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The Crown: Does season 5 go too far in dramatising Royal Family trauma?

The 1990s were not a great time for the Royal Family. Is the “annus horribilis” fair game for drama in The Crown season 5?

Tony Blair’s spokesperson called it “complete and utter rubbish”. Blair’s predecessor as PM, Sir John Major, went even further, labelling season five of Netflix’s The Crown “profoundly hurtful to a family who are still grieving for the very person on whose life the entire drama was founded.” Controversy surrounds the return of The Crown for its fifth season.

The 1990s were not a great time for the Royal Family. And showing behind-the-scenes scheming to unseat Queen Elizabeth II from the throne, the marriages of her children breaking down, and events that lead to her “annus horribilis” speech on Christmas Day 1992 might seem cruel, coming so soon after her death. And that’s before the bigger question, which is being asked increasingly loudly. Should the expensive Netflix hit be reimagining life inside and around the Royal Family at all?

Let’s address that one first. Because it is through drama and storytelling that our opinions are challenged and remade… as long as the drama is well made and the stories ring true. So making the show is valid. But it is vital that its quality control and integrity remain high.

So The Crown goes in to season five under pressure, but riding the crest of a wave of publicity. It’s the high-class Royal soap opera – and everyone’s talking about it. Major, in his letter to the Telegraph newspaper, continued. “Netflix may well take the view that any publicity is good publicity. But I assure them it is not.” On this, Major is very wrong.

Because this wave of publicity, these questions over whether The Crown should even exist, will drive viewers to the series. As the nights draw in, and we all reach for binge-able drama. So The Crown remains one to watch – both to enjoy and to form an opinion on.

But could opinion turn against the series? In short, is The Crown still any good?

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Given that more and more of us know, or think we know, much of the story of The Crown’s penultimate season, there is added pressure to shock, confound and surprise.

The Queen is now played by the dependably brilliant Imelda Staunton, who follows in the bootprints of Olivia Colman and Claire Foy. Staunton plays the version of The Queen many of us recall. The series shows Elizabeth II’s relevance and relatability gradually receding in the early 1990s. But Staunton is understated and effective.

Imelda Staunton plays Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, Season Five.
Imelda Staunton plays Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, Season Five. Image: Netflix

So there are few surprises, and should be few alarms for worried Royalists, in her depiction of Queen Elizabeth II – although the belaboured implied comparisons with the royal yacht Britannia are unnecessary.

Dominic West as the Royal formerly known as Prince Charles is altogether more problematic. West takes over from Josh O’Connor, whose performance – particularly in the Aberfan episode of series three – has been one of the most powerful in the series to date. He’s a tough act(or) to follow, and though the well-to-do accent comes naturally to old-Etonian West, the vocal mannerisms we have come to know from the new King are less apparent.

More importantly, in West’s portrayal, Charles is no longer the socially awkward, bumbling misfit, shoehorned into the most powerful family in the country. There were already signs, as The Crown series four showed cracks appear almost immediately in his relationship with Princess Diana, of a new steeliness. A cruelty, even.

But Charles begins season five as a scheming manipulator, pulling the levers, working the angles, stalking the corridors of political power. Succession fans might wonder how he’s gone from Cousin Greg to Kendall Roy overnight as West’s own charisma threatens to overpower the character who just can’t wait to be king.

By contrast, Elizabeth Debecki is dynamite as Diana. Watching her mental turmoil as she consciously uncouples from the Royal Family feels almost too painful but in terms of acting out this spiral of sorrow, Debecki picks up the baton beautifully from the outstanding Emma Corrin.

Elizabeth Debicki is dynamite as Princess Diana in The Crown.
Elizabeth Debicki is dynamite as Princess Diana in The Crown. Image: Keith Bernstein / Netflix

Scenes featuring Diana feel like hundreds of Daily Express covers from the early 1990s taking flight. Half remembered iconic images and outfits spark into life. But the sadness lingers. Because these scenes remind us we are watching far more than a storyline in a TV drama – and we all know how this will end.

Lesley Manville is one of the great actors of any era. So Princess Margaret is in safe hands as she takes over from Helena Bonham Carter. Flashes of rebelliousness, the heartbreaks that live on behind the eyes, it is all in Manville’s moving portrait of Margaret’s later years. Viewers may wish she was given more moments to shine.

Completing the most senior Royals roll call is Jonathan Pryce – moving seamlessly from Game of Thrones to The Crown, just as the originator of the Prince Philip role, Matt Smith, goes in the opposite direction. Like West as Charles, he is less instantly recognisable as the Queen’s consort than his predecessors. And after the racy early days of Smith in the role and Tobias Menzies continuing Smith’s work in showing Philip finding his purpose, he is sidelined in early episodes. Few will be gripped by his mission to turn Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone) on to the sport of carriage driving.

Horsing around? Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone) in The Crown.
Horsing around? Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone) in The Crown. Image: Keith Bernstein / Netflix

And how about TV critic of the moment, John Major? Well, he’s played by Trainspotting alumnus Jonny Lee Miller. Intriguing casting. And in Miller’s hands, Major is not the dour grey Spitting Image puppet of popular memory. Instead, he has a sly humour about him, a sense of detachment, appearing confident, cunning and wryly amused by his unexpected role in the royal soap opera as it unfolds all around him.

It’s certainly a take. And an interesting and surprising one. But it hardly matches up with memories from the time. And that is important.

Jonny Lee Miller as John Major.
Jonny Lee Miller as John Major. Image: Netflix

Because when the history we are seeing dramatised on screen is so recent, anything that goes beyond challenging our preconceptions to actively contradicting our real-life recall of events and characters is a distraction.

So however much this period in royal history remains fascinating and the family psychodrama in The Crown remains compelling, in every episode something reminds us – much more than any pre-credits disclaimer ever could – that this is not only a fictionalised account, but one that is increasingly struggling to meet expectations.

The Crown season five is available on Netflix from 9 November

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