In ‘The Crown’ Season 4 on Netflix, This Is What’s True and What’s False
The royal family is allegedly angry over inaccuracies in Season 4 of “The Crown.” But what is wrong and what is dramatic license? We analyze the most contentious scenes.
After managing to maintain a dignified silence for the previous three series, the courtiers at the royal palaces have now begun to dispute the veracity of the fourth series of The Crown, with sources briefing journalists that the show is “trolling with a Hollywood budget.”
Indeed, one can’t help feeling that if the producers were dealing with a more litigious family than the famously courtroom-averse Windsors, they might have slapped a loosely-based-on-a-true-story disclaimer on it along the lines of what writer and visionary-in-chief Peter Morgan has said in interviews: “Sometimes you have to forsake accuracy, but you must never forsake truth.”
The fourth season of The Crown certainly rings true, particularly in the vile treatment of Princess Diana by the royal system, but, for the royal nerds among us, what about accuracy? Did certain things happen? And if they didn’t, do they count as acceptable dramatic license, conveying a more fundamental truth about the situation or characters in question?
Episode 1: Gold Stick
The Queen loves horses
The first episode of the fourth season opens with an arresting sight—the Queen smiling warmly and tenderly. The recipient of her smile is shortly revealed to be… a horse. This makes sense. If this were Frozen, the Queen would now break out into: “Horses are better than people…”
Charles had LOADS of girlfriends
At the dinner table, the Queen is regaled by family members with a long list of Charles’ girlfriends as they discuss his love life. It’s true that Prince Charles was known for his many, many girlfriends, including Lucia Santa Cruz, the daughter of the former Chilean ambassador to London, who introduced him to Camilla Shand—later Parker Bowles.
Charles dated Diana’s sister first.
Lady Sarah Spencer briefly dated Prince Charles in 1977. Sarah took pride in the fact that she set Diana and Charles up. “I introduced them,” she once said. “I’m Cupid.”
Verdict: True. The show has Sarah looking a little miffed, when taking Charles’ later call to ask if it is OK to ask out Diana—but this is not explored further.
Charles first met Diana when she was dressed as a nymph from Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Diana’s nymph-garb is one of Peter Morgan’s inventions. However, Diana did love acting and performing, and they did first meet when she was 16 and Charles was visiting her sister. Diana was struck by Charles, telling her friends that one day she was going to marry Prince Charles and laughing that he was, “The one man on the planet who is not allowed to divorce me,” according to The Diana Chronicles.
The Queen forecasts Thatcher’s cabinet
The Queen is shown as predicting Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet with uncanny accuracy, and says this is a custom she has made a habit of, and compares it to predicting a horse race. There is no record of this, but The Crown’s historical adviser, Robert Lacey, wrote a detailed series of articles for The Sunday Times in which he interviewed former prime ministers about their audiences with Her Majesty.
Edward Heath was astonished when she started interrogating him in detail about the government’s plans for a new town called Milton Keynes that had been buried in the “red boxes” in which government business is delivered daily to the Queen.
Verdict: Maybe not literally true, but does the Queen take an obsessive interest in politics? Most definitely.
Margaret Thatcher did her own cooking and ironing.
The pokey flat in which the prime minister lives above 10 Downing Street may appear to stretch credulity but it’s actually an accurate reflection of her quarters. And yes, contemporary witnesses confirm that Thatcher did do her own cooking and ironing, and even insisted on paying £19 for her own ironing board rather than allowing it to go on expenses.
Margaret Thatcher was sexist against women.
There are to be no women in her cabinet, Thatcher tells the Queen, because women are “not suited to high office,” becoming “too emotional.” Thatcher’s sexism is evidenced in the fact that in 11 years, Thatcher promoted only one woman to her cabinet. Her government notably failed to advance female-friendly causes such as free childcare provision.
Prince Charles’ dodgy fly-fishing technique
Writing to the editor of the Daily Telegraph, one Dominic Witherow from Woking expressed his fury at the show’s portrayal of fishing techniques. “As staunch royalists, my wife and I decided to watch the new series of The Crown so that we could pick away at its inaccuracies and untruths,” he wrote, continuing: “However, despite the ample warnings in the press, we were unprepared for the depth of injustice on display—particularly towards Prince Charles.
