The Crown

The Crown: historically accurate or pure fiction?

15 minutes to read
Article
Tara van Dijk
11/11/2020

For a few years now, The Crown has been one of the most popular shows on Netflix. Between November and December of 2016, 9% of Netflix users had watched The Crown, with the series beating in popularity other shows like Breaking Bad, Narcos, Orange Is the New Black and Gilmore Girls (Douglas, 2017). The series has garnered several awards, including Golden Globes, Primetime Emmy Awards, Television Awards and Screen Actors Guild awards, amidst even more nominations (IMDb, n.d.). The show has also been praised for its historical accuracy ("Does Queen Elizabeth Watch The Crown?", 2020), but how accurate is it really?

The Crown

The Crown is based on Queen Elizabeth II's life, from the 1940s to modern times. There are currently three seasons out, and a fourth and fifth season are expected. The series starts at the time of the Queen's ascension to the throne as a 25-year-old after the death of her father, King George VI, and the story follows her reign. Romances, personal matters and political rivalries are covered in the series along with the influence these events have on the decisions Elizabeth II makes as Queen, which would ultimately shape the second half of the twentieth century. The Netflix series can be seen as a history lesson of sorts as it teaches its viewers about not only the royal family but also life and politics in the UK back in the day (Halleman, 2019).

The main cast of The Crown Season 1

Shows about the British royal family are not a new phenomenon. Their origin can be traced back to chronicle-history plays of the 1580s (Otnes & Maclaran, 2015) while cinema also used "true stories" early in its history (Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006). After all, royals are a form of celebrities, which can fuel such stories. Turner (2013) asserts that

"Where the celebrity from the entertainment world is subject to shifts in fashion and taste that can wipeout their professional careers completely, the royal celebrity's continuity is more or less assured. They may move in and out of the public gaze, take a more or less active role in public life, but they will continue to occupy the same status for life."

Royals have a status that many look up to, and people only get to see the public aspects of their life. The "majesty" of royalty is constructed, its display is deliberately managed, and people seem to be aware of that (Turner, 2013). The royals' private lives unfold behind closed doors, which makes us wonder what is said or done behind those doors. In fact, a big part of The Crown revolves around such private moments and conversations. Yet, since such private aspects of the royals' lives are not common knowledge, the audience has to ask, are such scenes entirely fictitious? This leads us to this article's central question: what choices are made to dramatize real-life events in The Crown?

The Crown as a docudrama

Just like the display of royalty is deliberately managed, so is The Crown as a show. Not everything displayed in the show can be factual if private aspects of the royals' lives are also covered. Still, there are archives with, photos, video footage, speeches, and various exchanges have been recorded. Such material has been used in the show to make it as accurate as can be.

 

The wide availability of recording technologies today has made the royals' lives more well-documented than ever. Think, for example, of paparazzi-style shots made with smartphones and shared on the internet. Still, back in the day, no such digital luxuries were available and people had considerably more limited resources to document material for future research. It thus falls to Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown "to fill the void by imagining and creating plausible exchanges between the protagonists" (Williams, 2019). Private moments, conversations and even the relationships between the royals can be seen as part of that void that Morgan tries to fill. Of course, another part of the show accurately recreates historical events based on what has been captured. The Crown can thus be seen as a docudrama, a fabricated recreation of actual people or events (Rhodes & Springer, 2006).

Behind the scenes of The Crown

According to Rhodes and Springer (2006), the show

"represents an attempt to present factual material through the organizing aesthetics of fiction and narrative, and inevitably it utilizes certain forms of narrative patterning and visual composition that facilitate audience identification with the "characters"— even when these characters are well-known historical figures."

The show thus moves away from the presumed objectivity of a documentary and closer to the techniques of narrative fiction (Rhodes & Springer, 2006). As Robert Lacey, the show's historical consultant, has stated, "half of The Crown Season 3 is 'historically accurate',  while the other half is 'imaginatively accurate'" (Williams, 2019).

What is also interesting about the show is that after two seasons, almost the whole cast was replaced. Olivia Colman has replaced Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II for seasons three and four, Tobias Menzies replaced Matt Smith as Prince Philip and Helena Bonham Carter took over from Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret; the rest of the cast also had an older actor or actress taking over from them. This was done in order to better reflect the advancing ages of the royals (Sulcas, 2019). Besides, changing a production's cast can result in the viewer being refreshed and finding renewed interest in following the characters. Still, such decisions can also lead to protest due to viewers' attachment to the actors. The latter happened with The Crown (Saunf, 2019) despite this decision being announced before the show began.

