Outrage against The Crown on Netflix misses the point of drama - David Behrens

You’d have thought that having been glued to it for three-quarters of a century, people would stop being sniffy about television. Yet there persists in some quarters the belief that it remains the theatre’s illegitimate child – a mutation in which populism is inseparable from philistinism.

Actually, there are countless examples of TV dramas that have managed to be both popular and peerless, from Brideshead Revisited to original and brilliant screenplays like Our Friends in the North.

I would place much of Peter Morgan’s work in that top tier of television, yet Wednesday’s premiere of The Crown, the fifth series of his epic imagining of life inside the House of Windsor, has been greeted by demands from some politicians for an on-screen warning that parts of it may have been made up.

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Putting disclaimers on art is a dangerous business. That’s why it’s never done at the theatre, or in a gallery. No-one has ever suggested that a “not real sunflowers” sign be hung over Van Gogh, or that visitors be told Dali’s clocks looked less like fried eggs before he painted them. To countenance such a thing would be to insult the audience.

Sir John Major said: “Fiction should not be paraded as fact”. PIC: Dan Kitwood/Getty ImagesSir John Major said: “Fiction should not be paraded as fact”. PIC: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Sir John Major said: “Fiction should not be paraded as fact”. PIC: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

More to the point, Shakespeare’s histories are never presented with a caution that they bear little resemblance to historical fact; they are allowed to stand by themselves as works of art. That is a licence seldom granted to television drama.

The irony of Peter Morgan’s portrayal of the Royals – and one his current critics tend to overlook – is that it has its roots in legitimate theatre. It began life in the West End as The Audience, a play that imagined what went on at the private meetings between the Queen and her Prime Ministers, from Churchill to Gordon Brown. It was a critical success, and everyone who saw it understood that the dialogue could never be more than conjecture – just as they recognised it was Helen Mirren on stage and not the actual Queen. That did not make the drama any less valid; it just made it theatrical.

The same is true of its television incarnation. The Crown has never claimed to be a documentary, yet to judge from the first reviews of the new series, one could be forgiven for thinking that in taking liberties with the truth, it had plumbed new depths in populist vulgarity.

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It hasn’t – although it is fair to say that in dealing with very recent events it finds it harder to surprise us than when burrowing through the dimly-remembered annals of the 1950s. The Crown at its best has been a chronicle of post-war Britain through the prism of one family: the Cambridge spy ring; the great smog of London; the tragedy of Aberfan. And with fewer of those historical counterpoints, this latest series does have one less dimension.

But that’s not reason enough for the trashing Sir John Major has given it. “Fiction should not be paraded as fact”, said the former PM, who must never have seen the stage version. But would any perceptive viewer think that’s what was happening? I doubt it.

Major’s criticism is based on a scene which dramatises his conversation with the future King Charles on whether the Queen might be persuaded to abdicate. We must accept his assertion that it is not a literal account of any actual exchange – but that’s not the point. The dramatic narrative, that a movement existed in the 1990s to modernise the monarchy, is well documented. Some members of the Court circle actively whispered of “QVS” or Queen Victoria Syndrome – a long-reigning monarch falling out of touch with her people. It’s a phrase Peter Morgan uses as an episode title, but it’s not one he made up.

As portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller, Major actually comes off better than he did in the 1990s, when he played himself. Morgan depicts him as offering wise counsel to Charles, and resistance to the Queen when she suggests that the Royal yacht Britannia – the “battleship with soft furnishings” that had become a metaphor for all that was outdated about the monarchy – be refitted at the taxpayers’ expense.

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Major’s worry is that The Crown will become a de facto history of its period, in the same way that he thinks the Henry VI saga must be a definitive account of the Wars of the Roses. (It isn’t; children study Shakespeare as literature, not history.) And anyway, if history is to be written down, isn’t it better done by a master dramatist than a Conservative politician?

Shakespeare was honest about his intentions. His aim, he says in his last performed line at the end of The Tempest, had been “to please”. Not to preach or educate; just please. He managed all three – but had he been writing for television would anyone have given him credit?