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23rd November 2022

Royalty Ethics in The Crown

“Sadistic and wicked” or “humanising”?
Royalty Ethics in The Crown
Credit: Netflix

Netflix’s The Crown has returned with its newest season starring beloved actors such as Imelda Staunton (Queen Elizabeth II) and Dominic West (Prince Charles), as well as newer faces including Elizabeth Debicki (Princess Diana). It’s safe to say that fans were eagerly awaiting Season 5 with great excitement and anticipation, but not everyone feels that way. The show has previously faced criticism for being inaccurate and even “anti-monarchy”, but the current season, which is set in the more recent past of the 1990s, is receiving even more backlash. There’s no doubt that the ’90s were some of the most controversial and pivotal years for the royal family, with the divorce of Princess Diana and Prince Charles and her subsequent death, as well as Queen Elizabeth’s “annus horribilis” in 1992. However, in the wake of Prince Phillip’s death and the Queen’s passing, the show has come under fire for its depictions of the royal family and for airing the Season 5 so soon after the Queen’s death. Moreover, with Prince William now next in line to the throne, and Prince Harry publishing his autobiography in January 2023, it begs the question of how ethical actually is The Crown?

Photo: Keith Bernstein

Many argue that The Crown doesn’t need an accuracy warning as it’s not a documentary but rather a biopic or soap opera version of the royal family’s lives. A Cosmopolitan article even argued that because the show uses primary evidence, interviews, and authorised biographies that royal family members took part in, there’s no need for it. Others disagree, including Oscar-winning actress Judi Dench who wrote an open letter to Netflix saying that the show was “cruel and unjust towards the individuals and damaging to the institution they represent” and that they should “reconsider – for the sake of a family and a nation so recently bereaved, as a mark of respect to a sovereign who served her people so dutifully for 70 years”. Of course, Netflix did no such thing and Season 5 is currently available for streaming now.

However, a YouGov poll found that 74% of respondents thought that “programmes or films that dramatise real-life events should show warning saying they may not accurately reflect what really happened”. The Crown does have a research team that works to make the show as accurate as possible with regards to everything from costumes and props, to relationships and events. Some matters have been confirmed as accurate (such as the now King Charles and Camilla’s Tampongate and Diana’s secret tapes that she made for her biography), but others are fictional including the conspiracy between former PM John Major and Charles to overthrow the Queen. There are also events that haven’t been confirmed by evidence and so their truthfulness remains unknown, for example the affairs of Prince Phillip with Penelope Knatchball and Princess Diana with Hasnat Khan.

This has led to differing views from the public and critics alike. Some take the view that the show is “humanising the royals” by showing “what they are feeling”, and that it “reignites an interest in the Royal Family that is not only beneficial to them, but a requirement of their continued existence and (…) an ability for the royals to remain relevant to the British people is essential – without that, there seems little purpose in continuing to fund them”. Whereas others have branded the show “sadistic and wicked” especially since “Diana can no longer speak for herself”.

Andrew Morton, the author of Diana’s biography Diana: Her True Story, that she went against royal protocol to secretly work on has said that Debicki’s portrayal of her “conveys the Diana I got to know”. The show also used Diana’s former private secretary as a consultant for Season 5 and he has claimed that the programme “created in my mind a story that chimed truthfully with the reality through which I had lived”. So as far as we’re concerned, The Crown is largely accurate in terms of its depiction of Princess Diana and large events that were made aware to the public. However, it goes without saying that anything that takes place outside of the public eye i.e. in the household itself is subject to imaginative retellings.

Since Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle stepped back from their role as senior members of the royal family in 2020, they have been granted much more freedom in terms of what they’re permitted to say to the public. Consequently, in his autobiography Spare published in January 2023,  Harry shares “a remarkably moving personal journey from trauma to healing, one that speaks to the power of love and will inspire and encourage millions of people around the world” according to Global CEO of Penguin Random House Markus Dohle. Proceeds from the book are donated to British charities.

Elizabeth Debicki (as Diana), Teddy Hawley (as Harry), Timothée Sambor (as William), Dominic West (as Charles). Credit: Netflix

Harry has also attempted to stop Netflix from producing The Crown, which is understandable given this season’s plot focuses on himself and his brother as children, as well as their deceased mother Diana. His biographer Angela Levin said “[y]ou can’t stand there and expect people to respect you when Netflix is exposing your mother and not walk away. He’d be a hero if he walked away.” So, it will certainly be interesting to see if Harry mentions the popular Netflix series in his autobiography.

Personally, my main issue with The Crown is its new season airing so soon after the Queen’s death, but as for the ethics of the show it appears that they have done what they can to make the show as ethical of possible. Of course, one could argue that in order to be the most ethical they should stop airing completely but Netflix would never resort to that. I also don’t think that there’s any harm in issuing an accuracy warning at the beginning of the show but, again, given Netflix’s somewhat blasé attitudes about what content they stream I doubt that this would be a concern of theirs.

Imogen Mingos

Imogen Mingos

Head Fashion & Beauty Editor 2023-24 | Awarded Best Newcomer (The Mancunion) at MMG Awards 2023 | Highly Commended for Section Editor of the Year at MMG Awards 2024

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