Is Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ Historical Fact Or Sensational Fiction?

With The Crown Season 5 set to premiere on 9 November, it is timely for a deep dive into the hit Netflix series. The award-winning drama has garnered praise and criticism alike, but the debate on whether The Crown is telling a distorted version of history has bubbled up again.

Netflix’s The Crown is one of the streaming service’s flagship series, boasting a stellar ensemble cast, with some of them winning accolades for their portrayals. The series itself has won numerous awards including 21 Emmies and two Golden Globes for Best Television Series – Drama. Not only have critics lauded the series but it has also been praised and thoroughly enjoyed by an audience who have faithfully binged the series since it premiered in 2016. 

However, the series is not without its detractors. Over the course of its four seasons, The Crown has elicited criticisms, mainly for its historical inaccuracies. Peggy Noonan, in a 2017 article for The Wall Street Journal, has said that in the show’s treatment of history, “there’s a deep, clueless carelessness.” 

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Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II (Image credit: Netflix)

However, the new upcoming season may perhaps be the show’s most controversial thanks to a perfect storm of events: the season will cover the tumultuous and bitter divorce of Charles and Diana, mere months after the real-life King Charles ascended to the throne after Queen Elizabeth’s death. The Telegraph has reported that “a friend of the King described the drama as ‘exploitative’”, which creator and showrunner Peter Morgan rejected.

The debate on whether The Crown is simply a stylish and, more importantly, fictitious show inspired by true events or a blatant effort to pass off fiction for history has heated up once again, especially after the criticisms made by Dame Judi Dench, who is close to the King and Queen Consort. “Indeed, the closer the drama comes to our present times,” the actress wrote in a letter to The Times, “The more freely it seems willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism.” 

Historical fact or sensational fiction?

Like many movies with the tag “inspired by real events”, The Crown isn’t a scene-by-scene-accurate retelling of history nor has it ever claimed to be. There’s no shortage of criticism for its historical inaccuracies. You can take your pick on which fictional moments you want to point out: the Queen and Winston Churchill telling Princess Margaret not to marry Peter Townsend or she would lose her title, the Queen taking a trip for the sole purpose of competing against JFK’s popularity, or the attempt to cover-up a hereditary mental illness that afflicted the Queen’s cousins. Clearly, the show, despite being based on true events and real-life people, takes liberties, and this is what makes it complicated.

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Elizabeth Debicki as Diana, Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II, and Dominic West as Charles (Image credit: Netflix)

The show’s fourth season, for example, depicts the “love story” of Charles and Diana and their doomed marriage. During this time, Charles was also still in contact with Camilla. Charles is portrayed as ungrateful and teetering as close to unfaithfulness as he could with Camilla unabashedly letting Diana know she’s after her husband. In real life, Charles and Camila’s relationship wouldn’t develop until five years after Charles and Diana’s marriage. Yes, they were still married to their respective partners but it wasn’t like anything portrayed in the series. However, this didn’t stop people from trolling the royal couple, who are now King and Queen Consort. It got too out of hand that their Twitter account had to restrict replies and tags for a while. 

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Dominic West as Charles and Olivia Williams as Camilla (Image credit: Netflix)

After Dench’s criticism, which follows similar criticism from former prime minister John Major (played by Jonny Lee Miller in the upcoming fifth season), a spokeswoman for the show described the show as a “fictional dramatisation”, a description that has since been put in the show’s official synopsis on Netflix and on the YouTube description for the trailer. However, it seems that the problem doesn’t just solely lie in the show but in the audience. People love delicious gossip and drama, and the line between fact and fiction blurs for them despite the fact that the show has made it abundantly clear that it’s the former. Even Prince Harry has said the show is “obviously fiction”.

So is Dame Judi Dench right? Yes, in the sense that The Crown is sensational fiction. It’s good TV, and its many accolades reflect that. But will a simple disclaimer stop people from thinking what they’re watching isn’t entirely accurate? History shows us that sadly, the answer is “no”.

Stream all four seasons of The Crown on Netflix. The fifth season premieres on November 9.