True to form we made it through just one episode of the new Season 4 of The Crown. But even so it was a struggle and if the portrayal of Margaret Thatcher’s hair hadn’t been so mesmerizing, we might have failed. The Crown has never been on our must-watch list – we managed to get through the first episode of season one (now heralded as something of a masterpiece compared to season four) and couldn’t stomach a second one. Though I’ll admit that the chemistry between Matt Smith and Claire Foy when I saw them in the stage play Lungs last year is wonderful. We also attempted the first episode of season three because we’ve had a thing for Olivia Colman ever since Peep Show. But it was dull. So incredibly dull.
But there’s been so much hype about the new season and the depictions of Charles and Diana, and Margaret Thatcher that we decided to give it another chance. After all, it’s the era that I can most clearly remember and most of the characters are still alive.
It’s 1979 and Olivia Colman is still the Queen. This is alright when she’s in frowny face mode but the problem is that when Olivia Colman smiles her whole face lights up and she reverts back to being Sophie in Peep Show and you just wish you were watching that show instead. And her face broke out multiple times in episode one, most bizarrely when meeting Margaret Thatcher and playing a game of ‘new cabinet ministers sweepstakes ‘ which is apparently like studying racing form, except with flabby old white men instead of sleek thoroughbreads.
Cue a series of names – Willie Whitelaw, Geoffrey Howe, and others whom I can best picture by their Spitting Image characters. This is important, as Spitting Image was clearly a reference source for the creators, and especially for Gillian Anderson when researching Margaret Thatcher. Seeing Thatcher, played by GA, I actually had to go back and check how old she was in 1979 (54) because based on this portrayal she seemed to be in her closing stages of life. She dragged herself across the Palace carpet, slightly hunched and contorted as if being played by Julie Walters in a Victoria Wood penned sketch. And then there’s the bouffant hair, which I’m assuming had a trailer and its own agent. I’ve never seen such a thing, couldn’t take my eyes off it. Not even Spitting Image went this far. And you can’t miss her Thatcher vocal impersonation. The one that sounds like she’s been on a pack of Rothman’s for 2o years. I don’t know if it’s the weight of the hair pressing down on her vocal chords or the only way that Gillian Anderson can get those particular vowel sounds out but the one thing about Thatcher is that her voice rarely sounded strained or in a need of a lozenge. Oh and one last irritation. This Margaret Thatcher descends into a ludicrously deep curtsy on meeting the Queen, one which reminded me of the reverse lunges that we did in the gym today. Not sure why this choice was made but the framing made it look very weird with Mrs T descending to the Queen’s groin – ‘Thatch to the Snatch’. And then cut to poor long-suffering Dennis and the missus ironing his y-fronts.
Later on we get a few scenes with Princess Anne, now married and played here by a sulky teenager, having a bit of a strop over competing in Olympic showjumping and her marriage to Mark Phillips, her useless twat of a husband. After a pep-talk from papa Phil, she gets back on the horse and they win the Grand National. No, wait, that was Elizabeth Taylor. Anyway, Anne takes out her deep unhappiness with Mark on her wardrobe, as evidenced in this photo. Certainly one way to keep his hands off her. Mark later goes on to father a (not very) secret love child.
But the main meat of the episode revolves around Prince Charles. And his relationship (not that kind) with Earl Mountbatten. You see Mountbatten has been more of a dad to Charles than Prince Philip ever was and this later leads to a confusing and very soapy exchange between Philip and Charles about who stole whose father, who took the place of the son and who got robbed from being best dad ever. I think the answer was Darth Vader but it was difficult to understand due to Prince Philip having popped one plummy marble too many in his gob.
