TV portrayals of the royals – fiction

Hi and happy Tuesday! I’m drinking coffee by the gallon and hoping that it kicks in sometime soon. Not sure if you needed to know that, but it’s my blog and my rules, so. Let’s put an espresso in an IV for me and talk about fictional portrayals of the royals!

The reason we’re talking about this is because season 4 of The Crown dropped a little more than a week ago and there have been statements made by “sources close to” the British Royal Family that they are extremely unhappy with it.

A quick explainer: Peter Morgan wrote the 2006 movie The Queen, which depicts Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth in the days after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. It shows the Queen as a woman instilled with tradition and quiet duty, who is completely flabbergasted at the public’s emotional response to Diana’s death. Because she maintains a stiff upper lip, the grieving public turns on her. It’s very good.

The Queen was lauded as one of the best movies of the year, and Helen Mirren won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Motion Picture for it.

Then, on the success of The Queen, Morgan wrote The Audience, a West End play about Queen Elizabeth’s weekly meetings with Prime Ministers over her reign. Again, it starred Helen Mirren and again, it gained critical and commercial success.

Morgan parlayed the back-to-back success of The Queen and The Audience and combined them into his pitch for The Crown. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Then there is another British TV show about the BRF. The Windsors is a Channel 4 comedy about the royal family that pulls no punches.

This show paints every member of the British royal family in a terrible light. Meghan is a status chaser, Harry is simple and childish, Pippa is conniving, Kate is quietly desperate. But because it’s so cheeky and so blatant in making fun of the royals, the family seems to…enjoy it?

Here’s the Daily Mail’s royal editor Rebecca English on Twitter claiming that members of the royal family watch:

I’ve heard it mentioned that members of the royal family actually like and watch The Windsors because they can laugh at themselves.

Back to The Crown. The Netflix series is an interesting idea and it’s executed beautifully. Beginning at Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip, The Crown moves through the decades of Elizabeth’s life, spanning her accession to the throne in 1952, various births, deaths, constitutional and personal crises and the modernization of Britain. Because the show is constantly moving forward in time, there is a full cast change at the end of every second season. It’s thoroughly researched, well acted, and gorgeously shot.

Every episode delves into the royals’ public versus private lives – what they need to show in order to seem human, what they need to hide in order to seem regal, and how difficult it is to maintain that balance over decades. As was the case with The Queen and The Audience, the stories and dialogue are never 100% verbatim or accurate. They can’t be – the whole purpose of the show is to imagine what it’s like inside palace walls, because none of us really knows what goes on in them. But the show attempts (and I think mostly succeeds) to create a historically accurate atmosphere. We don’t know what the conversations behind closed doors were, but we know that there were tensions, struggles, heartbreak. The genius of The Crown is that it creates a feeling of honesty and truth without ever promising word for word accuracy.

And until now, that has been fine with members of the BRF. But this season, complaints started to filter out from “sources close to the family”. That scene never happened! Those words were never spoken! There should be a title card at the beginning of each episode saying that this is fiction!

Apparently members of the royal family and royal household are concerned that this particular season of the series makes the members of the family portrayed, most of whom are still alive today, look cold, heartless, conniving, cheating, and oblivious to the struggles of normal people. In particular, there has been a strong negative reaction at the portrayal of Charles and Camilla and their direct/indirect treatment of Diana.

I don’t think that this season isn’t particularly cutting or unkind to the members of the BRF when compared to the previous seasons. But here are some of the responses to the season:

Peter Morgan was never saying that it wasn’t fiction. People (including the author of the tweet above, Dickie Arbiter, who worked in Buckingham Palace) are stirring up trouble over nothing. A rebuttal to this tweet from royal news editor Robert Jobson (that I agree with):

It’s not hard to argue that The Windsors paints a much less kind picture of the BRF than anything in The Crown or The Queen has. So why are people kicking up a fuss now, in season 4 of a show that’s been on since 2016 and given that The Windsors is much less kind to them? And why are people angry at this season of The Crown when the first three seasons were equally blunt about the family? Well, a few different reasons:

Most viewers were alive when the season 4 events took place

The first three seasons of The Crown dealt with issues from the 1940s – 1970s. Most people and events depicted in those seasons have left the collective consciousness of people in the 2010s and 2020s and are therefore not seen as “history” so much as fiction. The majority of people who were alive at the time of the 1936 abdication or even the 1952 coronation of QEII were either very young at the time and therefore don’t remember it well, or have since passed. With season 4 of the show, people remember getting up early to watch Charles and Diana get married at Westminster Abbey. Even if they didn’t watch the wedding, it’s likely that they watched Diana’s funeral in 1997. So these events feel “real” to viewers in a way that the previous seasons didn’t.

Harry and Will feel protective of their parents

There is talk of Harry and Will being upset with the portrayals of their parents in this season of The Crown. That’s fair. I feel that this is less a royal family problem and a more human problem – of course you don’t want either of your parents, both of whom you love and one of whom has tragically passed away, being portrayed as anything but kind and loving. And Charles’s sons have both welcomed Camilla into their family, so of course it’s uncomfortable to have the issue of Charles and Camilla’s affair brought into the light decades after the fact.

Charles and Camilla are closer to ruling than ever before

In the next 10-15 years, likely fewer, Charles and Camilla will become King and Queen of the United Kingdom. The couple has spent more than two decades since Diana’s death carefully laying out an image rehabilitation strategy for themselves to be accepted by the public at the time Queen Elizabeth dies and they become monarchs. Dredging up the affairs and the bad treatment of Diana doesn’t work with that plan.

Young people like to take the piss

The Windsors never claims to be accurate in terms of facts, personalities, or even atmosphere. Also, The Windsors is aimed to a younger demographic of viewer, and younger people are likely to laugh at themselves as much as they laugh at the royals. The stakes are lower because no one is arguing that this show is any true representation of the family.

We’re all bored in lockdown and it’s fun to stir stuff up

Let’s not forget that coronavirus is still very much here. People are getting sick, the people lucky enough not to be sick are stuck in various forms of lockdown until an effective vaccine can be distributed, and we’re starved for fun news and gossip. The royal family is so fun to talk about because it’s great gossip! And the second wave COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, a brand new season of The Crown dropping on Netflix, and the current generation of royals making headlines this year all created a perfect storm of frothy fun.

You can’t go to the gym or the pub or have girls nights where you talk about Sheila in accounting and how you think she’s having an affair with Eric in sales, so what do you talk about? The royals. Hence why the death of Will and Kate’s dog made several front pages yesterday. We’re starved for non-apocalyptic content.

Thanks for reading. You can subscribe to my email newsletter or donate here, both of those things help me keep the blog going! Stay safe, wear a mask, and donate to a local shelter or transition house this season if you’re able to.

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