UMD Expert on British Television Reflects on the Series’ Treatment of the Royals
Still image courtesy of Netflix
For five seasons, Netflix’s “The Crown” has violated the dictum about the British monarchy laid down in Victorian times by writer Walter Bagehot: “Its mystery is its life—we must not let daylight in upon its magic.”
The show returns Thursday for its much-anticipated final season, when creator Peter Morgan will again pull back the curtain on royal life to shine a light on recent milestones including, most tragically, the death of Princess Diana, followed by the beginning of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s relationship, and the wedding of now-King Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.
Julie Taddeo, a research professor in the Department of History who has written extensively on British period dramas, said the series’ cutoff in 2005 is no accident. It allows the show to avoid wading into last year’s death of Queen Elizabeth II and the messy, unresolved dynamics between “the Firm” and Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. “Peter Morgan said that when it came to covering the queen’s death, you have to decide what’s journalism and what’s history, so it really is too early to treat it.”
Looming over the final season, which will air in two parts debuting today and Dec. 16, is the 1997 car crash that killed Diana. Despite the more than quarter-century that has passed, she remains a cultural icon, whether through Gen Z TikTokers who love her oversize sweatshirt and bike shorts aesthetic or productions like “Diana: The Musical,” a so-bad-it’s-delicious Broadway show that included numbers like “Welcome to the Windsors.”
“I think if Diana had died at 60 or 70, she wouldn’t have been turned into a martyr of the royals,” said Taddeo. “Because she died young and beautiful, and we felt an emotional attachment to her, I think we felt her death probably more powerfully than Queen Elizabeth’s. She never grew old, and that’s definitely part of the mystique of Diana.”
“The Crown” has been rumored to draw both affection and disdain from the royal family. In the show’s early years, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip reportedly loved it. “It was going back to them being young and glamorous and in love,” said Taddeo. “As the series went on, it started to show that this is a family with a lot of dysfunction.”
King Charles in particular has “hated how he was depicted,” said Taddeo, especially in the context of his affair with Camilla and his treatment of Diana. His disgruntlement was part of a call several years ago for Netflix to air a disclaimer before each episode reminding viewers that what they were seeing had been fictionalized. (Netflix declined to do so until season five, after added pressure from online viewers and the actress Dame Judi Dench, who has been a frequent portrayer of royals in other productions.)
What “The Crown” has done best, Taddeo said, is demystify that which has long been obscured. She pointed to the show’s rendering of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, which took viewers beneath the canopy where a 27-year-old Elizabeth was anointed in oil by the archbishop.
“The royals are anointed and still have to show their ordinary side,” said Taddeo. “That’s what ‘The Crown’ did. It tried to balance recreating those moments of mystery, but also showed us their faults as humans.”
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