By: Stuart White 27-11-2020
UNEASY IS THE HEAD THAT WEARS THE CROWN
William Shakespeare Henry IV
The HBO fantasy drama series Game of Thrones was hugely successful. Running from April 2011 to May 2019, its audience figures for the final season were over 13.6 million. The series had a total show budget of $1.5 Billion and earned $3.1 Billion through HBO subscriptions alone. That’s a pretty fair return on your money.
Compare that to the real life game of thrones show, Netflix’s blockbuster, The Crown, now entering its 4th series. Production of the first 2 seasons of the popular Netflix show reportedly cost $130 million, making it one of the most expensive series ever made. But as one commentator opines, “If you want to make a show about royalty, you'll need the budget to pay for fabulous costumes, a talented cast, and lavish filming locations.”
Of course there’s the old adage that ‘comparisons are odious’ and in this case not just odious but irrelevant because whereas the former was a work of pure fiction and fantasy, The Crown is purportedly a work of faction, historically accurate and portraying real life people.
"There are two sorts of truth. There's historical truth and then there's the larger truth about the past," says the show's historical consultant, Robert Lacey. Ergo, the Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth's reign becomes a history lesson of sorts, teaching its viewers about not only the royal family, but also life and politics in the U.K. during the 1960s and '70s. “But showrunner Peter Morgan isn't making a documentary. And at times, crafting a drama—even one rooted in history—stands at odds with the facts. So he plays with timelines, manufactures characters, and even invents situations that couldn't have taken place in real life.”
Yes, there are photographs, and letters, even video footage of the royals from this time period. But the show's most iconic scenes tend to highlight the bits of history that weren't documented, "all the lives and loves and experiences and tears and smiles," as Lacey describes them. They can be decidedly inaccurate (after all, no one has access to the royals' most intimate conversations), and still representative of emotions that were real. And at the end of the day, the purpose of the show isn't to educate, but rather to entertain.
"We are creating a work of fiction, albeit based in some reality. But ultimately, there's only so much research you can do," Josh O'Connor, who plays a young Prince Charles, said. "After a time, you just got to crack on and create something for yourself."
Which is all very well but of course the show’s actors and actresses are portraying living people and it’s hard to imagine how they must feel, seeing themselves speaking words they never uttered, in settings which, though they might mirror actual locations, are close but not close enough.
The fourth season of the show is predominantly focused on Charles, Diana, her eating disorder and their marital problems over a thirteen year period (1977 – 1990). Emily Andrews, Royal Editor at the Mail on Sunday, wrote that the 72-year-old's friends have classed the depiction of him as "trolling on a Hollywood budget" and says that the palace really are not happy with the entire situation.
"This is drama and entertainment for commercial ends being made with no regard to the actual people involved who are having their lives hijacked and exploited," one insider allegedly said. "In this case, it's dragging up things that happened during very difficult times 25 or 30 years ago without a thought for anyone's feelings. That isn't right or fair, particularly when so many of the things being depicted don't represent the truth."
These are certainly uncharted dramatic waters. Not only is this very recent history but the public’s fascination with, and adoration of, Princess Diana is still as strong as ever. Flicking through some online papers today, the Daily Mail has published some previously unseen, candid snaps of her on holiday and for the past few weeks the alleged dirty tricks used by reporter Martin Bashir to entice Diana to appear in the famous Panorama interview – ‘There were three of us in the marriage so it was a bit crowded’ - have been making headline news. In case you missed it, the edited highlights are that he apparently presented false bank statements to her claiming they proved members of the royal household were paying people to spy on her, telling her that her elder son William had a watch with a spy camera embedded in it, recording her conversations and activities and that her then husband, the afore-mentioned Prince Charles was having an affair with the children’s nanny, Tiggy Legg-Bourke. These allegations have been made by late Princess’s brother, Earl Spencer and he is out for blood. Meanwhile Mr. Bashir has been keeping a very low profile as he recovers from Covid and heart surgery. Make no mistake, these are sensational claims and this story will grow like Topsy. The princess may have died 23 years ago but her legion of fans live on and her press pulling power is as great now as it ever was.
There are even suggestions that the entire production is a thinly-veiled Game of Thrones, with the unflattering portrait of Prince Charles being an attempt to discredit the entire royal family and system in the eyes of the public. It might also add fuel to the suggestion that on the demise of the Queen, the crown should bypass Prince Charles and his former mistress, now Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker-Bowles, and move straight to Prince William. So you see this blurring of fact and fiction could have very real and very serious consequences, especially in an age where many young people have never read a newspaper, much less a history book, preferring to rely on social media posts and television drama series to shape their world view and knowledge of past events.
Her Majesty herself is believed not to have watched the show and as ever maintains a dignified silence on all such matters. As for Diana, undoubted Queen of Hearts, it seems she is never destined to rest in peace. And if and when Series 5 re-creates her dramatic ending in that Parisian tunnel, I predict an outpouring of grief amongst viewers that will rival even the real thing.
And an awful lot of money in the Netflix coffers, of course. Their executives will be crying all the way to the bank.