Olivia Colman (left) and Claire Foy (right) as Queen Elizabeth II

What events are dramatized?

The Crown can be seen as a dramatized depiction of real events, but the key is that the audience has to believe that all of the events happening in the show occurred in reality and are accurate, even when some elements are fictional. To achieve this, docudramas like The Crown "in general obey the rules of the fictional film if they are to convince an audience: continuity editing, realist mise-en-scène and naturalistic acting—all the paraphernalia of the realist movie—combine to persuade an audience to suspend its disbelief" (Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006).

The portrayal of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip

The story focuses on the Queen and her family, her political decisions, and their private and public moments. Characters play a big role in telling the story; therefore, Queen Elizabeth's and Prince Philip's characters have both been dramatized. 

For example, by adding fictional events, the show creates opportunities for storytelling, as in the case of Philip's mother, Princess Alice, giving an interview to a journalist named John Armstrong from The Guardian. This interview never happened and there was no John Armstrong, but this plot element created an opportunity for the show to delve into the Princess' past life (Halleman, 2019). Further, this fictional event boosted the continuity of the show and gave the viewer background information on Prince Philip's family and his difficult childhood. When he was young, Philip's family was pushed out of Greece during a period of political upheaval and he was smuggled out of the country in an orange crate. After the exile, Philip's mother had a nervous breakdown, which led to schizophrenia, and his father moved to France, leaving Philip in Great Britain to live with various relatives (Roberts, 2019; Foussianes, 2019). This story makes the viewer sympathize with the character of Prince Philip and emphasizes that he has gone through struggles and is not just a man born into the monarchy.  

Adding these personal moments serves a purpose: they make us feel closer to the royals by making them seem "just like us" in various ways.

Moreover, The Crown suggests that the horrible plane crash that led to Philip's sister Cecile's death was, at least in part, his fault and his parents blamed him for it since she had planned to skip the wedding that required her to fly, but changed her plans after Philip got in trouble at school. This is not true, according to royal historian Hugo Vickers, because there was no fight and the sister always planned to attend the wedding (Roberts, 2019). This storyline creates depth in Prince Philip's character and dramatizes his life, regardless of the fact that the events never occurred in real life. 

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in season 1

The Crown also makes suggestions as to what might have happened, reflecting rumours that were spread in real life. Rumours about the royal family are not rare, which makes them easy to add into the storyline. For example, it has long been rumoured that Prince Philip, the Queen's husband, had committed adultery although this has never been confirmed and neither has there been evidence of it. Likewise, The Crown implies that Prince Philip was not faithful, but never really confirms it in the show. Through this storyline, the show delves into the insecurities that the Queen has about her marriage, just like any other woman might.

Another example of speculative elements in the show stems from the fascination of the public with the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and her son, the heir. Back in the day, among royals, the daily care of small children was commonly part of the duties of the household staff (Blair, 2019). This had led to suggestions that Charles, Queen Elizabeth's son, did not form a strong bond with her, and this relationship plays a part in season 3. In this third season, the Queen is displayed as "emotionally straitened and in some ways cold and even cruel to her son" (Higgins, 2019). Further, the Queen is portrayed in The Crown as a mother who struggles to hold up her responsibilities to the country and being a mother at the same time. The Crown explores these struggles with her duties as a monarch through its seasons, which helps the viewer understand the protagonist's decisions, both on a political and on a personal level. 

The royals' relationships and the feelings they have for one another are still part of what happens behind closed doors and can therefore not be seen as factual when The Crown depicts them. However, adding these personal moments serves a purpose: they make us feel closer to the royals by making them seem "just like us" in various ways (Otnes & Maclaran, 2015). Otnes & Maclaran (2015) argue that

"The big screen lays bare the monarchy as composed of human beings with passions, turmoil, and temptations to which everyone can relate, rather than distant, cold, institutional figureheads. Often depicted as having to overcome adversity and face many challenges in life, a monarch shown as vulnerable and flawed helps an audience identify and empathize. Yet significantly and somewhat paradoxically, people also need to know that these figures differ from themselves, to allow the mystery that surrounds the idea of royalty to remain."

Despite being a "small screen" production, The Crown follows the patterns presented by Otnes and Maclaran. For example, the show emphasizes the Queen's sacrifices in the name of duty, which entail putting the welfare of the nation above her personal problems or desires. Depicting such sacrifices presents the royal character as struggling, but this sense of sacrifice is also something that separates "them" from "us" and constructs the authoritarian power that the audience expects a monarch to hold (Otnes & Maclaran, 2015).

