When it comes to Peter Morgan’s long-running series The Crown, I feel a bit like the BBC reporter Brian Hanrahan: “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back,” as he famously said during the Falklands War. Each time, of course, the various personnel are a bit older on return (er, are played by a completely different actor). But at the moment, they remain present and correct: the Queen, her mother and her sister; her husband; her wretched children and their wretched spouses. Only when series six – the last – arrives next year will the funerals begin. Will anyone still be watching then? Or will it just be me in my lace mourning veil?
Loyal readers will know that I adored The Crown when it began. No longer. The closer the action is to our own times, the more it’s just Hello! magazine with pretensions. And it’s so boring! The Daily Mail, frothing at the mouth dementedly, is convinced it’s cruel to our new king, but in truth, Charles hardly appears. Morgan’s attention is focused on far more exciting matters: the decommissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia, Prince Philip’s obsession with carriage driving, and Mohamed al-Fayed’s attempts to buy Harrods.
At one point, Princess Diana meets her soon-to-be-lover, the heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, late at night by a hospital vending machine. “Quavers or Cheesy Wotsits?” he asks, reaching for his wallet. This scene, like all of The Crown, is infused with solemnity to the point where any viewer who’s not sniggering wildly may find themselves wondering about subtext. What does a Quaver symbolise? And what, a Wotsit? Are such snacks, frangible and dusty, intended to signify the Sovereign? Is this why Di chooses a bag of ready salted?
Five series in, inevitably one marks the cast against those who performed the same character before them. Imelda Staunton as her Maj is, I think, more convincing than Olivia Colman, but not quite so mesmerising as Claire Foy. Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip is fine, but I don’t enjoy watching him as much as I did Tobias Menzies or Matt Smith. Claudia Harrison as Princess Anne? Perfect. Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret? Insufficiently ghastly. Elizabeth Debicki’s Diana is unnervingly like the princess, but Dominic West disappoints as Charles: too charming and good looking. I love Olivia Williams as Camilla, whom she plays with earthy gusto, but (excuse the boasting) my own Mrs P-B, performed when I’m in my cups, is better; the high Sloane must be carefully cut with the sound of a thousand pre-breakfast Marlboros (great wig, though). Finally, I favour Jonny Lee Miller’s sphinx-like John Major over Bertie Carvel’s cocksure Tony Blair. From Sick Boy in Trainspotting to the right honourable member for Huntingdon. Life moves pretty fast, eh?
Morgan’s script may well veer into the realms of fantasy, but isn’t that – pace the Daily Mail – the point? Fiction is apt to contain truths that cannot always be found in facts. Asked by a go-between which of her friends might talk to the journalist Andrew Morton, Diana can only offer her aromatherapist, her astrologist and her bodyworker (“like an osteopath, yah?”), which feels just right. So, too, does Anne’s response to tampongate (“a bit gynaecological for my taste”). It’s all too easy to believe that Philip might have told Countess Mountbatten (Natascha McElhone) she should “get a hobby” to help assuage her grief for her dead daughter Leonora; that the Queen might have joked about “ordering the sole” when confronted with the news that Fergie had been photographed having her toes sucked. What I’m trying to say is that the series’ problems have more to do with what Morgan hasn’t made up rather than with what he has.
So much of this stuff can be googled – even Martin Bashir’s discredited interview with Diana is still on YouTube – and the rest is just yawnsville. Who cares what Charles said to his spin doctor, Mark Bolland? How carriage reins are held, or what it costs to refurbish a creaking yacht? Princess Anne’s fondness for an equerry called Tim – she considers him through her binoculars, as if he’s a capercaillie – is about as interesting to most people as one of her brother’s watercolours.
This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink