Here's why the Royal Family is so worried about the new season of 'The Crown'
The new season of The Crown will cover some of the Royal Family's most controversial moments in recent memory.
The palace – and no doubt senior royals themselves – are so concerned that last month a "senior source" sought to remind the public that the hit show is "a drama, not a documentary".
That reminder came not long after the wall-to-wall coverage of the official mourning period and state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II had concluded.
Speaking to the Telegraph, the source also called the hit Netflix show "exploitative" adding that "what people forget is that there are real human beings and real lives at the heart of this".
In some respects, every time the royals make a public appearance there is an element of ‘performance’ during which every attempt is made to carefully control the narrative around family members.
The only significant difference between their normal public life and The Crown is that in one case the palace has the final say in what hits our screens, and in the other a streaming giant does.
'War of the Waleses'
Much of the source material for this season of The Crown often comes directly from what is referred to as the 'War of the Waleses'. As their marriage broke down and Charles and Diana separated, both parties briefed the press frequently: determined their side of the story would be the one to win the public relations battle.
Patrick Jephson — Diana's former private secretary — described much of this behaviour in his book Shadow of a Princess. In particular, he describes a lunch meeting he had arranged with Diana and Jonathan Dimbleby in which the behaviour on both sides is clear.
Dimbleby was tasked with writing a biography and accompanying documentary of Charles of which Jephson claims "the main purpose was to create a favourable public impression of the Prince with all the resources that his staff [...] could muster".
Jephson also wrote that his own "intention in arranging" the lunch meeting between Dimbleby and Diana "was to confront [Dimbleby] with the reality of what she was like so he could compare it dispassionately with what he had been told by sources close to the Prince".
None of this battling did the monarchy as an institution much good — as far as storylines go, there can only be one, and it must be one in which the palace retains the ultimate control over the characters it has created.
During the War of the Waleses, they were determined to act of their own accord. It was this, rather than the content of the revelations themselves, that in many ways posed the biggest existential threat to the monarchy.
Style, not substance
The monarchy’s job – at least as it seems to renowned historian Simon Schama, speaking to The New Yorker – is “to provide a space and style".
The style is the pomp, circumstance and theatrical rituals that shroud the royals and which, Schama argues, is “a kind of mystique, a kind of secular religion if you like, in which people can feel some sort of kinship and community with each other".
What the royals really don't like is for anyone to peak behind the curtain to see the substance of what's really going on.
So, when audio of the Prince of Wales having intimate conversations with Camilla – now Queen Consort – were leaked in 1993, or recordings of phone calls between Diana and her close friend James Gilbey were made public the year before, that reality was suddenly laid bare.
The public image of the royals, which the palace had so carefully created, was revealed as a fiction. Instead, it turned out they were just human beings beneath all that style after all. Utterly normal, dysfunctional ones at that: nothing much was particularly mystical, it turned out.
From re-living Sarah Ferguson's toe-sucking and Diana's infamous revelation that "there were three of us in this marriage so it was a bit crowded" to her revelations of the ignored and neglected mental health issues she suffered from, this season of The Crown will bring the Royal Family back down to earth once again, perhaps with a firmer thump than they experienced in the 1990s.
As Schama has also pointed out: “The Queen started with a completely empty slate. Nobody had the slightest idea what her opinions about anything were.”
Charles, at nearly 74, does not have that luxury. He is newly burdened by the silence required of the monarch, but Schama says “everybody knows what his opinions are, and it’s a kind of burden".
Humanity on the cutting room floor
And if anyone were to think that the palace has modernised or mellowed more recently, just think back to the Queen's funeral last month.
David Dimbleby - speaking at the Henley Literary Festival – was one of those to express shock at “the degree of control that Buckingham Palace has over the image of the Royal Family”.
The broadcaster had returned to the BBC to work on the coverage of the Queen’s funeral, and was surprised that requests came from the palace “almost simultaneously” during the live broadcast forbidding the use of particular clips to be re-shown in future broadcasts.
“There was a complete list of things that no broadcaster could show, because the copyright belongs to Buckingham Palace.”
The clips in question, Dimbleby said, included “Prince George touching his nose, don’t show it. And it went on.”
The Guardian has also reported that particular clips have been vetoed and that, in fact, only an hour of footage from the entire mourning period can be retained by broadcasters and that “the royal household will consider whether to veto any proposed inclusions.”
From Mike Tindall checking his watch to Prince George – only nine years old – touching his nose: these scraps of normality are what it seems the royal household want to carefully clip out of the official record.
Maybe it's the royals who need to come with a fiction warning after all.