Over the last seven years, “The Crown” has been criticized by numerous prominent Britons on behalf of their royal family.
After former Prime Minister John Major described the show as a “barrel-load of nonsense,” and the actress Judi Dench — who is friends with Queen Camilla — accused it of “crude sensationalism” in 2022, Netflix labeled the show a “fictional dramatization.” But these complaints misunderstood the sprawling drama’s appeal for many British fans and, for the real royal family, its usefulness.
The show has never been about revealing anything new. Instead, it has resurfaced what the royal family would most like us to forget. “The Crown” has, over six seasons, spoken to several furtive British truths: the public perception of the monarchy, the self-preservation strategies of a family preoccupied with becoming irrelevant and the family’s rigorous quashing of internal dissent.
The glossy dramatization of these truths is partly why the popularity of “The Crown” has endured, finding an audience in Britain even among people who want to end the monarchy or are indifferent to it. I am one of the former.
On the show’s premiere in 2016, I was captivated by Claire Foy’s depiction of a young Elizabeth thrust onto the throne prematurely following tragedy, entertained by Olivia Colman’s more confident queen who had more challenging relationships with her prime ministers, and have stayed loyal to her story as Imelda Staunton closes off “The Crown” as a pious matriarch and meddling parent.
Much of the show has been devoted to the royals’ romantic woes, but over the years I have been more interested in its depiction of the extent the crown will go to protect its power and traditions.
This was clear in episodes in which Elizabeth, as a princess, traveled to Kenya to try to counter the country’s independence movement (Season 1); the family hid the queen’s disabled cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, in an institution (Season 4); and a 20-year-old Diana becomes trapped in a loveless marriage so that the future king can have a chaste-seeming bride (Season 4).
Still, the show has often neglected to explore the monarchy’s true wealth and political influence. The crown’s real estate portfolio is valued at 16.5 billion pounds ($21 billion), and the monarch enjoys a broad exemption from most taxes, as well as many other laws. Under official rules, members of the royal family must not be criticized in Parliament, even as, according to a report from The Guardian, Charles has written directly to the country’s top politicians to ask for changes to national policy.
In Britain, what the public sees of the royal family is carefully stage-managed: We are presented with recorded Christmas broadcasts and gentle waves from chariots and balconies to fawn over as we wave our little Union Jacks. The “Palace,” as the royal institution is known, would like us to know the family through their carefully curated charity work, patronage, garden parties, weddings and jubilees.
So there is something thrilling about the depiction of such a powerful family onscreen without their control. It’s the same pleasure that many of us will have gotten from watching Oprah’s interview by Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, or reading Harry’s memoir, “Spare.”
Britons eager for an unvarnished view of the royal family have, in previous decades, pored over the intrusive paparazzi shots of Princess Diana on a yacht or Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, having her toes sucked on vacation. But because “The Crown” is a “fictional dramatization,” it can be enjoyed guilt-free, without having to engage with the sleaze of Britain’s tabloid newspapers.
Perhaps it is no surprise that anonymous sources have relayed accounts of the royal family being upset by a show that dramatizes moments they would rather forget. But this doesn’t take into account the degree to which “The Crown” has humanized the people sitting at the top of Britain’s rigid class system.
Louis Staples, a Harper’s Bazaar columnist and frequent commenter on “The Crown,” points out that, these days, “intimacy is one of the most valuable currencies in our culture. When people share with us deeply enough — their flaws, their failures, their ups and downs — we form a connection with them.”
Queen Elizabeth was famous for not sharing the messy, human and emotional parts of herself with her public, and for encouraging the rest of her family to do the same. The public relations strategy “never complain, never explain,” considered a core principle of her reign, holds that silence is dignified and public expression damaging.
But story lines on “The Crown” — like the suggestion of infidelity between Prince Philip and Penelope Knatchbull or young William and Harry’s heartache after losing their mother — may have served to humanize people generally kept at a distance from the public.
Given that the real existential threat to the royal family is not public hatred, but total irrelevance — especially since the queen’s death — “The Crown” has given the Windsors an invaluable kind of outreach, even if they have had to swallow it like bitter medicine.
Once the show has ended and viewers are no longer gripped by discovering the (yes, fictionalized) stories of the real people behind the onscreen characters, the royal family might find themselves wishing for one more season.