If you’re even the most casual of royal watchers, you’ll be more than familiar with a certain type of royal documentary that fills Friday night television slots. Usually set against b-roll footage from engagements and a convincingly regal soundtrack, these easy-to-consume shows often promise to uncover the “truth” on the royal scandal du jour or a moment in history.
And, while some genuinely offer the inside story on the Royal Family from credible historians or journalists who were actually there, many – largely down to budget restrictions and a lightning-paced production turnaround – are more likely to deliver a hybrid of unverified tabloid gossip, and opinion presented as fact.
Documentaries like these are often billed as “factual entertainment”, but take a closer look at the type of claims that get aired (some of which become online clickbait the following day) and you’ll find that a lot of the content sits much closer to the fiction category.
Without sounding dramatic, many of these supposedly authoritative specials have become superspreaders of misinformation on the royal beat. But you’ll be unlikely to hear many complaints about them. Right now, the energy for that is all aimed at The Crown, which is less than two weeks away from its season five premiere.
The Netflix hit – watched by around 100 million households around the world – picks up where the fourth season left off: Charles and Diana’s marriage falling apart and Camilla waiting in the wings.
The new episodes, all set in the 1990s, will cover the very public War of the Wales’ and the Queen’s “annus horribilis” of 1992 which saw the devastating Windsor Castle fire serve as the backdrop to troubling family events such as Andrew and Anne’s divorces, the publication of Diana: Her True Story and a long list of tabloid controversies.
This chaotic decade – which ended with public support for the monarchy at its lowest – became the House of Windsor's worst in history. And thanks to how publicly many of its scandals played out, they’re also some of the most documented.
But despite the abundance of material banked in historical archives, the push to label The Crown as a total work of fiction has become fiercer than ever. Just like many things (and people) initially embraced by The Firm, the show has now become the enemy.
And it’s not just the usual media suspects at it, even legendary actress Dame Judi Dench spoke out, writing an open letter to The Times about the series’ “crude sensationalism” of history. Now, I’m a big fan of Dench’s work, but the decision to go out of her way to label the series as “cruelly unjust” has been... interesting.
The letter, which asked for a disclaimer to appear at the start of the show, was written with no reference to her own award-winning depictions of the Queen’s great-great-grandmother in Victoria & Abdul and Her Majesty, Mrs Brown – true royal stories that received rave reviews but also criticism from certain historians about accuracy.
Perhaps the letter reflects some regret on Dench’s behalf… or perhaps there's more to the theory that her close friendship with Camilla, now the Queen Consort, is what led her to defend the Royal Family.
Watch: Dame Judi Dench seriously considered playing the Queen Mother in season five of The Crown
One report recently suggested Netflix is “rattled” by criticism of this fifth season, allegedly choosing to delay Harry and Meghan’s forthcoming Liz Garbus-directed docuseries as a result. Hard to believe such a tale when you remember that this is the same mega corporation that released a trailer during the mourning period for the Queen and also was accused of trolling by the Royal Family after a post on their social media account prompted major backlash.
Suggestions that they recently caved and added a disclaimer to the show’s listings are also wide off the mark. A look at previous marketing materials and promos reveal they have long described it as “fictionalised drama... based on real events”. (Adds a spokesperson, “[The Crown] has always been presented as a drama based on historical events.”)
As easy as it is to throw blame at producers and writers working on Peter Morgan’s creation, is it actually warranted? A closer look at some of the most breathlessly criticised plot lines in the forthcoming episodes reveal that a lot of what is currently being called into question by the media actually originated in the same media outlets currently leading the onslaught.
Former UK prime minister John Major was absolutely right to point out that stories suggesting Prince Charles came to him to discuss the Queen’s abdication are inaccurate, but mainstream media coverage of his comments have been missing the fact that this very rumour ran rife amongst royal correspondents at the time, making its way into gossip columns, biographies and even as far as the pages of the New York Times.
Outrage over a storyline involving rumours of an inappropriate friendship between the late Prince Philip and Penny Knatchbull has also been loud in the press. Some newspapers have done nothing to prevent such rumours spreading by writing suggestive stories about the countess’s ‘regular’ visits to his Sandringham home, how his “flirty bond” with the aristocrat “kept him young”, and details of their “highly personal” friendship.
I’ve spent much of the past week watching the new season and while, due to a pesky embargo, I’m not allowed to share anything about it yet, I can say that a lot of this series takes its lead from information readily available in the public domain, be it on-the-record television interviews, Diana’s audio tapes to Andrew Morton, numerous biographies (including Jonathan Dimbleby’s 1994 book, which Charles co-operated with) and archival reporting from British newspapers.
It’s easy to sling mud at episodes few have actually seen yet, but in my opinion much of the scandal this season is sourced from one place: reality. I’d imagine that this is what scares the royal institution the most.
Because while The Crown's scripted dialogue comes straight from the writer’s room, and you’d be a fool to treat this show as a historical documentary, the majority of jaw-droppers in the plot come courtesy of the Royal Family and the press. And for those, they have no one to blame other than themselves.