“The show’s portrayal of his fishing technique was utterly unjustifiable. To imagine that any self respecting fisherman would allow his line to touch down so catastrophically is bad enough but to then suggest that such a cast could possibly result in the landing of a fine salmon is tantamount to gross-almost criminal-negligence.”
Verdict: False, if you are a fly-fishing reader of the Daily Telegraph.
Episode 2: The Balmoral Test
The royals “test” people by how well they cope with Balmoral.
In this episode, Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana are both subjected to a number of covert “tests” when they are invited to visit the royals’ Scottish retreat, Balmoral. Having been invited to spend a weekend with the Queen and her family at Balmoral, Thatcher and her husband, Denis, are seen traveling to Scotland by plane.
During the journey, Denis tells his wife he has been warned by Malcolm Muggeridge [English journalist and satirist] to watch out for the “infamous Balmoral tests” to which the royals routinely subject all their guests “to find out if someone is acceptable or not acceptable.” Isn’t visiting anyone’s home a kind of test?
The royals like killing things for fun.
A huge amount of time on Mrs. T’s first trip to Balmoral is dedicated to crawling around the undergrowth with a rifle, on the hunt for a glorious stag, wounded by a Japanese businessman on a commercial shoot at the neighboring estate. The royals are addicted to blood sports, and even if the exact sequence of events depicted here did not occur, this seems an entirely fair characterization of the prevailing attitude.
Margaret Thatcher went out into the Scottish countryside in flimsy shoes and a cocktail dress.
Thatcher felt intimidated by the arcane customs of the upper classes early in her prime ministerial career, but she wasn’t stupid. Sneering stories about Thatcher not bringing suitable footwear to Balmoral and having to borrow Wellington boots have long circulated, but it seems extremely unlikely she would have tried to go out into the Scottish wilderness in the wrong clothes, and even more unlikely the Queen would have allowed it in order to humiliate her. That would just be rude.
Verdict: We think very likely false.
Thatcher left Balmoral early.
Thatcher regarded visits to Balmoral as “purgatory”, according to the Queen’s biographer, Ben Pimlott. At the Braemar Games, Thatcher says to Denis Thatcher, “I’m struggling to find any redeeming features in these people at all.” While she would often head off at 6 a.m. on the scheduled day of departure, she didn’t cut her first trip short by a day or two as The Crown suggests.
Verdict: False, but Thatcher hated Balmoral as much as The Crown shows.
Thatcher chided the Queen for her wealth and privilege.
Hard to imagine a more ardent monarchist, and it seems unlikely she would have criticized the Queen quite so personally.
Verdict: Not proven.
Diana won Prince Philip’s approval by correcting his aim.
As Philip lines up a shot on the elusive, highly symbolic stag, he asks Diana which way the wind is coming from (he needs to compensate for wind in his aim). She says from the left. He tells her she is wrong, it’s swirling, and actually coming from the right. She forcibly corrects him, saying, “left” twice more. Philip looks bloody annoyed, takes the shot, kills the deer, and then says she was right, the wind was from the left and that she deserved the credit for the kill. British aristocrats don’t like having their aim corrected.
Verdict: Not proven, but a neat dramatic encapsulation of one of the royal family’s most intriguing relationships.
Charles is pushed into marrying Diana by his family.
Philip tells Charles to marry Diana. So does Camilla. His own passions are not seen as relevant. This may be based on the well-known fact that Philip wrote to Charles telling him he had to marry Diana.
It rains all the time in Scotland, even in the summer.
Verdict: Sure it can be rainy, but if The Crown was showing the reality of a Scottish summer spent on the moors, it would show grouse-shooting and deer-stalking parties being tormented and bitten by clouds of midges.
Episode 3: Fairytale
Diana rollerskates around the palace listening to Duran Duran.
How great was it to hear all those eighties songs on The Crown, to which Diana skates around the palace? She was a big fan of Duran Duran and met the band, but while one might not think that rollerskating inside at Buckingham Palace is something even the naughtiest of princesses would dream of, Crown producer Oona O’Beirn has insisted the depiction is true.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, O’Beirn did however concede that rollerskating is “hard to do on some of those carpets” and that “she probably stuck to less interesting bits of the palace, but we wanted to set it in the bits of the palace we’d already seen. It reminds you that Diana was only 19 at that time.” Emma Corrin has also defended the scene, saying, “I think she [really] did do that.”
