Content warning: language, referenced homophobia, racism and classism.
Series 4 of The Crown arrived at Netflix earlier this month, and it is as engulfing, stylistic and explosive as the previous series. This is your fair warning that if you haven’t watched the series yet, there are going to be LOTS of spoilers ahead.
This series, we FINALLY get to see Diana and the early years of her relationship with Prince Charles, where she went from unknown Lady Spencer to the Princess of Wales. This series is also highly anticipated because of Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of the United Kingdom’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Series 4 spans her entire time as PM, opening as the Conservative Party wins the General Election in 1979 and ending with her resignation in 1990.
Whilst there are beautifully acted performances given by Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies as Princess Margaret and Prince Philip, this series very much centres on Diana, Thatcher, and the Queen. All other members of the family have been pushed into becoming ‘fringe members’, which I imagine will be explored more in the next series.
This series gave me an escape from lockdown 2.0 and the never-ending dread and anxiety of 2020, but it did paint every character as neither inherently good or bad. Although Anderson captures Thatcher’s coldness and disregard for society well, the true extent of Thatcher’s reign of oppression, discrimination and pure evil was, in my opinion, purposefully left out to create a watered down Iron Lady. It even got to the point where I started to feel slightly bad for Prince Charles and Princess Margaret, as, at its core, The Crown pushes this idea that the Royal Family are just. Like. Us. Because all of the actors are so talented and charming (particularly Josh O’Connor I am thinking of here – he is much more charismatic and funny than Charles has EVER come across), it’s easy to slip into the mindset that the royals are just victims of circumstance. The more The Crown pushes this idea that all they want is to be loved and their royal status and rules have cruelly taken that away from pretty much all of them, the more you start to feel sorry for the poor little royals.
This feeling, though, quickly disappears once the credits have rolled and you finally decide that five episodes back to back really is enough. Then you remember that actually they have always been able to marry who they want and pursue the life or career they want because the option to denounce their title and leave the Establishment has always been there. But this will come at the cost of losing their royal status and therefore their right to the throne and part of their power (because they’re never going to be just like us, are they – Forbes estimated in 2016 that the Queen has a private wealth of $530 million). For everyone we have watched in The Crown so far, this loss of power and status has been enough for them to wave a sad goodbye to their true loves as they shed a glistening tear. But as a viewer in 2020, having seen Harry and Meghan step down as Senior Members of the Royal Family in order to have the freedom to be the family they want to be, I didn’t feel any sympathy for poor little Charles and Margo once series 4 ended.
The only person who I felt incredibly sad and angry for was Diana. She really had no fucking chance at happiness, did she?? With every scene we see Diana try and reach out to Charles, the Queen, and even Philip for some sense of love and support before being coldly ignored or emotionally abused, you want to cry with her. She really did deserve so much more.
The scene that honestly could have broken me if I had watched it on a particularly low lockdown day was when she went out dancing with her friends just after the engagement. Maybe it’s because I miss dancing, but it just showed how completely different her life was about to become and the optimism she was entering that marriage with. Being from aristocracy, I doubt she was naïve that she would be expected to produce the heir and spare and give up a lot of her ‘normal’ life. But Emma Corrin perfectly acts out that feeling of adulthood, confidence and intrigue that you have when you’re 19, when in reality you’re basically still figuring yourself out and what you want from life. If you’re feeling low I would probably skip this scene because it honestly could’ve made me SOB at how cruelly she was treated by the Establishment.
The real issue I had with the series is its depictions of Thatcher and the Queen – predominately Thatcher. I was surprised that they used the break-in of the Queen’s bedroom as a chance to give a social commentary on the state of the United Kingdom under Thatcher in the mid 80s and point out the lack of humanity she showed to the working class. They also did show her disbelief that women could be suitable for high office and her objection to any economic sanctions being put in place in South Africa (which were supported by the other 48 Commonwealth nations). But by the end of the series, there was a sense of Girl Power! around Thatcher, as the Queen commended her for the way she handled the ‘old, grey haired men who tried to tell her what to do’. This idea that Thatcher was some form of feminist or excelled the gender equality in the United Kingdom is almost laughable. Thatcher’s link to feminism begins and ends with her being the first female Prime Minister in the UK. Here’s some facts about Thatcher that The Crown conveniently left out:
– While Thatcher was PM, she only appointed ONE woman into her cabinet: Baroness Young, who was the Leader of the Lords from 1981-83. That’s right – in 11 years, there was only ONE other woman in her cabinet, and only for two years. To give you some background on Youngs: she worked to try and stop legislation that would allow unmarried couples – in particular queer couples – to adopt children, led campaigns in the House of Lords that prevented equalising the age of consent for gay men, and fought to keep Section 28.
– Thatcher commonly spoke on the subject of women returning to the workplace after having children and took the stance that if women wanted to go back to work a few hours a week to keep their mind ticking over, they should ask a grandparent or aunt to help with childcare (slightly paraphrasing here). It reminds me that my favourite quote about Thatcher is that she smashed through the glass ceiling and then pulled the ladder up with her.
– The Crown completely ignores the UK Miners’ Strike between 1984-85. This seems so bizarre to me, as, not only is it a defining moment of Thatcher’s government, but also drastically changed the UK’s landscape. Thatcher organised a brutal police response where strikers were subjected to police violence and unlawful arrests. The miners also were unable to claim welfare payments due to Clause 6 of the Social Security Act 1980. Thatcher’s tactics resulted in trade unions in the UK being significantly weakened and negatively thought of by members of the public, which can still be seen in society today.
– Thatcher’s government introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which made it illegal for local authorities to ‘intentionally promote homosexuality or publish materials with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. Section 28 wasn’t repealed until 2000 in Scotland, and 2003 in England and Wales, so generations of queer children were never able to see a positive representation of themselves whilst growing up. This has a huge effect not only on queer children’s confidence and comfortability in their sexuality but also on heterosexual individuals’ understanding and support of the queer community.
– The Crown (barely) included The Troubles in Ireland, as it opened the new series with the death of Lord Mountbatten, who was assassinated by the IRA in Sligo in 1979. In the series, we see Thatcher tell the Queen she will make sure that Britain responds with firmness. In reality, Thatcher made society in the North even harsher as she refused to recognise the rights of citizens to vote for representatives of their choice and refused entry to Britain for several Sinn Fein Assembly members. She sanctioned more powers to the police so they were able to shoot to kill, violently arrest and detain Irish citizens, and introduced the broadcasting ban of Sinn Fein in 1988 which prevented listeners from hearing the actual voice of Sinn Fein leaders.
– Thatcher fought repeatedly to ban public health warnings that would explain to the public which sexual practices were most likely to lead to HIV/AIDs infection.
The Queen’s defining moment in this series comes during the episode ‘48:1’ where she is seen to be supporting economic sanctions being imposed in South Africa. She tells the family and Thatcher that she is supporting the people of South Africa and opposes apartheid because she views the Commonwealth as her ‘second family’. This is… dubious. The existence of the Empire turned Commonwealth is in itself the evidence that the Royal Family has always been directly connected to oppression and violence. The Queen’s support of these sanctions is part of a wider, historical move by the Establishment to ‘support’ enough, to ensure the Monarchy survives
All in all, I can’t wait for the next two series of The Crown and to be sucked back into the world of this dysfunctional, privileged institution. I also can’t wait to see which actors will be cast to give the final portrayal of the Windsors, as we know series 6 will be the last. But it’s worth fact checking all the events you watch – or don’t watch – as this really and truly is a fictionalised version of factual people.
Image courtesy of Pro Church Media.