World·Royal Fascinator

Mixing royal fact and fiction: Why the next season of The Crown is facing more controversy

Increased controversy surrounding The Crown is in many ways a result of timing — both for the monarchy right now and the time period the next season of the Netflix drama focuses on, the 1990s, a decade more viewers will have a living memory of, and a time of considerable scandal for the House of Windsor itself.

Netflix drama will focus on events in the House of Windsor in the 1990s

Dominic West, left, and Elizabeth Debicki are shown as Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, in Season 5 of The Crown, which will be released by Netflix on Nov. 9. (Keith Bernstein/Netflix)

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Season 5 of The Crown hasn't appeared on viewers' screens yet, but the controversy that has routinely swirled around the Netflix drama has returned in full force.

In a way, the controversy is running deeper than ever for the show that offers a fictionalized version of real-life events that unfolded in the House of Windsor during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. 

Much of this has to do with timing — both for the monarchy right now and the time period this season of The Crown focuses on, the 1990s, a decade more viewers will have a living memory of, and a time of considerable scandal for the House of Windsor itself.

"I think this season is particularly controversial because it's being released at a sensitive time for the monarchy," Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal author and historian, said in an interview.

It's a period of transition to the reign of King Charles and, Harris said, there had been a lot of speculation that when Charles succeeded Elizabeth, who died on Sept. 8, there would be discussion about the future of the monarchy.

"We have seen some of that, but we've also seen a lot of popular sympathy towards King Charles … as someone who's lost his mother, who's stepping into this new role."

Imelda Staunton takes the reins from Claire Foy and Olivia Colman to play Queen Elizabeth in Season 5 of The Crown. (Netflix)

Some observers are concerned Season 5, which drops Nov. 9, is "going to revive memories of some of the lowest points in terms of Charles's popularity and his relationship with the public," Harris said.

Central to that was the demise of his marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales, before their divorce in 1996. Tawdry tabloid headlines laid bare the many cracks in their marriage for years.

Also, noted Harris, many of the individuals portrayed in this season of The Crown are still alive, and more people watching will remember the real events that are recreated on screen.

"We've had early seasons where there are events that are in living memory for people of the Queen's generation and a little bit younger and then events that are in living memory for people of Charles's generation," said Harris. "Now we're seeing events that are in living memory for people of William and Harry's generation."

Last week, Netflix appeared to respond after criticism arose, including from high-profile figures such as former British prime minister John Major, who is portrayed in Season 5, and actor Judi Dench, who in a letter to The Times newspaper called the series "cruelly injust" and "damaging" for its treatment of the Royal Family. 

The streaming giant added a disclaimer to the YouTube description on its new trailer for Season 5, saying it is fictional.

"Inspired by real events, this fictional dramatization tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II and the political and personal events that shaped her reign," the description says.

WATCH | Queen Elizabeth and Diana go toe-to-toe in Season 5 of The Crown: 

Robert Morrison, a university English professor with some experience exploring how royal fact has been turned into fiction for centuries, never thought he'd see Netflix add such a disclaimer.

But the mounting criticism may have had some sway.

"When you get to that level where a former prime minister is saying … 'this doesn't even broadly resemble what happened,' then I do think it's time that Netflix went, 'Well, OK, we've got to acknowledge that it's fictionalized,'" said Morrison, who is a British Academy global professor at Bath Spa University in southern England and a Queen's national scholar at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Of course, Crown creator Peter Morgan is hardly the first creative mind to find fodder for fiction in the lives of royals. Shakespeare, for one, found much to write about in the lives of various kings.

"That institution has been around for so many hundreds and hundreds of years, and it has every story virtually conceivable packed into it, from heroism to villainy and on," said Morrison, who noted it has at its heart "a real family." 

"There's a lot of artists who can't resist it and so they talk about that family."

Jonny Lee Miller is pictured as former British prime minister John Major in the upcoming Season 5 of The Crown. The politician released a statement criticizing the show after it was rumoured that several storylines would feature conversations between him and then-Prince Charles. (Netflix)

Even though The Crown is a work of fiction, some, like Dench, have worried, as she said in her letter, that viewers might take its portrayal of events as "wholly true."

