving the Suez crisis, orchestrating Winston Churchill’s removal as Prime Minister, and actively participating in Commonwealth and Falklands politics. A viewer who relies solely on the Netflix series for historical knowledge would likely be confused by the recent event of Charles III delivering a speech that conflicted with his previous opinions as Prince of Wales.
Unfortunately, we will never be able to confirm if Charles secretly objected to the words that Sunak instructed him to say. Similarly, we cannot know the exact conversation between the Queen and PM Anthony Eden during the Suez crisis. This lack of knowledge has created an opportunity for Morgan to thrive. He has cleverly recognized that the Windsors are like a blank canvas onto which he can project speeches and situations. This is especially true now that writers no longer face punishment, loss of employment, or social shame for doing so.
In my opinion, the highlight of the show is the episodes titled “Smoke and Mirrors” and “Terra Nullius”. “Smoke and Mirrors” follows the 1953 Coronation, which is watched by the exiled Duke of Windsor in France. “Terra Nullius” focuses on Charles and Diana’s visit to Australia. Since there was already a lot of information available about their lives, the writer, Morgan, did not have to distort any facts. As both Charles and Diana had previously given in-depth interviews about their marriage, it made sense for the drama to portray their story. The use of near-hologram acting effectively depicted the two major challenges that threatened the stability of the House of Windsor.
However, since the beginning, there were indications that the show would prioritize visual accuracy over factual accuracy, with side stories falsely implicating Prince Philip in his sister’s death and gossiping about the Queen’s relationship with her racing trainer. Morgan’s preferred storytelling approach involves intertwining two stories, even if they occurred years apart. In Bubbikins, the exile of Prince Philip’s mother to England happens during the filming of the 1968 BBC documentary The Royal Family (which did not happen), and the conflict is resolved by a fictional Guardian journalist writing a piece that never actually existed.
Changing the order of events might make the story more organized, but Morgan appears to increasingly display callous emotional behavior, specifically targeting a particular aristocratic family. In season four’s Gold Stick episode, Nicholas Knatchbull, a teenager, is killed and his brother Timothy is seriously injured in an IRA attack on their grandfather, Lord Mountbatten. While this event did occur, Morgan includes it as background footage while Prince Charles reads a letter from Mountbatten that has no real evidence. In The System, the death of another Knatchbull, five-year-old Leonora from cancer, is used solely as a plot device to depict Prince Philip comforting and becoming overly familiar with her mother, Lady Romsey. What is the reason behind this intrusive portrayal of private grief?
The inclusion of personal attacks in The Crown sparked significant backlash from both the political and journalistic communities. As a result, Netflix agreed to add a disclaimer before season five stating that the show is a work of fiction. However, this was a minor compromise with no impact on the show’s financial or creative decisions. The Crown’s portrayal of privacy and accuracy has also greatly influenced other depictions of the royal family, often crossing boundaries set by traditional royal protocol.
In the latest production of Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe, the characters portraying the king and queen are shown wearing replicas of Charles and Camilla’s coronation attire. This is a daring reference, considering the disastrous results of Macbeth’s reign. Meanwhile, at the National Theatre (whose patron is Queen Camilla), a new play titled Death of England: Closing Time, written by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams, features a crude speech mocking the new monarch as a 74-year-old man who has never held a job.
This is evidence of our progress since 1968, with The Crown paving the way. If Diana’s spirit appears in season six, she has already been portrayed in The Interview, where playwright Maitland argues that the BBC should not have withdrawn the Panorama interview. In Backstairs Billy, there is a fabricated scene depicting the queen mother humiliating her page (involving dog excrement) to assert her dominance. This can be seen as a metaphor for the Windsors’ treatment of relatives and staff, a theme introduced by Morgan. In the same production, Penelope Wilton maintains her own warm and round tone, rather than imitating the queen mother’s cold and clipped voice – another nod to The Crown, where the three queens speak in a less posh manner than archived footage suggests in order to connect with viewers.
Although season five of The Crown received criticism from friends of the King, such as John Major and Judi Dench, for being too imaginative and invasive, the true thoughts of senior royals are unlikely to ever be revealed. However, there is a curious suggestion. An actor from The Crown and another from The Windsors, both of whom have met the royals before through charity events and movie premieres, confided in me that they were discreetly advised by the palace to avoid participating in recent handshaking receiving lines. This was to prevent any potential offense that may arise from an encounter between the actor and the royal they portrayed.
This is known as the Morgan phenomenon. With the popularity of The Crown, it is possible that there will be a decrease in the number of Equity members who receive invitations to Buckingham Palace garden parties.