How historically accurate is The Crown? If events and characters are true to life - and how the show is researched

The latest season of The Crown has been beleaguered with complaints that the show is unacceptably inaccurate.

Depicting the lives of the Royal Family, along with Margaret Thatcher and other prominent political figures of the 1970s and 80s, the Netflix series fictionalises real events - and has attracted much controversy in doing so.

UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has gone as far as suggesting that Netflix carries a “fiction warning” along with the series to affirm that the events depicted are not factual.

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Yet while the creators themselves do not claim the show is entirely historically accurate, a huge amount of energy and time is invested in research, whether around accents, costumes or set design.

The show's creators take some dramatic license with historical events.The show's creators take some dramatic license with historical events.
The show's creators take some dramatic license with historical events.

From the creators of the drama themselves, this is how storylines, characters, costumes and sets are researched, using a wealth of historical materials and living sources.

Are The Crown’s storylines based on real life?

Peter Morgan, creator and showrunner on the series, has existing knowledge of the Royal Family, having written the script for 2006 film, The Queen.

He describes how there has to be a “push-pull” between “the things that I want to be the case” and “things that are the case”, saying that “the drama suffers” when research of factual events is too heavily focused on.

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In response to criticisms around the show’s alleged inaccuracies, he explains:

“Central to what we’re doing here is the acceptance that people want the act of an imagination too. They don’t just want a regurgitation.

“You’re putting on the television and part of you is thinking, did this happen? Did this not happen? Is there any truth in this? I don’t want to feel like I’m being completely hoodwinked…”

The show’s creators are, however, creating a work of fiction - and building many scenes for which no historical record exists, meaning they take some license with history.

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As such, there are a number of moments throughout series four which do not parallel what happened in real life: Prince Charles receiving a letter from Mountbatten the day before the latter’s death; Princess Diana choosing her own engagement ring; Margaret Thatcher being “tested” at Balmoral.

Other shocking events that occur in the series, however, were lifted from real events - such as Prince Charles’ “whatever in love means” comment during his engagement interview with Diana.

Diana’s surprise dance in New York really did happen - though Charles’ response to the dance was not recorded. Diana also really did suffer from bulimia, as depicted in the series.

Morgan works very closely with the research team throughout, and discusses scripts at length with other members of the production team.

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The research team fact check scripts and annotate them, sending them back to Morgan every night.

Suzanne Mackie, Executive Producer on the show, says that the “incredibly extensive” research team’s knowledge is impressive, and “is the nucleus of The Crown”.

Head of Research, Annie Sultzberger, is part of a five-strong team who help Morgan “write the scripts and organise his thoughts about how he thinks the series will go”.

After that point, the team disperse and help the other departments with things like writing biographies, finding visual information for the art department, or giving information on what type of dog would be right for a scene.

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“It’s rare to have a show that cares this much about getting things right”, she explains, saying that research gets as specific as “the baby toys in Prince William’s room – were they created in 1982 or have we featured something that was a little bit too late or too early for him to have in that room? It’s that level of research and detail that makes the show particularly special”.

How do the team research characters?

The “wealth of material on Diana”, says Sultzberger, made research much easier for season four. Diana’s own lack of “poker face” helped too, she explains:

“One of the great things, and very useful things, about Diana is she did not have a poker face.

“Whereas the other Royals may have been a bit opaque about how they reacted to certain events, she does not have that ability... Her body language is actually very useful for

us to try to understand her own perspective”.

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Other resources used by the research team for characters included people who accompanied the Royals on tours, Andrew Morton’s 1992 book on Diana (for which Diana was the main source) and the authorised Jonathan Dimbleby biography for Prince Charles.

The team also used Thatcher documentaries to build her character, as well as a number of books.

While the relationship between the Queen and Thatcher was never publicly commented on by either, the research team gathered information from those who surrounded the pair on the state of their relationship - which was shown in the series to be frosty at times.

Some of the actors get involved in character research themselves, with Gillian Anderson (playing Thatcher) attending an interview with Thatcher’s real-life cabinet secretary.

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The research team creates “packs” for all the actors which give them a broad overview of the character’s events and their relationships with others. They are also recommended “Bible books” - the team’s most trusted resources - to read for their character.

David Rankin-Hunt, an ex member of the Royal household, also helps creators with insider details and etiquette.

Sultzberger adds that “there are more insiders who are alive” for the current series, given it’s set in more recent history than earlier seasons.

The show also has a dialect coach, William Conacher, who helps actors perfect their accents using recordings of the real people and vocal techniques.

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Polly Bennett is a movement coach on the show who simultaneously watches and reads “everything I can about each character as a way of probing what I call their ‘movement heritage’” before helping the actors to emulate them.

How are sets and backgrounds created?

Martin Childs and Alison Harvey have the task of designing sets for The Crown, and go to great lengths for historical accuracy.

Childs says he begins the process of design by “deconstructing the scripts, episode by episode. Each gets its own large sheet of paper – it will start with, say, a bubble in the middle to represent Buckingham Palace, then arrows out from that will represent journeys, how the journeys are undertaken.

“From these I become aware of narrative shapes and these in turn get me thinking about how much I need to distinguish between these places in order to tell them apart in terms of scale, landscape, light, colour, familiarity, strangeness.”

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He says one “eureka” moment for designing Thatcher’s settings was discovering her “fondness for beige”.

As part of his research, Childs actually went to Buckingham Palace “disguised as a tourist” and “left confident” that he could recreate the state rooms.

The team used Spanish filming locations to shoot parts set in Australia, and for scenes in New York, transformed parts of Manchester.

How were the costumes chosen?

When it comes to costumes, says Costume Designer Amy Roberts, “everything starts from the scripts”:

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“You read the stories, immerse yourself in them, see where the arc of each episode goes and the journey of each character”.

From there, the team will use a “wealth of photographic, in books and magazines” to create a “pictoral journey” for each main character which goes up on a “huge wall” in the studio.

“I do tend to do a mass of research, absorb it then “forget about it” and just get on with

DOING it. Those images, colours and period details do stay in your mind but it’s good to

be free of them to put your own stamp on things”, she adds.

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There’s even a specific team on The Crown whose role it is to deal with dressing people featuring in big crowd scenes - no mean feat, given series four features everyone from Argentinian oil workers to New York socialites.

“Each and every crowd artist is fitted, and their age and type is carefully taken into account resulting in a visually true representation of large and varied groups of people”, says Roberts.