"Although The Crown on Netflix is clearly historical fiction and there are dramatized conversations going on behind the scenes, there are viewers who sometimes go on social media and talk about The Crown … as though it's a documentary," said Harris.

That may not necessarily be a huge surprise, given how the Royal Family acts.

"It's very, very difficult at the best of times to tell where fact ends and fiction begins … because the monarchy conducts itself in the way that it does, that is with a certain degree of … secrecy," said Morrison.

Philip Murphy, director of history and policy at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, suggested that if viewers take The Crown's version as true, it would be "partly the fault of the Palace."

Murphy expanded on his view in his own letter to The Times, where he wrote that the Palace has made "strenuous efforts to prevent historians from gaining access to records" on the Queen's 70-year reign.

"If scholars are unable to write an accurate history of the monarchy, the field will be left to dramatists and to those with vested interests in leaking information," Murphy wrote.

WATCH | Netflix adds a disclaimer to trailer description:

Netflix adds ‘fictional’ disclaimer to The Crown trailer after backlash

1 year ago
Duration 2:24
Netflix has added a ‘fictional dramatization’ disclaimer to the trailer for the fifth season of The Crown — a historical drama about the Royal Family — after high-profile critics objected to how it portrays them.

Actors taking on royal roles in The Crown have joined the fray, too.

Jonathan Pryce, who portrays Prince Philip this time around, said he was "bitterly disappointed" by his "fellow artistes" levelling their criticisms and calling for the disclaimer.

Pryce told Deadline "the vast majority of people know it's a drama. They've been watching it for four seasons."

Perhaps, suggests Harris, there's another way to consider all this, and analyze The Crown in the context "of what is it trying to do as a work of historical fiction" and what is it telling us about life today.

"Often historical fiction tells us as much if not more about the time it's being written as it does with the time that's being portrayed."

This composite photo shows Staunton on the red carpet for the movie Downton Abbey at the Rome Film Fest in Rome on Oct. 19, 2019, left, and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in London on May 17, 1996. (The Associated Press)

For Harris, that is "telling us that there has always been press scrutiny of the Royal Family and public interest in the Royal Family as a family and not simply in the monarchy as an institution."

"I think it's going to prompt wider discussion about press coverage of the Royal Family. What is fair game, what expectation of a private life can you have in this role as a member of the Royal Family?"

All of that discussion is likely to continue for a good while yet. Filming for Season 6 is underway.

A date for Harry's memoir

Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, leave Westminster Hall in London on Sept. 14 during proceedings after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Harry's memoir will be released on Jan. 10. (Danny Lawson/The Associated Press)

After weeks of rabid speculation and rumour about its release, this week brought a clear fact about Prince Harry's much-anticipated memoir: it will be published on Jan. 10.

Penguin Random House said Thursday that the book, called Spare, will be filled with "insight, revelation, self-examination and hard-won wisdom about the eternal power of love over grief."

A man's face is shown on the cover of a book.
This image provided by the Random House Group shows the cover of Spare, Prince Harry's memoir. (Random House Group)

The book, announced in mid-2021, had been rumoured for release this fall.

The title Spare is widely seen as a nod to the phrase "the heir and the spare" and the idea that the monarchy needs a backup person — or younger sibling — for the heir to the throne. 

The book will have to be a "delicate balancing act," BBC royal correspondent Sean Coughlan wrote on the network's website.

"There will be more of an appetite for tell-all tales, rather than therapy-speak about self-discovery," Coughlan said. "But how many bridges will be burned by saying too much?"

Whatever Harry chooses to include, it will become part of a long tradition of royal memoir, something that has taken various forms as everyone from Henry VIII's sixth wife, Katherine Parr, to the Duke of Windsor and Sarah, Duchess of York, have offered up their recollections.

The book's release will also come three years almost to the day that Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, said they were stepping back from the upper echelons of the Royal Family.

Standing in for the King

King Charles, left, and Princess Anne arrive at St. George's Chapel inside Windsor Castle in Windsor, England, on Sept. 19, ahead of the committal service for Queen Elizabeth. Reports suggest changes may be made to allow Anne to be among those senior members of the Royal Family who can stand in for the monarch in some official circumstances. (Justin Setteerfield/AFP/Getty Images)

For a while, it's been something of a curiosity and conundrum: which senior members of the Royal Family could actually stand in if needed for some of the official duties the monarch has to carry out now and then.

