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16 November 2023

Netflix’s The Crown turns tawdry

Peter Morgan’s royal epic concludes with ghosts and banalities in a touchy-feely sixth series.

By Rachel Cooke

In the sixth and last series of The Crown, the Queen says of Diana: “One would almost feel sorry for her, if one weren’t so cross with her.” As it happens, this pretty much sums up how I feel about its creator, Peter Morgan, whose final script is – technical term – basically bat-shit crazy.

Not since Bobby Ewing appeared in a shower in Dallas, the car accident that killed him now revealed as only a bad dream, has a TV drama seemed so gruesomely preposterous. The circumstances of Diana’s death and the circus that followed are still hard to believe, even today – and yet mere facts were not enough for Morgan. At his desk, weary perhaps with the years of his life he has devoted to this project, he must have wondered how best to stretch the knicker elastic a bit further (Netflix is giving us four episodes now, and six more next month). Only then – ta-da! – it came to him. Let’s have a ghost!

[See also: Why did Brian Cox agree to this terrible James Bond reality show?]

In fact, there are two ghosts. The first is Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki). After her car accident, which happens in episode three, she chats first to a gently blubbering Prince Charles (Dominic West), and then to the Queen (Imelda Staunton), who takes the encounter wholly in her stride, ghosts being much less interesting than corgis, but maybe a bit more tolerable than one’s family. The second is Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), who is as ineffectual as ever when he appears before his father, Mohamed (Salim Daw). Come on, Dodi! I thought, at this point. You’re a spook now: at least rattle a (Cartier) chain at the old boy. But no.

Morgan has – to put it mildly – grown seriously touchy-feely in this series. Charles uses the word “partner” to describe his ex-wife. Dodi has an epiphanic Eckhart Tolle moment on his mobile. Jumanji, starring Robin Williams, is revealed as the true panacea, one with more curative possibilities even than a Gin and It.

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As I watched, I kept having weird out-of-body moments. I could see myself, from above, sombrely making notes. “Diana wears a Canary Islands baseball cap,” I scribbled, furiously. “Dodi proposes with an engagement ring from a luxury jewellery collection called Dis-moi, oui!,” I then added, to no great effect. It was as if I was annotating an old copy of Hello! – and about as interesting. The D&D romance always seemed on the tawdry side to me, but in this telling, Mohamed Al-Fayed (or Moo-Moo, as Di calls him) is portrayed, repellently, as a kind of pimp. Having delivered the Princess of Wales and her leopard-skin swimsuit to his son in Saint-Tropez, he then obligingly disappears, only to ring the maid later to ask if the couple are sharing a bed. Ugh. The only palate-cleanser in sight is Camilla, whom Olivia Williams still plays with delicious wit, all guffaws and droll startlement. Dominic West, in case you’re wondering, is still happily playing himself.

I wondered about William and Harry and the funeral, and how delicate (or not) Morgan would be. I was somewhat clenched at the prospect, a combination of dread and mild self-disgust (the latter I tried to keep at bay by picturing the Duchess of Sussex blithely bingeing the whole series from beneath one of her Hermès blankets, but no luck, sadly). The breaking of the news to them at Balmoral is gently done, but it is quite astonishing that the producers elected, in the end, to include the boys walking behind their mother’s coffin – one of the most famous images in living memory. I guess they needed to give Jonathan Pryce, who plays the Duke of Edinburgh, something useful to do.

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What next, though? Another six hours of this still lies ahead, and already it feels anticlimactic. Kate Middleton will appear wearing Jigsaw, and so, possibly, will her parents (please let there be specially themed Party Pieces party poppers in Major Awks Scenes with the in-laws at Clarence House). The Queen Mother (now played by national treasure Marcia Warren) will hear the bagpipes no more. And Camilla will marry, dressed as the Statue of Liberty. And then… it will all be over. At first, it was very good, a glass darkly on ourselves; and then, it was very bad – a fever dream or a nervous breakdown, whichever you prefer.  

The Crown

[See also: Kenneth Branagh’s King Lear is camp, callow and utterly unmoving]

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures