A health warning at the start of every episode of The Crown is the least a decent company would do to stop Netflix viewers accepting show’s mendacious attacks on Royals as truth, writes WILLIAM SHAWCROSS
It is hard not to admire the fine production values of The Crown: the beautiful costumes, the fabulous locations, the meticulous research and, above all, the seemingly well-informed access it gives us to the thoughts, words and motives of the most famous family in the world.
Television critics certainly seem to approve, lavishing yet more praise on this new, fourth series of the drama, which covers the period 1977 to 1990, including the arrival of our first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the start of the relationship between Prince Charles and Diana.
Millions of people around the world will see it, no doubt accepting the Netflix version of events as something approaching gospel truth.
Yet the reality is this: The Crown is a cruel and mendacious attack on public servants who cannot defend themselves – the Royal Family.
Prince Charles is portrayed in a deeply unflattering light, seeming to continue a relationship with his lover Camilla Parker Bowles (pictured) even as he marries 19-year-old Diana Spencer
For all the millions that went into the production, at its heart lies falsehood and, in my view, a deliberate attempt to undermine our constitutional Monarchy – towards which the show’s writer, Peter Morgan, seems rootedly antagonistic.
But, first, I will own up to my own prejudices. They are the opposite of Morgan’s.
I have been closely interested in the Monarchy since making a BBC series about it in the 1990s and another for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.
In 2003, I was lucky enough to be invited by the Queen to write the official biography of the Queen Mother. Her 100 years of life took six years to research.
I have written three books on the British Crown.
I have met many of the leading family members and have seen them not just as Royal figureheads, but as hard-working and patriotic human beings.
All this has led me to agree with the French philosopher Simone Weil that our constitutional Monarchy is the main guarantor of British liberties.
It is the second-oldest institution in Europe after the Papacy and helps define the nation.
The fourth series of the drama, which covers the period 1977 to 1990, includes the start of the relationship between Prince Charles and Diana (pictured)
At least since Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, it has provided this country with unequalled leadership – symbolic, yet actual and sympathetic.
In the real world, as opposed to that of meretricious TV drama, the Royal Family softens the state and is seen to provide a bulwark against arbitrary power.
How, then, are the Windsors rewarded in the latest series of The Crown? From the off, we see the Queen as mean-spirited and snobbish towards her new Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher.
Prince Charles, meanwhile, is portrayed in a deeply unflattering light, seeming to continue a relationship with his lover Camilla Parker Bowles even as he marries the 19-year-old Diana Spencer.
These are just two of the many things that are simply not true, and the consequences of such lies are serious.
They help shape, colour and in some cases twist the public’s view of its Royal Family, traducing them as snobs at best, monsters at worst.
Morgan has made no secret of his distaste for the institution and those who represent it.
Republicanism is a minority stance, held by only around a fifth of the British people, but it is perfectly defensible.
From the off, we see the Queen as mean-spirited and snobbish towards her new Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher (pictured)
It is harder to defend any political position laced with cruelty and contempt for others.
In an astonishing interview with The Sunday Times in October 2017, Morgan declared the Queen to be a woman of ‘limited intelligence’.
She and her family, he asserted, could be described less as human beings than as ‘survival organisms, like a mutating virus’.
The Monarchy itself, he concluded, is clearly ‘insane… and I am blessed because the system she is in is so ridiculous and illogical that even just to unpack it from a point of view of reason or logic is such a joy’.
I still find it hard to understand how anyone would believe, let alone say, such things. I even checked with The Sunday Times to see whether Morgan had complained he’d been misquoted. He had not.
It is true that in the early episodes, the series was kind to the young Princess Elizabeth as she was shown growing up in the 1930s and during the Second World War.
The depiction of her mourning the premature death of her beloved father in 1952 could not be anything but touching.
But from the moment of accession onwards, Morgan began to sharpen his knives.
One of the first victims was Prince Philip, with whom Princess Elizabeth fell in love during the war.
Last week, they celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary. Seventy-three years!
The Crown portrayed Philip in the 1950s as a chippy and unpleasant serial philanderer.
That was bad enough, but those who know the Prince well say that the most painful lies came in the episode Paterfamilias, which alleged that, as a schoolboy at Gordonstoun in the 1930s, he was personally to blame for the death of his sister, Cecile.
Yet the reality is this: The Crown is a cruel and mendacious attack on public servants who cannot defend themselves – the Royal Family, writes William Shawcross (pictured)
In The Crown’s version of events, Philip’s bad behaviour at school led to his being ‘gated’ and unable to travel.
Cecile, therefore, had flown from Germany to Britain to see him. Her plane crashed and she was killed, along with everyone else on board.
The film states that when Philip went to her funeral in Germany, his father shouted at him: ‘It’s true, isn’t it, boy? You’re the reason we are all here burying my favourite child.’
All of this is fabrication. Cecile had been flying to London for a wedding. Philip had nothing to do with her death.
What sort of a person prefers melodramatic lies over the truth, particularly when they are likely to be so hurtful?
Some of The Crown’s ‘mistakes’ are trivial, some are born of ignorance or careless research. But to me, many feel vindictive.
In this fourth series, Morgan’s animus is directed against Prince Charles.
‘Strip the bark off him,’ he told one historian whom he was interviewing as a possible consultant on the series.
She declined the position and he sought assistants more amenable to his view about the Monarchy.
I’m not the only person to be dismayed by the poison running through the series. Penny Junor, a distinguished Royal biographer, most recently of the Duchess of Cornwall, wrote in this newspaper last weekend that the Royals in The Crown ‘are wild, cruel distortions’. I agree.
Sally Bedell Smith, the leading American Royal biographer, believes the new series includes ‘extreme and egregious misrepresentation’.
Hugo Vickers, pre-eminent Royal historian, concludes that the latest series ‘is yet more subtly divisive than earlier seasons’.
For many viewers, these events will be a part of the recent past, still vivid in the memory as the action marches ever closer to the present.
It is all the more regrettable, then, that Netflix has failed to provide even the mildest health warning at the start of each episode, the sort of warning that is common nowadays.
‘This is a work of fiction based on real events’ might do the trick. It is the least that an honourable company should do.
You might think an honourable writer might wish for such a disclaimer before a work in which mendacity is concealed by glamorous verisimilitude.
But Morgan has no such interest. The Crown, after all, is a wonderful vehicle for promoting his own world view.
Hereditary monarchy is not, as Morgan asserts, ‘insane, ridiculous and illogical’. But it is certainly a lottery. I believe that his country has been an incredibly fortunate winner in that game of chance since Queen Victoria came to the throne.
Times change and in a much less deferential society, the Royal Family is subject to unique pressures.
Other great or rich families are able to defend their privacy or to control their images through law.
The only reason we could see the film The Assassination Of Gianni Versace, for example, was because his family authorised it. For all its influence, the Royal Family has no such power.
The Queen could never go to court to protest that any film or book misrepresents her. The same goes for Prince Charles, and all other members of their family.
That is not to say that the Royal Family should be above criticism. Of course not. We have a strong democracy and each and every part of government, including the Monarchy and members of the Royal Family, must be subject to public scrutiny.
But is it fair to make living people the subject of expensive, ‘faction’ – half fact and half fiction – particularly when they are unable to answer back?
For almost 70 years, Elizabeth II has presided over tumultuous, continual changes in British society.
As the eminent constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor has pointed out, for the head of state – the living symbol of the nation – to be above all political controversy is ‘something of inestimable value’.
You would never understand that from watching The Crown. Morgan shows almost nothing of the constitutional role of the Monarchy or the immense work that the Queen and other members of the family put into it.
Nor of the family’s commitment to philanthropy.
Since the reign of King George III, every Monarch has supported charities and, as a result, Britain has one of the most generous and vibrant charitable sectors in the world.
The Queen Mother, who is unrecognisable from her unpleasant caricature in The Crown, was one of the family’s biggest supporters of charities in the 20th Century.
Prince Charles’s Prince’s Trust has helped more than a million vulnerable young people turn their lives around since he founded it in 1976.
Neither the Queen nor any of the other members of her family are the people who strut and smirk through The Crown.
They are humans with weaknesses like us all. But our Monarchy is the vital core of a fundamentally decent, responsive constitutional system which has served us all, including Morgan, faithfully and very well.
The real Crown deserves better. So does the nation.