I wouldn’t say that I was dreading the fourth series of The Crown. But having scrolled through my databank of previous on-screen Dianas – feel free to laugh, but in a pub quiz I’ll get Serena Scott Thomas and Catherine Oxenberg every time – I experienced a distinct lack of optimism. I mean, even Naomi Watts was a catastrophe. And then there’s the problem of the princess’s life. How to tell it yet again? Years ago, locked in the office of a famous literary agent, I was required to read, at speed, a new biography of her by Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair. It was like being force fed a favourite food. The first mouthful was delicious. But pretty soon I began to feel quite sick.
Somehow, though, the producers and the writer of The Crown, Peter Morgan, have succeeded where others were doomed to failure. This series is vastly more involving than the last, and watching Emma Corrin as Diana, I felt nothing but amazement. The spooky secret of her performance lies not in the upwards gaze of her eyes, nor even in her puckish, pleading voice (boy, does Corrin nail that girlish Sloane) but, rather, in the way she radiates Diana’s teenage energy – a sometimes disabling vitality that the princess, in reality, never fully managed to lose. In the mausoleums that pass as royal palaces in this series, she is frequently the only fully living thing in sight, and if her emotions sometimes resemble the cycle of a washing machine (round and round they go) you forgive her for it. The alternative – instant desiccation – is just too grim to contemplate.
Gillian Anderson might be the best Thatcher ever seen on screen. Hers is not so much an impersonation as an inhabitation: just look at that upper lip, and the way it stretches and quivers; at that distinctive scuttle as she approaches a roomful of grandees (a sideways bustle that speaks of provincial gaucheness as well as blind pugnaciousness). But even in the scenes where she’s battling the Queen – encounters that are too explicatory, and in which I don’t wholly believe – she doesn’t transfix as Corrin’s Diana does. However enjoyable, there’s no need for all the bloody imagery that Morgan lays on (wounded stags, dead pheasants). Diana’s Metro, her Walkman, her novelty sweaters: these things pierce the heart more effectively than any hunted animal. Remembering myself at 19 – her age when the deal was sealed – I realised, all over again, that she didn’t stand a chance. In one episode, Charles (Josh O’Connor) looks fit to vomit as he watches her performing with the cast of Phantom of the Opera, and yet it’s not the tiniest bit funny, whatever your feelings about Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
Here are painful times: the Falklands War; the revelation that the Queen’s disabled cousins had been secretly placed in a psychiatric hospital; the murder of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA. An entire episode is devoted to Michael Fagan’s invasion of the Queen’s bedroom in 1982, a one-act play about social division that slightly bored me, though I admire the fact that The Crown reserves the right to be contemplative and quietly political, just as it reserves the right to be silly and soapy (hello, Prince Andrew, telling mummy all about Koo Stark’s latest on-screen sexual awakening; yoo-hoo, Princess Margaret, dancing to David Bowie with a gay seminarian called Dazzle).
But the show’s deepest pleasures lie in its remarkable casting. Tobias Menzies continues, miraculously, to make the Duke of Edinburgh seem the best of them. O’Connor’s petulant Charles is so convincing you wonder why Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell) doesn’t just stub out her Silk Cut on the leather seat of his sports car, and leg it. The Crown’s chief subjects are class, duty and the ineffable mysteries of what Prince Philip calls “the system” – and its characters are all in their service, up to and including the Queen (Olivia Colman, now in spectacles). In the face of the emotional banalities peddled by her spoilt children and a rapidly changing world, Morgan has Her Majesty grow ever more distant, and ever more aware of that distance. In this series, we never see her wearing a crown. But still, we know it’s always there – as heavy as lead, as unyielding as misplaced love.
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump