The Crown, a historical drama based upon the life of Queen Elizabeth II and the English Royal family might be many people’s first exposure to royal history. With the show’s fourth and most popular installment, questions have been raised about its genre altogether as many critics in the UK insist Netflix should issue a health warning labeling the show as fiction.

The U.K Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden in an interview with the Mail claimed: “I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact. Netflix has beautifully produced work of fiction… should be very clear at the beginning it is just that”.

Dowden is not the only one to believe that the show’s representation of historical events can be misleading. Lady Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer had also stated that: “I think it would help The Crown an enormous amount if, at the beginning of each episode, it stated that, ‘This isn’t true but it is based around some real events’. I worry people do think that this is gospel and that’s unfair.”

You might be wondering: the show has been around for over three years, so why the need to address the issue of authenticity now? While The Crown has always been a drama based on historical events, it may have been easier to shrug off some fabrication or exaggeration of events earlier in the century. It could have been dismissed as a historical fantasy. However, the time frame is now gradually creeping up to contemporary times. The fourth season covers the tenure of Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (the 80s), and Prince Charles’ and Diana’s tempestuous marriage. Many of the characters appearing in the latest season are still alive or recently dead, which makes their representation a cause of greater intrigue.

One of the key reasons for the show’s soaring popularity, of course, could be the character of Diana, undoubtedly one of the most iconic women of the century. News of Charles’ and Diana’s extramarital affairs and her discord with the royal family had made rounds in tabloids for years. Her destructive love/hate relationship with the paparazzi made Diana one of the most popularly documented royals of the time. The tabloids generated rumors and controversies related to her personal life. Such material served as fodder for the show’s creative minds and they were certainly opportune enough to seize it completely.

Prior to this season, most of the personal relationships in the show such as the Queen’s relationship with her sister were fictionalized. But with the sheer dearth of details of Diana’s personal life, thanks to her candor and outspokenness, enticed the creators of the show to push the envelope of their recreation of moments that unfolded behind closed doors.

[Image description: cover of the newspaper The Sun with a picture of Diana and the headline "My life is torture".] Via The Sun.
[Image description: cover of the newspaper The Sun with a picture of Diana and the headline “My life is torture”.] Via The Sun.

In response to surmounting pressure, streaming giant Netflix claimed they wanted to give their audience the credit for understanding that “it is a work of fiction that’s broadly based on historical events.” They also affirmed that they saw no need of adding any such “disclaimer”. Part of the reason for this was the fact that The Crown never claimed to be a docu-series of any kind. Peter Morgan, the show’s creator also highlighted that purpose of the show was to entertain, not to educate. And the show’s classification as “drama” in itself implies that there is fiction and dramatization involved, as is the case with “The Tudors”.

But can the audience truly be credited for discerning fact from fiction? A self-reflexive article from The New York Times indicates that since the fourth season’s release “more than 3 million readers have devoured more than a dozen pieces” from the news outlet including “fact check of the series”.

This suggests that the primary impulse one has upon watching a fictionalized rendering of the royal family is to check how much of it is, in fact, true. Multiple links and articles offering “fact checks” have popped up in order to curb the growing enthusiasm of knowing how much truth these compelling performances hold. Wouldn’t it just be easier to have a label that wards of any gullible members of the audience?

Well, it might not be as simple as that. Robert Lacy, the show’s historical consultant, claimed in the Radio Times that “What you see is both invented and true.”

It is a dramatization, but it based on real events. The show’s events are rooted in history and were well documented in terms of press coverage at the time. In fact, these events, such as Charles’ and Diana’s wedding and the Aberfan mining disaster are recreated on-screen with precision in detail. The show also does a commendable job of paying homage to Diana’s fashion legacy: her evolution, from a meek teenager sporting off-duty casual looks to a fashion icon donning satin gowns, can be seen through the 10 episodes. Even the Queen’s animosity with Prime Minister Thatcher, subject of much controversy then, is re-explored here.

[Image Description: A comparison of the real-life couple (right) and the fictional rendering (left) from the day of their engagement announcement.] via Insider
Most such events are established facts and are available in the public domain. They are no revelation for an informed audience. But where the show’s creator, Peter Morgan truly leverages his creative license is by projecting a complex and imaginary “behind the scenes” universe. Through Morgan’s lens, we see Diana and Charles quarrel and we witness the royal custom of the Balmoral test. We become privy to the internal dynamics of the monarchy and the intimate details of the royal marriage. We see Diana in isolation suffering from bulimia. And we do so not realizing that while many of the “private moments” are inspired by accounts from royal biographers, others are simply not. They are merely fiction, gaps filled in by the creative minds behind the show. And that’s where we can be easily misled.

Viewing a compelling universe, that replicates hairstyles and recreates iconic sartorial looks all against real historical moments, we forget that it really is a slippery slope. We also don’t realize that we cannot take it as a History lesson though, for many who are unfamiliar with British history it comes across as just that.

To label The Crown as “fiction” might be to do a great disservice for so much that the show does actually get right, and the sheer research and effort that has gone into making it look like a time capsule. But as Bonham Carter, playing Princess Margaret in the show, suggests, it is the show’s “moral responsibility” to warn viewers where fact diverges from fiction.

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!

  • Safa Shoaib

    Safa Shoaib is an educator and counselor turned entrepreneur, writer, and editor. She has a B.A. Honors in English Literature from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and has written for local publications such as the Express Tribune. She is a history buff who is equally passionate about literature. In 2021, she co-founded Deja New Pakistan, the first of its kind marketplace of pre-owned fashion in Pakistan, pursuing the vision of sustainable fashion.