Importantly, this personalization of the Queen and her family is magnified through the use of dramatic effects such as facial close-ups and matching music to evoke an emotional response from the viewers (Otnes & Maclaran, 2015). It can therefore also be added that the cinematography and editing also have a big role in dramatizing events. 

Invented characters, chronology and set design

Another example of the fictional in the docudrama is the invention of whole new characters that never existed in reality in order to illustrate noteworthy features of actual occurrences or situations (Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006). In the fourth episode of the first season of The Crown, it is 1952 and London is covered by the "Great Smog". Prime Minister Winston Churchill doesn't take it seriously until his private assistant, Venetia Scott, is killed by a bus. This private assistant never existed in real life (Rodriguez, 2017).

Venetia Scott, Winston Churchill's assistant who never existed in real life

The chronology of certain events is not always accurate either. In the show's third season, it is suggested that Princess Anne's fling with Andrew Parker Bowles occurred at the same time that Prince Charles' relationship with Camilla started. Charles' biographer Sally Bedell Smith asserts that there is no evidence that Anne and Andrew were dating in the same year as Charles and Camilla (Halleman, 2019). Anne and Andrew got together in 1970, but Charles and Camilla did not meet until the early summer of 1972 (Weaver, 2019). A love quadrangle was most likely added for dramatic effect and to move things along, thereby creating continuity.

Elsewhere, some notable historical moments are not included. Events that are not included in season 3 but would fit with its timeline include the wedding of Princess Anne with her first husband Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne, "Bloody Sunday", and the 1972 incident in Derry, Northern Ireland, when British soldiers shot Catholic protestors and fourteen people died. The show also skips over Britain's cultural revolution during this period: there is no episode dedicated to Beatlemania or any mention of the Rolling Stones, or the expanding punk rock movement, which led to the Sex Pistols putting out "God Save the Queen" at the same time as Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee (Halleman, 2019). Of course, each season of the show is only ten episodes long and not everything can be included.

Just like the publicly displayed life of the royals is thoroughly managed, so is The Crown as a series.

In an interview with Newsweek, historical consultant Robert Lacey said that the historical events chosen for each episode of the series were based on drama and story as main criteria. He aadded that there were some aspects of the past where it was felt that the story had more potential to resonate more deeply with audiences (Williams, 2019). The events shown in the show are thus specifically chosen, just like the events not shown. 

Realistic mise-en-scène also makes for an important aspect of creating intimacy and making the fictional feel real (Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006). The Crown's set design exhibits luxury through its lavish decor and setting. It makes every scene feel like it has been shot in the real palace. Together with the other locations, it all adds to the dramatization of the show. Further, the costume designs let the viewer experience the luxury of the monarchy, making scenes visually appealing and realistic. 

One of the luxurious set designs

Designing a compelling docudrama

Just like the publicly displayed life of the royals is thoroughly managed, so is The Crown as a series. The show has been praised for its accuracy, but it can be concluded that not everything in The Crown is historically accurate. Personal and intimate moments that are kept private from the public can never be fact-cheked, but Peter Morgan fills these blanks in order to create an engaging story. By filling in these blanks, creating luxurious set and costume designs, adding characters, shuffling the timeline around a bit, and sometimes not including historically important moments, the showrunners create a visually appealing story that helps the viewer identify and empathize with characters that are well-known historical figures (Rhodes & Springer, 2006; Otnes & Maclaran, 2015). Everything that is shown to the viewer is deliberately chosen for its dramatic effect, from the intimate private moments to elemnts of the cinematography. Besides making for an aesthetically pleasing show and winning awards for the acting or the writing, this meticulous design might also help in making the viewer forget that in the end it may not all be so accurate. 

 

References

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Douglas, T. (2017, February 10). Streaming facts from fiction. Retrieved from https://rts.org.uk/article/streaming-facts-fiction

Does Queen Elizabeth Watch The Crown? (2020, February 25). Retrieved from https://britishheritage.com/royals/does-queen-elizabeth-watch-the-crown

Foussianes, C. (2019, November 18). How Princess Alice of Battenberg, Prince Philip's mother, became the royal family's black sheep. Retrieved from https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/tradition/a29310694/who-is-princess-alice-prince-philip-mother-the-crown-facts/

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IMDb. (n.d.). The Crown - Awards. Retrieved from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4786824/awards

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