Anyway, cue some extraordinarily heavy-handed metaphors leading up to Mountbatten’s assassination by the IRA. We switch between (1) Charles salmon fishing* in Iceland (he was actually on a puffin culling trip but his reputation is bad enough) and beating the bloody salmon on a rock; (2) Mountbatten writing a letter-that-never-existed to Charles about Camilla and how he needed to find a virgin (cue more of Charles beating on the rocks) and then Mountbatten getting on his fishing boat; (3) an old orange ford cortina with a couple of scruffy ne’er do wells/IRA driving down the lane to the harbour; and (4) the royals out killing things in the highlands. It feels like someone let a toddler into the editing suite, back and forth we go, dripping symbolism everywhere. Charles beating the life out of that salmon (not a euphemism) and dreaming of the day when he can be Camilla’s tampon. Prince Philip killing birds and singing ‘I’m not the pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant pluckers son and I’ll keep on phucking peasants till the pleasant pluckers come’. And Mountbatten, dressed like Marcel Marceau in his Breton stripey shirt sets off on a trip to catch some lobsters: ‘hold ’em from the back and they won’t pinch’ he advises, which was the same advice he gave in the letter-that-didn’t-exist to Charles. Round and round we go until I’m screaming at the IRA to get on with it and set off the bloody bomb.
This degree of heavy-handedness made me yearn for the 1996 film The Queen and the scene where Helen Mirren is having a staredown with a stag and then shoos it away from the approaching hunters. At least we were left to make our own minds up about whether the stag represents the poor hunted Diana or not. But Peter Morgan doesn’t think we can be trusted with our thoughts anymore. We need to be led by the hand. We need the stag to be wearing a vest with a big bullseye target when it calls the hunters to tip them off about its exact map position and then be furious when the hunters turn up to shoot it, claiming invasion of privacy and demanding the front cover of Hello.
And that was pretty much it. Oh, there was also Diana playing a nymph or an aristocratic tree in the not-actually-Allthrop home of the Spencers. A bit later she’s talking to Charles while wearing pale lemon dungarees, thus proving her virginity is still intact.
Aside from the lack of any kind of subtlety or character development, I’m largely fine with all this. It’s not intended to be historically accurate, it’s a soap opera that once had a mild run-in with reality. I don’t intend to watch any more episodes but the season finale could well end with Diana in the shower getting soapy and Charles walking in looking pale:
“Charles, what’s the matter?” Diana asks. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
(Too young for that reference? Count yourself lucky)
So it’s very entertaining to read all of these articles about The Crown’s unfair portrayals of the royals, and how this is especially damaging to Prince Charles now that he’s been rehabilitated into a benign grandfather type and is largely forgiven for being the worst thing that could happen a tree nymph. Except I don’t think anyone of my age will forget the WTF moment when he gave the ITV engagement interview and in response to being asked if he was in love with Diana said, ‘yes, whatever in love means’. Peter Morgan doesn’t need to make stuff up when it comes to Charles. It’s all there in footage and print, most notably in the transcript of his 1-800 sex chat phone call to Camilla. Sadly, the show doesn’t feature this so I include it here for historical accuracy and character insights:
CHARLES: Oh, God. I’ll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier!
CAMILLA (laughing): What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers? (Both laugh). Oh, you’re going to come back as a pair of knickers.
CHARLES: Or, God forbid, a Tampax. Just my luck! (Laughs)
CAMILLA: You are a complete idiot! (Laughs) Oh, what a wonderful idea.
CHARLES: My luck to be chucked down a lavatory and go on and on forever swirling round on the top, never going down.
CAMILLA (laughing): Oh darling!
CHARLES: Until the next one comes through.
CAMILLA: Oh, perhaps you could just come back as a box.
CHARLES: What sort of box?
CAMILLA: A box of Tampax, so you could just keep going.
CHARLES: That’s true.
CAMILLA: Repeating yourself … (laughing). Oh, darling, oh I just want you now.
So yeah, overall I’m not a fan of the show, though I can see its uses as an educational teaching tool in Texas schools to replace the terribly dull historical curriculum. And it does seem more aimed at an American audience judging by the number of articles and posts about it. But much like the film Bohemian Rhapsody, supposedly about the life of Freddie, The Crown seems more focused on creating looky-like characters and recreating specific moments and lines, rather than delving into the characters and trying to understand them. I’ve read that the portrayal of Diana is a little more realistic but Diana wrote the book on that, and with eating disorders, suicide attempts and a cheating husband as your source material, you don’t really need to make shit up.