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The Crown is here again, and all that fact-checking is royal
HE IS, in a word, appalled. That is, the expert on all British royalty things, Hugo Vickers. He is, like other palace observers, quite agitated over the latest season of The Crown.
Among other things, there is a "wimpy" characterisation of Prince Charles, as he tells Vanity Fair. (There are spoilers ahead for those who have a categorical disagreement with binge-watching.) "They always liked to portray him as a kind of wimp. This time, though, he's not only portrayed as a wimp, but also as a very angry, unpleasant person yelling at his wife," Mr Vickers told the magazine. "Some of the looks he gives (Princess) Diana, you begin to wonder whether in the next season we're going to catch him conspiring to have her murdered in a tunnel in Paris, or something ghastly."
This ghastly business is lapped up by millions, Anglophiles or otherwise. And every return of the lush dramatisation of the British monarchy revs up a fact-checking engine to a smooth purr. This true-or-false deciphering machine comes particularly alive when it comes to The Crown, because the spin may not be found in the most outrageous things, but in the slippery made-up details. These, in turn, layer on another mask to create another caricature upon the existing caricatures of these real-life personalities.
We can only imagine how much of a nightmare these distortions can be for the living persons involved. Indeed, The Crown's producers have been particularly criticised for this season's work, given the dramatisation of events that have not yet passed 50 years.
Clearly as caricatures go, they don't only exist on the telly. It was the tabloid mania behind shaping narratives of the British royal family from outside the walls of the Buckingham Palace that contributed to the car crash killing Princess Diana in August 1997, in a tunnel in Paris.
And it is just this month that the BBC has now been pressed into an inquiry on how it got that explosive interview with Princess Diana in 1995, with her brother Charles Spencer claiming that journalist Martin Bashir used fake bank statements to convince her to be interviewed. The conversation famously left her detailing the breakdown of the royal marriage, encapsulated in part by this devastating quote that has gone down in history: "Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."
It has now been claimed that Mr Bashir had misled Princess Diana into giving an interview, by alleging that she had been bugged by the security services and that two senior aides were giving away information about her for a fee.
And some things that seem outrageous in The Crown are accurate by historical accounts and biographers' recounting
The callous "whatever 'in love' means" response from Prince Charles remains on record.
Princess Diana, at the young age of 19, did roller-skate around the palace. She indeed worked as a cleaning lady for her sister and found it fulfilling to go about washing, dusting and ironing for her wages.
It is also true that Princess Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles, now Duchess of Cornwall, did meet at a real restaurant called Menage a Trois, according to The Mirror quoting a royal historian. But - and here's where some artistic licence was applied - that meeting took place in 1981, after Princess Diana got married, and not before, as suggested in The Crown.
There are the other outrageous things that are true.
There was, for example a man named Michael Fagan, who broke into Buckingham Palace twice, climbing up a drainpipe with his bare feet, and finding a bottle of wine to enjoy on his first successful break-in. On his second trespass in 1982, he slipped into Queen Elizabeth II's bedroom and spoke to the monarch herself.
Of course, again, more artistic liberties were snuck in to highlight the polarising impact of Thatcherism. Mr Fagan, while unemployed at the time during the era of Margaret Thatcher, did not speak to the queen about the failings of the "Iron Lady". (Accounts from Scotland Yard, as cited by Vogue, showed that "Her Majesty attracted the attention of the maid, and together they ushered Fagan into a nearby pantry on the pretext of supplying him with a cigarette.")
Then, there is the "chalk and cheese" relationship between the Queen and Mrs Thatcher (played with literal hair-raising dramatics by Gillian Anderson). There are scenes of Mrs Thatcher out of sorts in tweed suits and heels at scheduled visits to Balmoral Castle, which was a truthful representation of the relationship there.
Still, for all the unyielding ways of Mrs Thatcher, she was also the one who showed utmost reverence for the monarchy. The Queen was born just six months after the then-prime minister, yet Mrs Thatcher's curtsies were the deepest, the records show. "Although the press could not resist the temptation to suggest disputes between the Palace and Downing Street, I always found the Queen's attitude toward the work of government absolutely correct," Mrs Thatcher wrote in her memoir.
What's missing from the current season then, is that it is also at Balmoral that Mrs Thatcher noticed Her Majesty doing her own dishes. She later bought rubber gloves, cheekily we shall assume, as a Christmas gift for the royal figure.
And since The Crown is unlikely to stretch into the decades - though the ongoing real-life drama offers enough fodder - let the records show too that for all the differences between the two most powerful women in Britain then, that in 2013, the Queen broke protocol to attend Mrs Thatcher's funeral. Winston Churchill was the only other prime minister whose funeral she attended.