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26 November 2020

The Crown has been accused of inaccuracy – not least by those who were there

Amid numerous complaints about the royal drama, Jeffrey Archer has described the portrayal of Margaret Thatcher's relationship with the Queen as "farcical".  

By Eleanor Peake

When Margaret Thatcher spent the weekend in Balmoral, she found the whole experience deeply humiliating. She and her husband Denis were invited to the Scottish castle by Queen Elizabeth II; it was an initiation of sorts for the new leader. In one embarrassing incident, Thatcher, dressed in a cobalt blue suit, joined the Queen stalking, only to be met by sniggers. At least, this is how the weekend is presented in the new series of The Crown. “I’m struggling to find any redeeming features in these people at all,” Gillian Anderson’s Thatcher says to Denis. “They aren’t sophisticated or cultured or elegant or anything close to an ideal.” 

For royal commentators, this scene is one of the most offensive in the series, and there are plenty more. Across the country, those that remember the 1980s have been left either appalled or wistful, sometimes in equal measure, by the latest re-enactment of the Queen’s relationship with Thatcher. These are faces and events that are still controversial in the UK. Our unresolved national traumas; the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the austerity of Thatcherism and the Royal Family’s treatment of Princess Diana, make it a tantalising, if not difficult, watch. 

[see also: Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher reinvigorate The Crown]

It is unsurprising that this season, the fourth and the closest yet to the world of today, has received a special kind of backlash. The show’s writer Peter Morgan told the Sunday Times he tried his “very, very best to get it right”, adding: “You sometimes have to forsake accuracy … you must never forsake truth.” Rarely has our recent history been dramatised with such an emphasis on “truth”, and yet it seems hard to agree on exactly what that is.

Some of the complaints have been niche. Michael Fagan, the man who broke into Buckingham Palace in 1982, disputes many of the show’s depictions: not least that he is much “better looking” than the actor who plays him. A Telegraph reader complained: “Two things caused concern. First, the Queen never, ever delivered a cocked-wrist salute. Second, why on earth is her headdress adorned with what appears to be the Welsh Guards’ plume?” One viewer told Slate: “The fishing scene: for anybody who has ever been fishing, frankly, it’s ridiculous. They literally just get everything wrong.” Horse and Hound readers were equally outraged. Why wasn’t Princess Anne warming up her horse before her equestrian event? 

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But for members of Thatcher’s government, the way The Crown dramatised the political events of the 1980s was anything but funny. After watching three episodes of the series, former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Jeffrey Archer told me: “In the case of Margaret, in particular, it is nothing less than farcical to suggest she didn’t hold the Queen in high regard. My wife and I used to see her regularly after she resigned, usually in the evening or Sunday. I can tell you, there was a picture in a silver frame of the Queen Mother in her drawing room. It doesn’t add up. There’s been a lot written about Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the Queen over the years and of course, I had no idea what it was, as I wasn’t in the room for those weekly meetings. She never talked about them: that wasn’t her style. But if the Queen’s name arose, complete respect immediately followed.

“Ironically, it was after her death that the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh paid Margaret the great compliment of being present at her funeral,” Archer adds, “an honour no one had received since the death of Winston Churchill.”

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Royal biographer Penny Junor thinks the latest series is the least accurate so far and believes the blame falls on the show’s limited access to sources. “The reason this one is so much more inaccurate is because we only have Diana’s side of the story from her various interviews, but it was very subjective,” Junor says. “There are no other records of this marriage. Charles has never spoken about it, Camilla has never spoken about it. The only voice is Diana’s.”

[see also: Forget The Crown, ITV’s Endeavour is the period drama for our time]

Others have also disputed the show’s version of events. After watching an episode, the former Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, also a former equerry to Prince Charles, tweeted that he was “truly appalled at the deliberate mischief making, lies and meanness,” of the show, which was “clearly intended to be a vile misrepresentation of the royal family”. The journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil says there was no evidence that in 1986 the royal press secretary Michael Shea “leaked at Her Majesty’s behest”. Neil says he was approached by producers of The Crown, and asked to give his account of the rift between Thatcher and the Queen, as Sunday Times editor, but Neil laments that he did not get a more prominent showing in the series. “Perhaps Morgan was worried the facts might get in the way of his ‘dramatic licence,” he writes in the Sunday Times, “which sometimes turns out to be a fancy phrase for ‘making things up’.”

Britain is a country obsessed with its postwar history: The Crown is simply another symptom of our national brooding. But what purpose does it serve? For Archer, the answer is simple: “I suppose they consider it makes good television.” To those that weren’t around in the Eighties, The Crown is a seductive retelling of history. But for those directly involved, the show can’t compete with the accuracy, or the truth, of personal memories.