The next series of The Crown is set to be its most controversial yet

Elizabeth Debicki portrays Princess Diana in The Crown - Netflix
Elizabeth Debicki portrays Princess Diana in The Crown - Netflix

The next series of The Crown is shaping up to be the most controversial so far. Even though season five of the Netflix drama is still being filmed, it’s already whipping up a storm.

Some critics have unfairly attacked the casting of Natascha McElhone as Lady Mountbatten, the close friend of Prince Philip. It is quite wrong for McElhone to play Penelope Knatchbull (the wife of the grandson of Lord Mountbatten) they say, because McElhone’s stepfather, journalist Roy Greenslade, is a self-confessed IRA sympathiser, and Lord Mountbatten was brutally murdered by the IRA in Ireland in 1979. How unfair it is to visit the opinions of the stepfather on the daughter.

It is much more understandable, though, that Jemima Khan, a close friend of Princess Diana, should choose to back out of helping with the writing of season five. Briefly the girlfriend of the show’s writer, Peter Morgan, before he went back to his old love, Gillian Anderson, Khan had provided input into the new series about the princess.

Khan was initially keen on the project, she said, because “it was really important to me that the final years of my friend’s life be portrayed accurately and with compassion, as has not always happened in the past.”

That turned out not to be the case. “When [my] co-writing agreement was not honoured, and when I realised that particular storyline would not necessarily be told as respectfully or compassionately as I had hoped, I requested that all my contributions be removed from the series and I declined a credit,” Khan said over the weekend.

Natascha McElhone is to play Lady Mountbatten in the Netflix drama - Getty
Natascha McElhone is to play Lady Mountbatten in the Netflix drama - Getty

The new season is bound to cause more problems like this as the events it covers get closer to the present day. Those events include the divorce of Charles and Diana and the death of Diana in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997. The problem is that the more recent the events covered, the more people there are who are still alive and who can potentially object to the kind of factual errors and “poetic licence” that have littered all previous series of The Crown.

That was less legally sensitive in the first season, which covered the period from the Queen’s wedding in 1947 until 1955. Very few of the real-life characters from that season, apart from the Queen herself, are still alive. As the makers of The Crown well know, the dead can’t sue for libel – and the Queen very rarely sues.

So, in season one, which aired in 2016, Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife, wasn’t around to take action over an episode that wrongfully showed her burning a hated portrait of her husband by the artist Graham Sutherland. (A biographer of Clementine has said it was Grace Hamblin, her secretary, who destroyed the painting). In season two, the Queen was too dignified to sue over the ridiculous suggestion that she visited Ghana to compete with John F Kennedy’s popularity.

Most wicked of all was the idea that Prince Philip’s father blamed him for the death of Princess Cecilie, Philip’s sister, in a plane crash. The princess was on her way to England to see her brother, and The Crown suggested she would not have taken the flight if Philip had not been forbidden from visiting her in Germany because of poor behaviour in school. Entirely untrue and definitely defamatory – but Prince Philip, then still alive, was also too dignified to sue.

Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II in the fifth season of The Crown - Netflix
Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II in the fifth season of The Crown - Netflix

Season four is crammed with mistakes, too. Even though the original events took place very much in living memory, The Crown got away with real howlers: Mountbatten didn’t write to Prince Charles just before he was murdered to condemn his relationship with Camilla; there is no evidence that Margaret Thatcher dressed wrongly for trips to Balmoral. The scene where Mrs Thatcher begs the Queen to dissolve Parliament so she can stay at Number 10 was called “factual nonsense” by Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore.

But the new season won’t be such plain sailing. For one thing, the younger generation of royals are happier to consult their lawyers than the Queen. And both William and Harry have proved themselves highly protective of their mother’s legacy. So, while it is likely - following an investigation that found Diana was tricked into giving her famous Panorama interview – that her interrogator, Martin Bashir, will get a rough ride from Peter Morgan, it is far from certain that Diana will be portrayed as the totally innocent party.

And, of course, there are many other less-than-flattering stories about Diana that Morgan might well decide to include in the series. Claims, for example, by her former private secretary, Patrick Jephson, that she referred to the Duke of Edinburgh as “Stavros”, mocking his Greek roots, and said at one point that her royal jewellery was a reward for “years of purgatory with this f***ing family”.

Diana has also been accused over the years of manipulating the media, becoming obsessed with her lovers (allegedly bombarding art dealer Oliver Hoare’s home with hundreds of silent calls after he broke off their affair), and becoming paranoid about non-existent plots to bug her conversations or even assassinate her (a paranoia that Bashir exploited to the full).

The most litigious of the younger royals are the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. But, here, there is an intriguing twist, because Harry and Meghan have a £100m deal with Netflix to produce feature films, children’s programmes and documentaries.

Dominic West as Prince Charles - Netflix
Dominic West as Prince Charles - Netflix

The Sussexes are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them so generously. As Prince Harry’s biographer Angela Levin has pointed out, “Harry has remained absolutely silent about Netflix. He should tear the deal up and make a stand for his mother. What’s more important, money or defending his mum? It’s astonishing he can’t find his voice on this.”

Prince Harry has, in fact, defended The Crown. Discussing the series with James Corden on America’s The Late, Late Show earlier this year, he said, “It’s fictional. But it’s loosely based on the truth,” and gives a “rough idea” of the pressures of “putting duty and service above family and everything else.”

“I am way more comfortable with The Crown than I am seeing stories written about my family or my wife,” he added. “[The Crown] is obviously fiction, take it how you will.”

The problem is that, to many viewers, particularly in America, The Crown isn’t “obviously” fiction. The series is often the first time people find out about certain events and, not being experts, have no other accounts to compare them to.

In another interview this year, Prince Harry talked about the appalling horror of his mother’s death. He said, “I was so angry with what happened to her and the fact that there was no justice at all. Nothing came from that. The same people who chased her into the tunnel photographed her dying in the backseat of that car.”

Netflix can’t be equated with those ruthless paparazzi on that grim August night. But, still, they have played fast and loose with the truth in all previous seasons of The Crown. There’s no reason to think they won’t do the same in the season that deals with Princess Diana’s last years.

Prince William is bound to speak out if there are any egregious errors. Surely Prince Harry must do the same.

Season five of The Crown is expected to launch on Netflix in November 2022