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What’s True, and What Isn’t

The first four episodes of the sixth and final series of The Crown dropped on Thursday, and immediately sparked the now-traditional round of criticism for taking liberties with the truth.

Leading the charge this time was the award winning historian A.N. Wilson who told Times Radio, that the Netflix series had become “rather cruel, horrible.” The award-winning author said the show had “started inventing things.”

Peter Morgan, the creator and chief writer of the show, is well-used to such brickbats. Last season was particularly notable for a broadside by former Prime Minister John Major who called one storyline featuring him “a barrel-load of malicious nonsense.” Major was backed up by Judi Dench who wrote to the London Times calling the show “cruel” and misleading.

Morgan could care less. He told Variety recently: “All the criticism about The Crown’s attitude to the royals comes in anticipation of the show coming out. The minute it’s out and people look at it—whether it’s Judi Dench or John Major—they instantly fall silent. And I think they probably feel rather stupid.”

It is fair to say, however that the four new episodes released do seem to stray even further from the historical record than previous series and episodes have. That may be because Morgan has set himself the task of tying up his fictional story while the real one, as we all know, continued—and continues merrily on.

Princess Diana having post-death conversations with both then-Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth as a kind of warmly-intentioned spirit has excited much comment.

When it comes to the still-living, a good example of Morgan’s instinct to square the narrative circle, even if at the expense of the boring old truth, comes in the first episode, when Charles hosts a 50th birthday party for Camilla Parker Bowles and is portrayed as annoyed that his mother won’t come, but his irritation is assuaged somewhat by the presence of Princess Margaret. She subsequently phones her sister, advising her to allow Charles and Camilla to have their way and be together with her blessing.

In fact, Princess Margaret did not attend the party in real life; but Morgan, of course, has a higher goal: urging us to recall how Margaret’s love affair with her father’s equerry, Peter Townsend, was stopped by the queen on the grounds he was divorced. It’s a neat, and plausible dramatic loop: Margaret’s story and experience informs her desire to see her nephew happy. You can complain about the veracity, but you can’t argue with the emotional impact as Margaret looks indulgently at Camilla, and wistfully imagines what might have been—and also hopes this new couple defy convention and win out in a romantic triumph denied to her years before.

Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in 'The Crown.'

Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in ‘The Crown.’

Des Willie/Netflix

It is true, as The Crown portrays, that Diana’s first trip to the South of France as the guest of Mohamed al-Fayed completely overshadowed that 50th birthday party, helped in large part by her decision to take a boat out to the waiting photographers and tell them, “You are going to get a big surprise with the next thing I do.”

It is also widely thought to be true that it was Fayed Sr. who hatched the plan for his son Dodi to marry Diana, summoned him to the South of France and urged him to break off his engagement with Kelly Fisher so he could try and wed Diana. As for engagement rings, CCTV footage presented to the 2007 inquiry into her death suggested Dodi did indeed buy a ring engraved with Dis-moi oui (French for “Tell me yes”), the title of the third episode.

Although a proposal was widely believed to have either not been made or to have been unsuccessful, Fayed claimed after Diana’s death that they were engaged.

The Crown cleverly suggests Fayed might have genuinely believed this was the case because Dodi, too cowardly to tell him the truth, secretly cuts him off when taking a phone call from him in front of Diana in which he pretends to be telling his father to stop micromanaging his romantic life. No one knows what happened in that room, of course, but narrative arc experts will note that the device allows Fayed to be a heartfelt grieving father, under the impression his loyal son was about to start an exciting new chapter in his life, rather than one scorned by his heir.

More importantly, this bit of invention also allows Diana and Dodi to have a fictionalized conversation just before they set off on their fatal last journey where he admits he cut his father off and she says she knows, and they accept each other for what they are—two damaged people in thrall to people, places and things way beyond their control.

In The Crown‘s reading, they are not romantically together at the time of their deaths—that fateful night, in Morgan’s imagining, they go from romantic couple to good friends, and ones with a mutual, healthy understanding of one another. This fictional sleight of hand allows them both separately to be at some kind of peace in death.

Keeping Mohamed Al-Fayed under the impression an engagement had occurred might also prove useful to Morgan when the second half of series six drops in December.

Rufus Kampa as Prince William, Dominic West as then-Prince Charles, and Fflyn Edwards as Prince Harry in 'The Crown.'

(l to r) Rufus Kampa as Prince William, Dominic West as then-Prince Charles, and Fflyn Edwards as Prince Harry in ‘The Crown.’

Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Another fascinating likely invention is the moment of understanding between Charles and Diana as Charles picks up the boys from Kensington Palace to go to Balmoral. It is, unbeknownst to them, their last meeting and they make a vow to be “brilliant at divorce.” It’s rather lovely, and don’t let the fact that there are no records or suggestions anywhere that it happened, diminish your appreciation of the artful moment of closure featuring the two chief warring parties of the show finding—at their imagined final physical meeting—peace.

The inventions or exaggerations keep coming thick and fast: there is no evidence, for example that Mohamed Al-Fayed tipped off paparazzo Mario Brenna about Diana and Dodi’s location although it has long been rumored; staid Scottish photographer Duncan Muir is a fictional character (the famous picture of Charles in a kilt with his sons was taken by Sun snapper Arthur Edwards); a press conference in Bosnia didn’t happen and therefore descend into farce with journalists shouting questions about whether Dodi was “a good kisser.”

However, Diana did indeed fly 160 miles in the Harrods helicopter to visit her psychic friend in Derbyshire, she did get shoehorned into visiting Villa Windsor in Paris, and Dodi did try unsuccessfully to throw off the paparazzi the night Diana died by leaving from the back door of the Ritz and sending decoys out the front. The driver Henri Paul was drinking alcohol at the bar of the Ritz on the night of crash.

Olivia Williams, left as Camilla, and Dominic West as Charles in 'The Crown.'

Olivia Williams, left as Camilla, and Dominic West as Charles in ‘The Crown.’

Netflix

Prince Charles did fly to Paris to bring Diana’s body home, but the idea that the queen objected to on the grounds she was, post-divorce, not an HRH is not accurate, according to Sally Bedell Smith who wrote in the London Times: “It was the queen who dispatched the aircraft to France, carrying her son as well as Diana’s sisters, Lady Jane Fellowes and Lady Sarah McCorquodale. The queen also decided instantly that despite the divorce from Charles, Diana was to be treated as a member of the royal family, with her own royal standard covering the coffin.” Bedell Smith also says that William did not run away for 14 hours into the Scottish Highlands, but “did on one occasion take a long walk in the hills.”

But to complain that The Crown is not historically accurate is to deliberately miss the point of watching it. Peter Morgan’s only crime is to be intensely aware he is writing a TV show, not a history book. The emotional truths and dramatic loops of the show ring true, and its detractors would do well to remember this is not a historical thesis, but a brilliant, nuanced soap opera—with an expert pilot in Morgan who knows, masterfully, how to craft a drama that is both intelligent and very dishy.



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