For some fans of The Crown, the hit Netflix series provides a fascinating insight into the life of Queen Elizabeth II and her role in British history. But critics of the show have warned against taking the events depicted in the narrative as a matter of factual public record. That’s because the program is known to bend the truth in the interests of adding drama. Indeed, it’s led to calls for a disclaimer to be added to the show.
The first series of The Crown was released on Netflix in November 2016. The historical drama tells the story of the present British Queen’s reign from her 1947 wedding to Prince Philip and, by the end of its run, is set to take audiences up to the early 21st century. And the action mainly focuses on the personal and political lives of the British monarch.
The Crown was devised by writer Peter Morgan, who’s no stranger to the subject-matter. He was responsible for the Oscar-winning 2006 movie The Queen, which saw Helen Mirren star as Elizabeth II. The author also penned the play The Audience, which examines the British monarch’s relationship with the prime ministers who have served the country during her reign.
So when it came to creating The Crown Morgan was on familiar territory. But bringing the drama to life would require a lot of background work. Across roughly 30 months, a specialist team interviewed people close to the royals and scoured biographies, cabinet minutes, and archives before the writer even put pen to paper.
Another crucial part of The Crown was to be its cast. The initial line-up for the show saw Claire Foy and Matt Smith take starring roles as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip for the first two series. They have subsequently been replaced by Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies, who play the monarch and her husband, respectively in Season Three and Season Four.
Recreating the world of the British monarchy for our TV screens did not come cheap. As of 2019, The Crown was said to have set Netflix back at least $150 million. As such, the drama has been dubbed the “most expensive TV show” of all time. And the hefty price tag has been – at least, in part – down to its creators’ apparent pursuit of authenticity.
Take, for example, a scene lasting less than ten minutes depicting Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding from Season One. To recreate this historic moment, the production team decamped to Ely Cathedral in England for an entire working week. What’s more, both the bride and groom’s outfits in the series were almost exact reproductions, with the gown Foy wore apparently costing an impressive $37,000.
This exacting attention to detail is one of the reasons The Crown appears to have resonated with audiences so strongly. The fact that the show looks so expensive has seemingly bolstered its authenticity in the eyes of viewers. As such, it often feels like we’re getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the private realms of Queen Elizabeth and her family.
Needless to say then, The Crown soon proved to be a hit with audiences and critics alike. In 2020 Netflix revealed the drama had been watched by 73 million households across the world. Meanwhile, the series has clocked up a whole host of award nominations and accolades, including three Golden Globes.
But despite the overwhelming praise for The Crown, the series has also faced its fair share of backlash. Perhaps the most pertinent of all the criticisms that the show has faced are the concerns over the accuracy of its narrative. That’s because it’s been suggested that the events that unfold in the show are perhaps not as true-to-life as they may appear.
The trouble is that many viewers of The Crown are not very clued-up on the major figures and events that have rocked Britain during the reign of Elizabeth II. So the narrative depicted in the popular series can appear as a kind of history lesson. But there are many examples where the gripping plot hasn’t been factually accurate.
Even looking as far back as Season One, critics of The Crown have raised questions over the show’s historical accuracy. For instance, the series suggests that Prince Philip was not keen on taking the knee in front of his wife at her coronation in 1952. In reality, though, having connections to both the Danish and Greek thrones, Philip was no doubt well-used to such customs.
The Crown’s portrayal of Philip in Season Two casts him in an even poorer light. As well as apparently severely overstating the raucous nature of the Thursday Club to which he belongs, the narrative raises a number of questions over his fidelity. In fact, the show appears to suggest the Duke of Edinburgh was romantically involved with the ballerina Galina Ulanova, as well as being unfaithful to the Queen while on an official tour.
In reality, while Prince Philip’s fidelity has long been called into question, there’s no proof that he’s been unfaithful to the Queen. Perhaps the most noteworthy accusation was that the Duke of Edinburgh had an affair with English stage actress Pat Kirkwood, though she fervently denies the rumor. And while Galina Ulanova did come to London in 1956, it’s likely she had no connection to the royal.
It’s also been suggested that the portrayal of some of the Queen’s relationships in The Crown are largely fictitious. In Season One, we see the young monarch turning to her uncle the Duke of Windsor for counsel. But he had been largely ostracized from the royal family after abdicating from his position as King Edward VIII in 1936, especially given his subsequent links to the Nazis. As such, it seems unlikely that Elizabeth would have leaned on him for support.
By way of contrast, the early seasons of The Crown portray Elizabeth as having a wholly formal relationship with Winston Churchill. In the show, the Prime Minister acts as a kind of mentor to the young monarch. But in reality, the pair apparently shared a much friendlier relationship.
In real life, the Queen and Churchill reportedly had much in common, and the Prime Minister was a friend of her parents. Moreover, in later life, when asked about her favorite prime minister, Elizabeth allegedly replied, “Winston, of course, because it was always such fun.” So while he was undoubtedly strong-willed and sometimes stern, Churchill was also arch and playful too.
While we’re on the subject of Churchill, fans of The Crown might remember the Prime Minister’s secretary Venetia Scott. She loses her life in Season One when she is hit by a bus during the Great Smog that affected London in 1952. And while thousands of people did indeed lose their lives during the incident, Scott wasn’t one of them, because the character is entirely fictional.
Even if Scott had existed, and indeed died in the Great Smog, chances are it wouldn’t have been down to being hit by a bus. That’s because the incident led to the suspension of all public transport. In The Crown, Scott’s death propels Churchill to finally take action over the issue. But in reality, the government’s slow response to the smog was probably simply because it was caught on the hop by the freak event.
