Please note: the opinion below contains spoilers for Season 4 of “The Crown.”
If one were to design the worst staycation possible, I doubt a single detail would err from the depiction of the royals’ holiday at Balmoral in the second episode of the newly-released fourth season of “The Crown,” set in the late 1970s and 1980s and featuring the debut of Gillian Anderson as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Emma Corrin as Diana Spencer, Prince Charles’s prospective fiancée and the future princess.
Over the course of several khaki-colored days, Thatcher, followed immediately by Spencer, are put through their paces by the royal family, who have a series of assessments known both in the show and in real life as the “Balmoral test.” This is administered at the royals’ Scottish holiday home to determine whether a newcomer will be accepted by the clan.
The test – which centers largely around the capacity to tolerate mud and indecipherable parlor games – and the family are so ghastly as to immediately endear the viewer to Thatcher, whose limited ambitions of getting a bit of work done and sleeping in the same bed as her husband are thwarted at every turn by the bullish snobbery of her hosts – especially Helena Bonham-Carter’s Princess Margaret - and her own ignorance of the “rules”. Diana, heartbreakingly young, but unlike Thatcher, very posh, fares much better. “I’m a country girl at heart,” she bluffs, after being dragged out of bed for at dawn to go on a deer stalking trip with her weekend date’s intimidating dad, Prince Philip (played by Tobias Menzies).
The trip, culminating in the mounting of a deer’s head on the wall as a heavy-handed metaphor for Diana’s fate with Charles, encapsulates the loudest message of the season: The royals are awful. More than any yet, this season demonstrates how effective the palace PR machine has been since to turn around the public fortunes of a group of people who – whether or not exactly like their on-screen counterparts – certainly racked up sufficient terrible doings upon which to base a cracking TV show.
The season kicks off with a retelling of the death of Lord Mountbatten, who was assassinated on a fishing boat off the Republic of Ireland by the IRA. Charles, Queen Elizabeth’s eldest son and the heir to the throne, has been hounded by his family for years – including (in the show) by Lord Mountbatten, via a letter sent before he dies – to find a suitable wife. In real life, Mountbatten had long advised Charles against pursuing his long-term love, Camilla Parker Bowles, and reinforced the importance of his finding a suitable partner – a vital objective it seems, to almost every member of the family but Charles.
The entire cast, including newcomers Anderson and Corrin, knock out a stellar performance. The royals’ horridness is depicted largely via the group’s treatment of Diana, played exquisitely by Corrin as a deer in headlights, shuddering at the mean commentary of spiky Princess Margaret as she tiptoes through her first evening at Buckingham Palace. While Diana’s story follows the well-trodden script of the young, unknowing girl who becomes alienated from her marital family, but wildly beloved by the public, Charles’ is dealt with more abruptly.
The only member of the family who convincingly mourns the death of his father’s uncle Lord Mountbatten, Charles – played wonderfully by Josh O’Connor – is penalized for the closeness of their relationship by a jealous Prince Philip, before being shoehorned by both his parents into a loveless marriage to young Diana. Almost overnight, he is transformed from a pensive bachelor whose sister calls him “Eeyore” into a dispassionate, inconsiderate and cruel failure of a spouse. He makes no effort to hide his continued affair with Parker-Bowles even on their honeymoon, and though his own overall plight is sympathetic, the rapidity of his downturn into callous husband – which predates Diana’s rise to superstardom – isn’t wholly explained by the detachment of both his parents, or the inhumanity of his forced marriage.
In the time-honored fashion of British poshos, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) and co. manage to remain perpetually uncomfortable – physically, morally and emotionally. When they’re not trapping their children in tragic unions, they’re trudging up hills in the rain, ignoring the aesthetic disintegration of their palaces, or sacrificing loyal employees to save face. Their ingrained stiffness is matched only by the rigidity of their hair (Princess Margaret’s is the only mop that ever moves) – and by that of Thatcher, whose enormous, spherical coiffure may as well come with its own bio reading: “tough as the Queen, but with bigger brains.”
Like the Queen, whose reported real-life preference for Prince Andrew is reinforced in a sequence where she weighs the limited merits of her four children, Thatcher is shown favoring her worst and most entitled child, Mark. There’s a glaring bit of narrative sexism in one episode’s rewriting of history to cast the Falklands war as an expression of Thatcher’s maternal instinct run riot – echoing dissonantly an early remark from Prince Philip about “menopausal women” in charge - when Mark goes missing.
In real life, the events didn’t overlap – Mark went missing (and was found) in Algeria 10 weeks before the start of the Falklands war. Likewise, the sexist implication that Thatcher’s resistance to the rest of the Commonwealth’s (and Queen Elizabeth’s) push for sanctions on South Africa was borne out of her desire to protect Mark’s business interests somewhat sidesteps her complex relationship with the region.
Thatcher’s focus on getting Britain back on track whatever the cost to many of its impoverished inhabitants – as deliberate on-screen as many would argue it was in life – is decidedly less maternal. It forms an interesting contrast to Colman’s Queen Elizabeth, who can apparently summon slightly more sympathy for her subjects than her own miserable children.
In episode five, Colman’s Queen manages to hold a conversation with a man who breaks into the palace – though it’s important to note that wasn’t quite the case in real life, according to the intruder. But when Corrin’s Diana pleads for an audience, Colman’s Queen repeatedly ignores her, compartmentalizing her suffering – and her son Charles’ – with robotic ease (a tone not apparently that far off from the Queen and Diana’s real relationship). That ability to compartmentalize appears to run in the family – both on and off-screen.
The least famous cruelty of the season might be the most poignant. In episode seven – “The Hereditary Principle” – Princess Margaret discovers that five of her and Queen Elizabeth’s cousins were hidden away in a mental hospital in 1941 and publicly declared dead. When Margaret confronts the Queen Mother about it, she explains the decision as yet another consequence of King-Emperor Edward’s 1936 abdication, which made the purity of the family’s bloodline a topic of international interest.
While that conversation is fictionalized, the reported version of real-life events is that the Queen Mother learned that the cousins were alive in the early 1980s, yet did not visit them, or correct the public record. She was, incidentally, the patron of the Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults.
Nothing in the series better exemplifies how astonishing it is that this group of people, so out of touch with both the public and each other, could in the few decades since these events build a PR machine so robust that it has withstood in recent years not only the exit of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but Prince Andrew’s association with the late convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, and the horrifying allegations leveled against him (which Buckingham Palace has emphatically denied).
Anyone who grew up in the noughties in Britain will mainly have been aware of the royal family’s profile on the ascent – boosted by the more accessible Princes William and Harry, and supercharged by the 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Season four of “The Crown” is a solid reminder that even comparatively recently, “The Firm” was in a near-constant state of crisis – and begs the question how much more controversy the family’s image can withstand. As the series’ timeline edges closer towards the present day, the real-life royals’ continued popularity becomes harder to reconcile with reality – but their on-screen counterparts only more fascinating to watch.