Steamy goings-on fog the screen with a vengeance in series three of Netflix’s The Crown. Princes Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter, taking over from Vanessa Kirby) canoodles with toy-boy baronet Roddy Llewellyn (Harry Treadaway) while Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) has a punt with polo princeling Andrew Parker-Bowles (Andrew Buchan). But the real scandal preceding the return of The Life and Times Of Lofty Liz is the claim that two especially juicy storylines have been fabricated by showrunner and full-time royal chronicler, Peter Morgan.
The first concerns the friendship between the Queen (Olivia Colman, taking the reins/reign from Claire Foy) and her horse trainer manager, Lord Porchester (John Hollingworth). Morgan gently – but not all that gently – suggests there may have been more to the relationship than met the eye (that annoying sensation is the script poking you in the ribs). In the second, he asserts that Lord Mountbatten (Greg Wise), playing cupid in reverse, masterminded the break-up between Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and the “unsuitable” Camilla Shand (later Parker-Bowles, played by Emerald Fennell).
Rumours about the Queen and her fellow horse fancier Porchester have swirled for years. “All sorts of people have written about it and made allegations, innuendos, suggestions – there’s nothing to it,” Elizabeth’s former press secretary Dickie Arbiter told Sky News. “I don’t think a lot of people do believe it. They say ‘The Queen – an affair? What absolute nonsense!’”
The plot to drive a wedge between Charles and Camilla, by contrast, appears to have been spun wholesale from Morgan’s imagination. It, too, has come in for criticism. The Windsors going out of their way to deny Charles his happiness by shipping him off to the Caribbean with the navy was described by his biographer Penny Junor as “dramatic licence”. “That’s what terrifies me about the whole series,” she continued. “It can do a lot of damage.”
As history, these augmentations are certainly difficult to defend. They ask us to reconsider our idea of the Queen as steadfast and reliably dull. And they cast an entirely new light on Charles’s unhappy marriage to Diana. As dramatic devices, though, they’re just what you want from a $130m (£101m) binge-watch.
The Queen’s unwavering common sense has long been her trademark. However, it makes her a slightly damp squib on the screen. Colman radiates a winning deadpan humour, but she doesn’t get much of an interior life.
That’s in contrast to the perpetually unhappy Margaret, the restless Philip (Tobias Menzies, inheriting the role from Matt Smith) and the romantically tortured Charles. And so, by nudging us in the side and mouthing “affair”, Morgan suggests hidden passions churning beneath the surface. We don’t need to see the Queen smooching a paramour, as Margaret does this season (dear god, we don’t). Just a hint of a secret life is sufficient to raise the temperature.
The real question, of course, is why we are expecting historical fidelity from The Crown in the first place. Morgan, it is true, has consistently tut-tutted the idea that he’s presiding over a glorified costume drama.
And yet, The Crown features a great many costumes and is very dramatic (this year especially). Morgan’s modus, starting with The Deal, his 2003 dramatisation of the fateful dinner between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is to squint between the lines and see the soap opera elements implicit in real world events.
Similarly, The Queen (2006) turned Her Madge into a feisty Helen Mirren archetype. And Frost/Nixon (2008) reimagined a giant of British broadcasting as a charmer but also somewhat of a chancer. Unfair perhaps – and just what the story required.
Morgan is at it again in The Crown. And if some may quibble with the latest run of episodes on a quality basis – I found it repetitive and a bit gaudy – there’s no denying he has struck upon a hugely successful formula. But for it to work, he must pivot again and again towards the melodramatic.
The Crown’s third series, for instance, recasts the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster, in which 116 children died, as a teachable moment for a monarch struggling to display emotion. The moon landing becomes Philip’s midlife crisis; meeting the Apollo astronauts, he discovers callow flyboys, incapable of introspection.
The sabotaging of Charles and Camilla similarly speaks to the monarchy’s obsession with shaping the destiny of its younger members. It is a sort of fake truth. And the Queen’s affair-that-never-was sprinkles spice on what was no doubt, in reality, an uneventful fact-finding trip to America with plodding “Porchey”.
What critics of this approach fail to appreciate is that Morgan isn’t waving his sorcerer’s wand out of a devilish desire to embellish. As a dramatist, his job – his only job – is to keep the pot boiling. The alternative would be television all too evocative of real life, where sparks of excitement are interspersed with years and years of numbing routine. And Netflix simply isn’t going to pony up $130m per season for that.
The Crown returns to Netflix on 17 November