The Crown shows how quickly our youth becomes history

A few of you may remember that some time ago I swore never to write about the Royal Family again, on the assumption that they have feelings like anyone else. ‘other. We shouldn’t shoot them for fun, like they’re grouse to be shattered. Reporting is one thing; malicious gossip or cruel remarks are something quite different.

Why am I breaking my promise? Blame the crown. With the release of the new series, I, like millions of others, was gripped. It was like watching a revival of my youth: the fads and haircuts we had in college, the political events that shaped our future – the misery of John Major, the surrender of Hong Kong, the landslide victory by Tony Blair – but above all the scandals: Fergie’s toes being sucked, the conversation between Charles and Camilla about tampons, the blitzkrieg of an interview Diana gave to Martin Bashir.

I can’t be the only one wondering how the years have passed so quickly that what on screen looks like yesterday is actually ancient history. According to palace sources, however, it is precisely as events move ever closer to the present that the King fears the Crown’s portrayal could be “prejudicial”. The Prince of Wales is said to share that view, saying ‘the royals know it’s nonsense, but it’s really tough and hurtful’.

Few families would appreciate having the spotlight shone on the most intimate details of their lives; fewer still emerge with a clean slate. If it’s undeniable that the royal family has the distinction of being more of an institution than a family in the traditional sense, what household doesn’t have things they’d rather not reveal? And so few ordinary mortals have had to deal with such desperate situations as the tragic death of Diana or the disgrace of Prince Andrew, some, alas, have.

That’s one of the reasons The Crown is so popular: it offers a keyhole glimpse into the country’s most inscrutable family, whose antics are a magnifying glass for our own experience.

We recognize that not everything is strictly based on facts, is it? Well, it seems not everyone does. Some deluded souls think it’s a history lesson rather than a cleverly crafted concoction to tell a compelling story without letting inconvenient reality get in the way. Given the comments I’ve heard from thirtysomethings, who treat The Crown as if it were the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Dame Judi Dench was right when she suggested that the series should come with a warning, warning viewers that this is a fictionalized version of events rather than a docu-drama.

Is it sensationalist? Is Donald Trump an idiot? Otherwise, how do you keep viewers glued? Does it telescope events and present a simplified, exaggerated or unfair representation of the various central kingships? Sure. Is it completely off the mark? In some cases, no doubt, to the extent that with an earlier series Prince Philip would have considered pursuing, and in the last, John Major has refuted a plot that has Charles asking him about the possibility of the Queen abdicating. And yet, despite its distortions, The Crown still manages to capture a taste of royal family life.

And what an unenviable existence. I have known goldfish less exposed to the public eye. More powerfully in this series than ever before, as the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales crumbles and the Queen watches in incomprehensible dismay, this shameless soap opera conveys the suffocating scrutiny under which even fewer members of the royal family must exist. No one can deny that they enjoy exceptional privilege and wealth, and a jet-set lifestyle that is sure to be the envy of. But the conditions under which they exist are so extraordinarily constrained, so exposed to scrutiny, that it would drive most of us mad.

What is fascinating about this depiction is the way it hammers home the rigidity of the palate and its expectations, a straitjacket of convention that is anything but paralyzing with spontaneity or pleasure. The Queen is used as an emblem and spokesperson for centuries of royal protocol, which proves to be as flexible as cement. The same goes for his closest advisers and aides. Even Elizabeth, it is clear, was as much a prisoner of the system as her hardworking offspring. She was blessed to begin her reign at a time of deference and to have a personality that could adapt to an extremely rigid set of rules and preconceptions. His children, and Charles in particular as heir, were not so lucky.

In the history of the British monarchy, there has never been such social upheaval as the advent of the full-throttle media age, into which Charles was thrust. His problem was being forced to straddle an abyss: on one side, the standards of the pre-television era, on the other, the late 20th century, and the rapacious digital world. What’s remarkable, in retrospect, is how forward-thinking he was, despite his odious legacy of title and expectations.

Is the Crown damaging the image of the Firm? Does he diminish them by turning them into fictional characters, as if they were actors in an inflated version of Dallas?

You can see why those pictured might feel this way. Most of us in the same situation would surely do that. But to an objective eye, what stands out most about this compulsively watchable drama is a sense of affection, and in some cases awe, for this amazing family and their place in our society. If there’s anything proprietary – not to mention presumptuous or even betrayal – about airing a dramatized version of the Palace while most of its incumbents are still alive, part of it speaks to our egalitarian times. However, it also reflects pride.

Where Charles and William fear the erosion of family status, I would say they probably have little to fear. By highlighting the constraints and pressures under which they must live and work, The Crown engenders a certain sympathy. The bigger question, of course, is whether this erodes the aura of majesty and mystery that members of the royal family depend on.

The mystery, admittedly, has evaporated, even though it happened long before The Crown. What is extraordinary, however, is that this portrayal of royal scandal, coldness, infidelity and intrigue paradoxically seems in danger of enhancing rather than destroying the appeal of the House of Windsor.


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