While The Crown’s take on the Great Smog may rely heavily on artistic license, the event did take place – as did the Aberfan Mine Disaster of 1966. While the show captures the heart-wrenching tragedy of the incident – which killed 144 people, of which 116 were children – it has been accused of playing fast and loose with the facts of the catastrophe.
In The Crown, the Queen responds to the emotional expectation on her in the wake of the Aberfan Disaster by faking her tears. But according to reports, the monarch was genuinely moved by the incident, despite taking eight days to visit the Welsh mining village. The show’s also accused of downplaying the failures which led to the incident.
Season Four – the most recent series – has also come under fire for rewriting history to suit the needs of its story arc. Much of the narrative revolves around Prince Charles and his doomed marriage to Princess Diana. But a number of events depicted on screen didn’t occur in real life.
In the show, Charles and Diana meet while the young prince is visiting Lady Sarah Spencer. Here he comes across a teenage Diana who is dressed in a school play costume. Later, when Charles tells Sarah about the encounter, she suggests her younger sister may have orchestrated their meeting on purpose.
Away from the work of fiction though, it’s likely that Charles first came across Diana at the royal estate of Sandringham, which is where the future princess spent much of her childhood and not her family home, as the show depicts. Their first meaningful encounter did happen at the Spencers’ estate, though. That came in 1977 when the prince attended a hunting party.
Charles admitted to being charmed by Diana. Following their engagement in 1981, the prince said of their first meeting, “I remember thinking what a very jolly and amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was. I mean, great fun, and bouncy and full of life and everything.” But the good times were not to last for the couple.
In The Crown the warning signs that Charles and Diana’s relationship is doomed are clear from early on. At one point in the show, Princess Margaret urges the rest of the royal family to consider calling the wedding off. But, if the Queen’s sister did voice her concerns about the marriage in real life, they were never aired publicly.
So it’s clear, then, that there are glaring inconsistencies between some of the events depicted in The Crown and what actually happened in reality. As such, there have been some calls for the show to state more explicitly that it’s a work of fiction. Some have even demanded that Netflix displays an official disclaimer stating this at the start of each episode.
Among the more prominent figures to have voiced their concerns about inaccuracies in The Crown is Diana’s brother, Charles, the 9th Earl Spencer. Appearing on the British morning TV show Lorraine in 2020 Earl Spencer told the creators of the series, “You just have to be honest with the consumer.”
Earl Spencer added, “I think it would help The Crown an enormous amount if, at the beginning of each episode, it stated that ‘This isn’t true, but it is based around some real events.’ Then, everyone would understand it’s drama for drama’s sake… I worry people do think that this is gospel, and that’s unfair.”
British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has also asked Netflix to be more upfront about the artistic liberties taken on The Crown. In November 2020 Dowden told the U.K.’s Mail on Sunday newspaper, “It’s a beautifully produced work of fiction. So as with other TV productions, Netflix should be very clear at the beginning it is just that.”
While The Crown has faced backlash on account of its apparent historical inaccuracies, some people who work on the show have defended their decision to stray from the truth. Robert Lacey serves as the series’ historical consultant. And he has claimed that the drama draws on artistic license to imply wider meanings and feelings within the narrative.
In November 2020 Lacy told Town & Country magazine, “There are two sorts of truth. There’s historical truth and then there’s the larger truth about the past.” He explained, “When history gets departed from, it’s not done casually. It’s done on the basis of wanting to convey a particular message that can only be conveyed by invention.”
It seems that, when it comes to addressing The Crown’s historical inaccuracies, though, even the cast is split. When Helena Bonham Carter – who plays Princess Margaret on the show – addressed the concerns on The Crown: The Official Podcast, she said, “I do feel very strongly because I think we have a moral responsibility to say, ‘Hang on guys, it’s not a drama doc, we’re making a drama.’ They are different entities.”
In contrast, Josh O’Connor, who plays Prince Charles on The Crown called Dowden’s calls for a disclaimer to be added to the show as “outrageous.” Speaking on the Los Angeles Times newspaper’s podcast The Envelope, the actor described the Culture Secretary’s comments as “a bit of a low blow.”
During O’Connor’s appearance on The Envelope in December 2020 the actor claimed that viewers were able to separate fact from fiction on their own. He said, “My personal view is that audiences understand. You have to show them the respect and understand that they’re intelligent enough to see it for what it is, which is pure fiction.”
Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown, has also addressed the historical inaccuracies in the show. Referring to a letter Lord Mountbatten writes to Prince Charles telling him to find “some sweet and innocent well-tempered girl with no past,” Morgan told the show’s official podcast, “I made [it] up in my head.”
Defending the decision to include the fabricated letter in the plot, Morgan said, “Whether it’s right or wrong – what we know is that Mountbatten was really responsible for taking Charles to one side at precisely this point and saying, ‘Look, you know, enough already with playing the field. It’s time you got married and it’s time you provided an heir.’”
Indeed Morgan has said that writing The Crown inevitably had to be a careful balancing act. In November 2020 he told London-based newspaper The Evening Standard that there was “a constant push-pull” between fact and fiction. He added, “I’ve learned, to my cost, that when you’re really only focused on research, the drama suffers. You have to come at it as a dramatist.”
So despite calls for Netflix to be more open about the fictitious nature of The Crown the streaming service said it had “no plans… to add a disclaimer” to the show. In a statement obtained by entertainment news site Deadline.com in December 2020, a spokesman said, “We have always presented The Crown as a drama – and we have every confidence our members understand it’s a work of fiction that’s broadly based on historical events.”
And in the end, it’s likely that The Crown’s ability to expertly blur the lines between fact and fiction is part of the reason the show’s so popular. In 2019 historian Greg Jenner told the BBC that the series “depicts [the royals’ lives as] a soap opera.” He claimed that this dramatic adaptation “makes us believe that we know more about the royal family than we actually do.”