I know that I am not unique in loving the Netflix series The Crown. A beautiful and romanticized portrayal of the tribulations of the British royal family, released it’s fourth season last week - the focus being the years of Margaret Thatcher’s ministry, and the relationship between Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. There was actually very little focus on Queen Elizabeth II herself this season, as it moved a bit more beyond her scope - despite being the actual wearer of titular Crown.
Maybe there were just more interesting things going on in Britain in the 80s than anything the Queen herself was doing.
Part of the draw of The Crown is that it appears to give the audience an unprecedented, but fictional, look at a family and political mechanism that is usually so closely guarded away from the public eye. We get to the see Queen Elizabeth II struggle with her roles as queen, wife, sister, and mother in ways that are usually saved for period pieces long after the monarch’s demise.
Of course, The Crown is a fictionalized version of real events and real people. While they have done plenty of research in making the show appear as authentic as possible, making these portrayals of real people seem as true to their actual character as possible, it is not real - and even more so, is at the mercy of the showrunner and the writers. Shaped by those that are in control of telling these stories.
And of course, I also know that I am not alone in looking forward to this fourth season, as it would finally reach a time period I know a little bit more about, despite having not been born yet. This chunk of time that my parents and my grandmother lived through, friends that I’ve come to know. Naturally, through this, I’ve been excited to see how they would portray Britain’s greatest villain - Margaret Thatcher - and the fairy tale love story of Charles and Diana.
And maybe in the interest of keeping this unexpected, they flipped those stories. Thatcher was made to seem hard done by through the upper class Conservative party. That she didn’t fit in and that was why they eventually pushed her out - not her damaging policies that only prioritized the rich and Southern. They made points of showing her working to cook dinner for her family and even the cabinet members there to continue work, and iron her husband’s shirts. The one regular person that the show used to take us away from the opulence of the royal family, Michael Fagan, is written as if his problems were his own and not a result of Thatcher’s economic policies.
There is no mention of the busting of unions, of the riots in Toxteth and her very own Chancellor’s encouragement of a “managed decline” for Merseyside. She is portrayed as a doting wife, a mother who loves her son more than her daughter, and a leader maybe misunderstood and taken for granted because she was a woman. When in reality, yes she may have been all those things, but she also directly caused a high unemployment rate, started a useless war in the Falkland Islands that spent millions that could’ve been going to the working class, fought openly against sanctions against apartheid South Africa, helped cover up the neglectful deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough… honestly, the list goes on and on.
It’s frustrating, and not at all surprising. She was not merely a misunderstood politician. She was, outright, a careless human being, so careless that her death was legitimately celebrated throughout Great Britain. This is similar to the showrunner saying between seasons one and two that the second season would focus more on Prince Phillip, because he found him more interesting.
As for the fairy tale of Charles and Diana, that is a different side of things as well. Season three had done so well in making us feel sympathetic for Charles, as the heir finding it difficult to accept his role as future king, living and growing in a more modern society and wanting to do right by his country people and his family at the same time. Also misunderstood, by his father and peers, he struggled to fit in and carve his own space.
Season four begins with the family discussing his relationship matters, and his inability to find someone worthy of marriage due to his own relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles - who’s married and with children at this point. At the end of season three, you felt heartbreak for him as his family decided that Camilla wasn’t worthy of joining the royal family, and thus she went on to marry someone else, but in season four it is his continued persistence that Camilla is the only one his heart belongs to - even after courting and marrying Diana! - that turns that sympathy into resentment.
Charles is so actually cruel to Diana, stemming from his own resentment and insecurities, and his actions push all sympathy built from season three out the window. There is nothing to be sympathetic towards anymore where Charles is concerned, as he pouts and throws tantrums because no one will give him what he wants. Diana, for her part, was young and thrust into a world where she was repeatedly treated as if she didn’t deserve to be there, and when her popularity began to outshine Charles’, she was punished for it by him.
The difference in these stories, though, is that Margaret Thatcher’s actions and character had real life consequences, that were left out of the retelling of her story. Charles and Diana’s relationship, those details that the show may have embellished for drama, will always be private. We will never know just what their relationship was ever really like - if it was truly that difficult for Diana, if Charles really was that petulant and mean.
The power of history, is in the hands of the storyteller. And these stories, the way they have been shaped by these storytellers, and the showrunner, will shape perceptions for younger generations. It’s so interesting, to do so much work in research, and still get so much of it so wrong — or maybe even just actively shining the light on the bits that you want to show off. Maybe the showrunner of The Crown truly does believe that Margaret Thatcher was misunderstood, or that Charles really is that cruel.
These stories really do teach one the value of research, though, and of listening to as many sides as possible (in certain realms, at least). There are plenty of stories out there, if one is only able to find them. There is fiction in history, and there always will be, when storytellers shape it.