Verdict: True enough.
Diana is locked up alone in an apartment at Buckingham Palace for six weeks while Charles went on tour.
Right after Diana agreed to marry Charles, Charles did indeed leave on a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Diana moved to Buckingham Palace, where she lived by herself, more or less abandoned by the family, just as The Crown portrays. “Diana was given less training in her new job than the average supermarket checkout operator,” Andrew Morton wrote.
Diana’s eating disorder started right away.
Diana told Andrew Morton her eating disorder started the week after Charles proposed in February 1981. She said, “My husband put his hand on my waistline and said, ‘Oh, a bit chubby here, aren’t we?’ and that triggered off something in me.”
“I remember the first time I made myself sick. I was so thrilled because I thought this was the release of tension.
“The first time I was measured for my wedding dress, I was 29 inches around the waist. The day I got married, I was 23-and-a-half inches. I had shrunk into nothing from February to July.”
Verdict: True. Indeed, The Crown could have been more critical of Charles.
Camilla smokes like a chimney.
Camilla is rarely pictured not lighting or extinguishing a cigarette or with smoke pouring dragon-ishly out of her nostrils. She smoked for 30 years before giving up in 2001.
Episode 4: Favorites
Mark Thatcher gets lost in the desert.
Margaret Thatcher tells the Queen her son Mark has got lost while doing the Paris-Dakar rally. Thatcher’s days wandering in the desert were very much a matter of public record, although Morgan plays around with the timeline a bit.
Prince Andrew is the Queen’s favorite child.
Margaret Thatcher stuns the Queen by describing Mark, a twin, as her “favorite.” Philip, who says his favorite is Anne, is well aware that his wife’s favorite is Prince Andrew but it takes the Queen a series of lunches with each of her children to admit this to herself.
The win is sealed symbolically with Prince Edward being rude about the Queen’s poached salmon lunches, while Andrew declares his delicious. Most recently, we have seen the Queen with Andrew, even after his official royal exile because of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.
Princess Anne had an affair with her bodyguard.
Lunch with Anne goes badly when the Queen tells her that Sergeant Peter Cross, a member of the Royal Protection Squad is to be removed from her side, implying they are having an affair. “He’s the only thing that makes me happy,” Anne replies. Cross would later sell his ‘kiss-and-tell’ story to the tabloids, claiming that Anne had used the code name ‘Mrs. Wallis’ (presumed to be a reference to her great-uncle’s American wife, Wallis Simpson) whenever she phoned him.
Episode 5: Fagan
Troubled painter and decorator Michael Fagan breaks into Buckingham Palace, ending up in the Queen’s bedroom where he has a lengthy conversation with her about the state of the nation.
Michael Fagan’s extraordinary escapades behind palace walls would appear to be a story so unbelievable that it requires no further embellishment. But The Crown can’t resist. As The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman noted, “The conversation The Crown imagines him having with the Queen in her bedroom did not happen, at least according to Fagan in an interview with The Independent.
“The Crown has confected a much grander encounter than the reality, which seems to be that the Queen got the hell out of there as soon as she saw him,” wrote Teeman. “This weird episode comes across as over-reach, not in terms of exploitative fabulism, but a writer and producers wanting to make A Bigger Social Point.”
Episode 6: Terra Nullius
Charles and Diana have a rapprochement in Australia.
The Waleses, including infant Prince William, were housed at Woomargama Station, in remote Australia, for part of their 1983 tour, but whether Charles and Diana kissed and made up here, resolving to come to a new accommodation—as The Crown shows us—is somewhat speculative.
Charles did, according to biographer Sally Bedell Smith, write to a friend saying of their stay at Woomargama: “The great joy was that we were totally alone together.” At the ranch, Charles and Diana watched William’s first efforts at crawling—“at high speed knocking everything off the tables and causing unbelievable destruction.” The new parents, according to Charles, “laughed and laughed with sheer, hysterical pleasure.”
Verdict: True, in spirit at least.
