As the historical consultant for the Netflix series The Crown, Robert Lacey has had an unrivaled opportunity to bring his five decades of writing and thinking on the British family to a new audience. He discusses his new book, The Crown: The Official Companion: Volume 1: Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, and the Making of a Young Queen (1947-1955)” with Tom Sykes.
How truthful is The Crown?
You might expect me to say this, of course, because I’m the historical consultant, but I think that the series is incredibly accurate and true to the history. If you go into the Left Bank offices—Left Bank being the company producing the series for Netflix—the first thing you see is a huge newsroom with eight full-time researchers working away, and that’s just the start, the raw material.
But one of the things that working on The Crown has taught me is that people can be too reverential about “history.” Because history and the past are not the same.
The past was a reality. It was human life, it was people talking to each other, loving each other, hating each other, fighting each other by the millions and billions of people. And only a small fraction of that has actually got recorded as “history.”
History, on the other hand, is a later construct. The historian holds out a sieve and most of the past, the real past, goes through it. People’s feelings, people’s intimacies, they all go through the sieve, and all that’s left is a few scraps and lumps, which are then turned into this sacred thing “history.”
Hilary Mantel [author of the historical novel Wolf Hall] has described history as “the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past,” and there’s great wisdom in that.
One example of this, which readers of my book will be able to see for themselves if they’re interested, is in chapter eight, which describes the row which is depicted in episode eight of the first season between Philip and Elizabeth when they’re on tour in Australia.
We know there was a row because it was actually filmed at the time and it was actually written about, later and historically, by an Australian PhD researcher whom I in fact phoned up long distance and interviewed to check all the details. She recorded this event, where the Australian newsmen were solemnly training their cameras on the veranda of the bungalow where Philip and Elizabeth were ensconced. They were about to come out and pose with some koala bears but instead, out came Philip being pursued by a tennis racquet and tennis shoes and then the Queen shouting at him. And all this was on film! The couple stopped when they realized what had happened. They went back inside and then the show depicts Elizabeth coming out to speak to the camera crew. “I’m sorry for that little interlude,” she says, “but as you know it happens in every marriage. Now what would you like me to do?”
Now, those were her very words as remembered by the film producer and reported to the PhD researcher—and so used by Peter Morgan [the writer of The Crown]. On that basis, we can describe those words and the events seen beforehand as the “history.”
The newsreel film doesn’t actually exist anymore, unfortunately, because as a gesture of peace, the Australians opened the camera and were good subjects of Her Majesty and made her a present of it. They actually exposed the film to the light.
So that’s what we know. Those are the facts. But here’s the next question: What had produced the grand royal row in the first place? What was said and what happened on the other side of the door that sent Philip flying out with tennis racquet and tennis shoes after him? We simply don’t know. And that’s where Peter Morgan imagines this incredible sequence in which he has Philip saying, “I bet that’s why your father smoked so many cigarettes, thinking that he’d rather have cancer than come on this bloody tour of Australia.”
That’s Peter’s job.
So that’s Peter’s job as the historical dramatist, and people are quite entitled to ask whether it is true or false. But my perspective is to say that I don’t like the word “false.” I’d rather say invented or imagined. The genius of The Crown is the mingling—the chemical reaction—between the history and Peter’s invention, and the main purpose of the book is to set out the evidence on which the imagination is based. To show where one stops and the other begins.
To take another example, a lot of people have praised episode four, which is about the Great Smog of 1952 and the way in which Churchill as prime minister in December 1952 didn’t take it seriously until his beloved private assistant Venetia Scott was run over by a bus.
Well, there was no such person as Venetia Scott, she’s an invented character. She’s an amalgam of Churchill’s secretaries; five or six of them wrote memoirs, so it’s based on them, and she also serves as a symbol for the 6,000 or so people who died that month and whose death suddenly changed opinion in the political classes in Britain and made both Churchill and Atlee campaigners for clean air so that Britain passed the first clean air act in 1955.
I think it’s no exaggeration to say you’re one of the great experts on the British monarchy working today, but have there been any things that you’ve come across that have been completely new information to you?
There was one particular incident when Peter sent me the script for episode five, which depicts the coronation of the queen. It shows the Duke of Windsor in Paris standing in front of the television giving a running commentary to an American audience. And I said to Peter, “That’s great invention, you know, but that never happened,” and he said, “Oh yes, it did!”
And it did indeed happen in 1953 that the Duke of Windsor, the ex-king, took money from an American broadcaster to do a running commentary on the coronation of his niece!
How did you get started in writing about the monarchy?
In 1974 I was working on the Sunday Times Magazine, where we’d done several features on the monarchy, and I’d come across this fact that the prime minister of the moment would go every week, regular as clockwork, for a private audience at the palace, and I thought, ‘What on earth is going on? Why should that matter?’ It was one of several examples of the surprising role that the monarchy plays in the practical and psychic life of the country—and there was also this event called a ‘Silver Jubilee’ coming up. So, I thought I’d try writing a book that was half biography, half sociological examination of the monarchy, and it turned out to strike a chord. The book was called Majesty, and it was a massive success—all round the world, ‘Book of the Month’ and all that sort of thing. And in the course of the research, I got to interview Harold Wilson and Alec Douglas Home—though Sir Alec was more helpful on field sports than politics. ‘When we are (deer-) stalking,’ he said, ‘we try to stay up-wind, not down-wind, of the stag.’
Was Peter Morgan inspired by your piece for his West End play The Audience?
Who knows? Only the queen holds the copyright on royal ideas.
If you had an informal audience with the queen, and you got to spend 30 minutes off the record with her, she was unguarded, and it was a relaxed situation, what would you talk about?
I have in fact had five or six conversations with the queen. If you go on a royal tour with the queen, which I have done, you do form this curious bond, as a group of fellow travelers and tour-sufferers, with her, and there’s always at least one cocktail party when everybody talks about the tour. But then the convention is that you don’t ask what you’re now asking me! I suppose if it really was possible, I would like to go back into history and say to her, 'Did Anthony Eden tell you the truth about his secret conspiracy with the French and the Israelis at the time of Suez?' or, 'Was Edward Heath upfront with you about the Common Market and that it was more than just a trade group, that it was taking Britain into a supranational organization that would in fact downgrade the British monarchy in the long term?'
But I think she only talks like that to Philip, and probably nobody else apart from Philip. She could tell an inside story of her reign that would raise the hair off everybody’s head, I think.
A friend of mine was invited to a dinner party where the queen was present, and he said all she wanted to talk about was the horses.
Well, that’s true. Wouldn’t you rather talk about horses than discuss Tony Blair? It’s strange, she has millions of pounds’ worth of horses and nobody in Britain begrudges her a penny—and it’s when you see her on the racetrack, that’s when she really comes to life.
Prince Harry recently said that nobody wanted to be a royal and what a dreadful job it was. If you had to be a senior member of the royal family for a year, who would you be?
No question about that, I’d be Prince Harry and getting married to Meghan Markle asap! I would argue with Prince Harry that being queen or king—holding the top job—is actually quite easy if you stick by the rules. What is difficult actually is being a lesser royal. Look at the mess that Prince Charles has made of it! But Harry has made a great success of it. He has shrewdly—but also quite genuinely—chosen this area of disabled service people, their lives shattered by the dreadful new weapons that are involved in war. That identification between the monarchy and the armed forces is a very ancient strand, one that goes right back to Henry V at Agincourt.
Do you have any intel on how the series has gone down with members of the royal family?
‘No’ is the short answer. The long answer is that I know some people very close to the family, some of the queen’s closest friends, who have actually taken out subscriptions to Netflix and have watched the series and liked it.
But to be honest, I haven’t dared ask them if the queen herself watched it. I myself think that she has not watched it. I don’t think she watched the movie, The Queen, with Helen Mirren, either. I think she’s simply not interested in that sort of thing. Other people would be. I imagine Prince Charles has somehow made sure that he’s seen or had reports on every representation of himself in the media—including the play Charles III—but I just don’t think the queen would.
I think she exists on a different plane, mentally, philosophically, and constitutionally.