LONDON - Is the made-up version of “The Crown” bad for the real version of the crown?
The timing of Wednesday’s season premier is fortuitous for Netflix: Interest in the British monarchy is high after the recent death of an iconic queen and the accession of the longest heir-in-waiting. But it is also super awkward for King Charles III, who is trying to set the tone for his reign just as the TV show revisits some of the most painful chapters of his life, reminding viewers that he was once a bad, sad husband in a bad, sad marriage.
For an American audience, “The Crown” is entertainment. In Britain, there’s a sense there’s more at stake. Netflix has added a “fictional dramatization” label. But these characters are the faces on the currency. These plotlines feed into the country’s sense of its history and of itself.
And unlike the early seasons that featured historical figures such as World War II leader Winston Churchill, many of the characters depicted in the fifth season are still very much alive.
It matters for the future of the monarchy, and its ability to project soft power in the world, if Charles is viewed as a jerk.
Whereas Queen Elizabeth II was widely adored, Charles is merely liked - by 44 percent of the British public. The rest are neutral to hostile.
The new season of “The Crown” being “beamed around the world at a time when Charles and Camila are looking to establish themselves as the king and queen - it couldn’t be worse timing,” said Anna Whitelock, professor of the history of monarchy at City, University of London.
Former prime ministers are weighing in. John Major called the show a “barrel-load of nonsense.” A peeved Tony Blair dismissed plot points in the new season as “complete and utter rubbish.”
Historians and royal biographers, meanwhile, are arguing over the show’s depictions and the significance of its messages.
Penny Junor, author of “The Firm: The Troubled Life of the House of Windsor,” said she thought the new season not only “very unfair” but “very damaging.”
“Too many people will think that what they see really happened,” she said. “No matter how many disclaimers.”
A recent poll conducted in Britain by YouGov found that less than 20 percent of respondents said they considered the show to be fully or mostly accurate. But 18 to 24-year-olds were three times more likely than those aged 65 and older to see it as an accurate account. And what seeps into public consciousness may not necessarily show up in polling.
Robert Lacey, a royal biographer and historical consultant for the show, defended the series in an interview with The Washington Post.
“This we feel, of all the decades, of all the seasons, is the most solidly based,” he said. “Not just on fact, but on personal testimony, from Charles and Diana.” Both Charles and Princess Diana contributed to books that told of their unhappy marriage.
“I stand by the historical accuracy,” Lacey said, adding that “The Crown” does imagine conversations that were never reported. But he said that there was a difference between “detail and bigger truths.”
Some television critics have wondered if the show may perversely increase public affection for Charles, who - although portrayed as a committed adulterer who can be cold and cruel to his wife - receives fairly sympathetic treatment.
“At its best, ‘The Crown’ is about flawed people coping imperfectly with cursed privilege,” wrote the Guardian’s reviewer, who didn’t find much else positive to say.
Actor Dominic West, who plays Charles in the new season, told Entertainment Weekly that even the show’s depiction of one of most scandalous moments of the prince’s life - the leak of a sordid conversation between Charles and his then-mistress Camilla - “made me extremely sympathetic towards the two of them and what they’d gone through.”
“Looking back on it, and having to play it, what you’re conscious of is that the blame was not with these two people, two lovers, who were having a private conversation,” West said. “What’s really [clear now] is how invasive and disgusting was the press’s attention to it, that they printed it out verbatim and you could call a number and listen to the actual tape.”
The first episode of the fifth season of “The Crown” is doozy, set in 1991, in a rainy-dreary, out-of-ideas Britain in recession, that sees an impatient Prince Charles in a double-breasted suit stomping on the petrol pedal of his beloved sports car and plotting against a frumpy Queen Elizabeth II in a hair helmet.
Bigger meaning: son vs. mum.
In this season, Charles is shown manipulating, orchestrating, conspiring, with the press (egads) and politicos, to cast shade on his mother and to convince the prime minister, Major, to convince the queen to abdicate the throne and make way for a next generation, meaning Charles.
It’s all very Game of Thrones, with more polling data.
Lacey said there was no evidence of Charles lobbying Major to advance his position. That’s “a personal projection of what Prince Charles might have said.”
The real-life Major wasn’t having it. In a letter to the Telegraph last month, he wrote: “Netflix may well take the view that any publicity is good publicity. But I assure them it is not - most especially when it disrespects the memory of those no longer alive, or puts words into the mouths of those still living and in no position to defend themselves.”
Robert Hardman, author of “Queen of Our Times,” watched all 10 episodes in advance of it dropping on Netflix and said the new season “crossed a line.”
He said he wasn’t so worried about “harmless blunders” like Princess Margaret, the queen’s sister, appearing on a BBC radio program a decade later than she actually did. But he took issue with what he said were unsupported storylines, such as the queen scolding then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin about the Romanovs.
“What you are left with is a characterization of the queen as a rather selfish, introverted sentimentalist who is sort of losing the plot,” he said. “I’m not saying: ‘How dare they be rude?’ They can criticize the monarchy. But it’s creating a false picture of the woman she was and what she was doing at the time.”
“The problem is it becomes a settled narrative,” Hardman said, “the way the world absorbs the royal story.”
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