Everything quickly turns to shit, however, when Charles gets jealous of “Diana-mania” on the Aussie tour
Rapprochement or not, Charles quickly reverts to being a total asshole on the Australian tour, his fury stoked by jealousy of the attention shown to Diana. Andrew Morton wrote in the New York Post: "It didn’t help that Prince Charles, the former top of the billing, was reduced to a walk-on part, the crowds groaning when he came to their side of the road during their many visits. As Diana told me: 'He was jealous; I understood the jealousy but I couldn’t explain that I didn’t ask for it.'”
Episode 7: The Hereditary Principle
The Queen had two first cousins, who were falsely declared dead and locked up in a mental asylum.
In this episode, Princess Margaret, struggling with depression, talks to a therapist who asks her if there is anyone else in her family struggling with mental health issues, adding that she is “aware, through professional colleagues, of the sisters.”
The sisters are Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, first cousins of Margaret and Queen Elizabeth, committed to a mental asylum and declared dead. In fact, they are living out their lives at Royal Earlswood Hospital in Surrey. When Margaret confronts her mother—Nerissa and Katherine’s aunt—about their institutionalization she responds: “My family, the Bowes-Lyons, went from being minor Scottish aristocrats to having a direct bloodline to the crown, resulting in the children of my brother paying a terrible price,” the Queen Mother says. “Their illness, their idiocy and imbecility, would make people question the integrity of the bloodline. Can you imagine the headlines if it were to get out?”
True. Nerissa was 22 years old and Katherine just 15 when they were committed for life. Nerissa died in 1986 and Katherine in 2014.
Verdict: all-too True.
Episode 8: 48:1
The Queen is dismayed at Thatcher’s refusal to sanction the South African regime.
Margaret Thatcher’s cozy embrace of apartheid South Africa is still a dark stain on British history. Many suspect her son Mark’s extensive business interests in the country were a factor. The Queen’s unhappiness with Thatcher leaked to the newspapers and caused a major crisis.
Then-Palace press secretary Michael Shea is unfairly forced to carry the can for a story in the Sunday Times that the Queen was pissed at Thatcher over South Africa.
There is no dispute that the blame for the debacle was laid at the feet of Shea. He admitted briefing reporters and left royal service under a cloud. The Crown suggests this was grossly unfair and he was following direct orders from the Queen when he briefed The Sunday Times.
Verdict: Probably true. Most observers believe Shea was indeed following orders, but the palace never conceded the point.
Episode 9: Avalanche
Prince Charles is nearly killed in an avalanche on a ski trip, prompting Diana to re-evaluate their relationship
Prince Charles really did narrowly escape death in an avalanche on the slopes of Mt. Gotschnagrat near Klosters in Switzerland in March 1988. A friend was seriously injured and another was killed. Whether or not the event led Princess Diana to recommit to the relationship in a tête-à-tête with the Queen is unknown, but The Crown suggests that the near-death experience had the reverse effect on Charles, prompting him to double down on his wish to leave Diana and marry Camilla.
Verdict: Unknown, with the ring of truth.
Episode 10: War
Diana makes a solo trip to New York and hugs an HIV-positive child
Diana’s 1989 trip to New York saw the princess visit the opera in Brooklyn, the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, and a children’s HIV unit in Harlem. She really did hug one of the children, pediatrics director, Dr. Margaret Heagarty said at the time, “unrehearsed and of her own volition... she picked up a little boy who has AIDS and hugged him” after first asking the 7-year-old: “Are you heavy?”
Prince Philip threatens Diana.
Is Prince Philip a touchy-feely guy, the voice of reason who has a deep awareness of his own limitations and frailty, or a vile bully? The Crown can’t seem to quite make up its mind.
The season ends with Philip paying a visit to Diana in her room at Sandringham and after, at first, being warm and encouraging he appears to threaten her, saying that if she tries to leave Charles officially, “I can’t see it ending well for you.” It feels like Netflix throwing the Philip-murdered-Diana crowd a bone. It also feels totally invented and out of character. Plus, there is no way an older man would enter a younger woman’s bedroom at an English country house.
Verdict: Not proven.
The Queen feeds her dogs herself.
In one of the final scenes of the series, the Queen is seen feeding her corgis at Sandringham.
Verdict: True. But Olivia Colman-as-the-queen uses porcelain bowls and the real queen uses battered old silver dishes. No doubt “palace sources” are preparing a stern counter-briefing about this as we type.
Additional reporting: Tim Teeman