As things stand, those members — known as counsellors of state — include Prince Harry and Prince Andrew, but that now seems rather problematic. Harry stepped back from official duties in 2020 and is living in California. Andrew is also out of the royal public mix, as his reputation sank like a stone over his friendship with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

So it was with interest that several observers noted the issue — which would require legislation to change — came up in the U.K. House of Lords this week.

"I think this was the first time that we've had the specific issue of Prince Harry and Prince Andrew remaining counsellors of state discussed in Parliament," said Craig Prescott, a constitutional law expert at Bangor University in Wales, via email.  

Reports suggest the pool of available counsellors of state might be expanded to include King Charles's siblings, Princess Anne and Prince Edward, rather than reduced or otherwise altered to remove Andrew and Harry.

Prescott said he thinks the rumoured approach "makes perfect sense."

A man speaks behind two microphones.
Prince Edward speaks during a gathering in the gardens of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on July 1. Edward may be added to the list of senior royals who can stand in for the monarch for some official duties. (Jane Barlow/Getty Images)

"The essential problem is that there are not enough working royals who are counsellors of state, so if you add Princess Anne, Prince Edward and possibly the Princess of Wales, then that solves the problem." 

Choosing not to remove Andrew and Harry avoids any controversy, "especially regarding Prince Harry," Prescott said, and "also makes any legislation simpler and easier to get through Parliament."

Prescott expects any change would be made before Charles embarks on any travel that would take him away from the U.K. for longer than a few days.

"There has been some discussion of an extensive Commonwealth tour, so this legislation will be required before that."

Adding the Princess of Wales as a counsellor of state would be a new development, Prescott said, but there is some sense to it.

"Two counsellors of state are required to act together [and] it may make sense for the Prince and Princess of Wales to act together, and would add to … preparation for the time when Prince William becomes King."

Royally quotable

"We've been expecting you."

— The caption the Royal Family used on its official Twitter account — and a play on one of the James Bond movie franchise's famous lines — as they posted a photo of Princess Anne presenting Bond actor Daniel Craig with the same royal honour held by the iconic character. Craig has had other high-profile royal moments, including when — in dapper 007 style — he accompanied Queen Elizabeth and her corgis in a skit as part of the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London.

Royal reads

  1. Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet delivered a provocative speech in the House of Commons this week condemning the monarchy as a "racist," "archaic," "almost archeological" and "humiliating" institution that should be scrapped. The comments came during debate on a motion from the party that called on the federal government to sever ties with what the Bloc calls the "British monarchy." The motion, which was lost, was purely symbolic because, under Canada's Constitution, it would take more than a vote like this to cut ties with the Crown. [CBC]

  2. King Charles has already met the second U.K. prime minister of his young reign. And Rishi Sunak is the first PM to be richer than the monarch. Does that matter? The well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker Don Murray explores that thought. [CBC]

  3. While Charles hasn't left the United Kingdom for an international trip since becoming monarch, other members of the Royal Family have taken overseas trips that have focused on their interests and charitable connections. Sophie, Countess of Wessex, spent two weeks visiting five central African countries, while Princess Anne had a four-day visit to Uganda this week. [Independent]

  4. As Charles's reign begins, various firsts are being noted, including the first birthday cards from him to centenarians and production beginning on the first coin with his image to enter general U.K. circulation. But some things stay the same — as happened for his mother and monarchs before her, a bagpiper plays under his window in the morning. [BBC]

  5. Kate, Princess of Wales, has become the patron of a British Army officer's ambitious goal to be the first woman to cross Antarctica solo and unsupported. [ITV].

  6. More than 1,000 Paddington bears and other teddies left by the public in memory of the late Queen will be sent to charity. Queen Elizabeth came to be closely associated with the famous Peruvian bear after they made a surprise appearance together in a comedy sketch during Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June. [BBC]

A teddy bear lies surrounded by flowers.
A toy Paddington bear and a marmalade sandwich, a nod to Queen Elizabeth's association with the children's book character during her Platinum Jubilee, sit outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse on Sept. 12 in Edinburgh. Stuffed bears left in the Queen's memory at royal residences after her death are being given to charity. (Jacob King/Getty Images)

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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