Watching The Crown season four is rather like Michael Fagan gatecrashing Buckingham Palace. We get to see behind the glittering facade and it is absolutely riveting television and it feels beguilingly intimate. I can almost imagine stroking the corgis.
Of course, everyone wants to see Emma Corrin reincarnated as Diana. Fortunately, she pulls it off in a way that eluded Naomi Watts. She is spookily like her and the painstaking transformation into The People's Princess is equally authentic and bewitching. The image of her rollerskating through the empty corridors of the palace sums up her plight. She's a gauche teenager listening to Duran Duran while her prince prefers to hang out with philosophers and intellectuals - what a misalliance! It is also exciting to see the late Princess Diana's iconic gowns so faithfully reimagined using many of the fashion artisans and lacemakers who worked on Diana's couture masterpieces.
But the tone has changed for season four. It is less of a masterful drama documentary and more of the soap opera to end all soap operas. The Queen is portrayed by Olivia Colman as a ruthless, cold hearted woman who needs to be briefed on her own children's likes and dislikes and ignores Diana's cries for help. Though it is her son and heir who comes off worse. Prince Charles is unjustly turned into a Hollywood villain from another age. He is portrayed as Machiavellian malcontent who is the architect of the late Prince Diana's misery, loneliness and bulimia.
This is not true. Charles is far too wet and too much of an organic man and navel gazer for that. His problem is that he has loved Camilla for most of his adult life and he simply didn't have the balls to stand up to the palace machine and marry for love, not the manufactured fairytale.
His tragedy is that he is weak. He is not a heartless schemer.
Now that we have established that The Crown is mostly a very clever, high octane soap opera, let's talk about the sheer entertainment value.
The series is beautiful to look at. How the other half live, even if it is a guilded prison, where one is expected to perform and live by an outdated code of deference and service to the only person who matters, the Queen. The royal family have so many rather nice playthings from palaces to horses and dream cars to the ability to just take off here, there and everywhere. I rather fancy the Queen Mother's windswept pile Glams Castle and the Prince of Wales's bachelor sports car.
To do it all justice and really study the form requires at least three binge viewings to catch every act of symbolism, every re-writing of history and just to savour Prince Charles as prince charming whirling Diana across the dance floor in Australia as if they are Fred and Ginger and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret boogying to David Bowie with Dazzle!
Everything about The Crown from the stellar acting to the razor sharp writing and haunting music is a dramatic cause celebre. But let's not forget that it is first and foremost a dazzling work of fiction, based loosely on actual historic events from the assassination of Lord Mountbatten to the collapse of the Prince of Wales Marriage to Lady Diana Spencer, The Falklands War and the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher.
The danger, as I have already noticed from social media is that people think the dramatised life of the Queen and her family is the gospel truth. It isn't. The Queen's life has been dramatised for maximum impact and to be honest, I feel sorry for the Royal Family and I do wonder what will happen after our monarch dies. Will the monarchy be vastly reduced at this point?
In the Crown, the principal members of the royal family are portrayed as a cold-blooded bunch of heartless, dysfunctional, extraordinarily privileged, poorly educated, guilded misfits with a love for ritual, killing animals and a total inability to show each other proper affection, kindness or love.
You can can see this at work in the way Mountbatten's murder is cleverly juxtaposed with the Queen going stalking at Balmoral and Prince Charles is seen fishing in Iceland. Charles is shown bashing a salmon repeatedly to kill it with unnecessary venom at the point the IRA are blowing up his darling uncle. Charles is deliberately portrayed as petulant and cruel, when in real life he has been teased and ridiculed for caring too much about nature, his. subjects and for talking to his plants!
Nor was I sure about Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in the beginning. She over eggs her portrait of Thatcher when she first meets the Queen. It is almost painful to watch. It is too much of a caricature. Then she nails the character. She does go on to deliver a slow, deliciously multi-layered view of the politician, wife, mother and woman. She is by turns fierce, smart, nannying, made of steel in times of national crisis, and surprisingly emotional at home. She does break too. Anderson captures her love of fashion and being part housewife, part blue-stocking, part over-doting mother and part general, leading the troops with uncanny authenticity. Bravo for pulling off the very particular mannerisms and accent.
There is no doubt that Josh O'Connor is an exciting choice to play Prince Charles. He is handsome enough and gets all the little quirks just right. He gets the awkwardness, the procrastination and navel gazing for which the prince is celebrated. There is this sense that he is beset with concerns and almost awkward in his own skin, despite his extraordinary advantages. Notice the difficult, clipped received pronunciation accent, to the way he half curls his lip and breaks into a hint of a smile. So far, so good.
But he does not get the measure of the man. Not that this is the actor's fault. The fault lies with the script and the fundamental error when it comes to conveying the prince of Wales's character.
When the marriage is falling apart, Josh O'Connor turns into a knarled, whining Richard 111! It is comical. Anyone moment I imagine he will grow a hunchback. Observe him carefully at the opera house when Diana does her show girl routine and dares to upstage him on his 37th birthday. Now is the winter of our discontent.... come on!
Anyone who knows Prince Charles or has watched him over the years will know that he is a dreamer, philosopher and romantic, not a wicked, cruel schemer!
How could Netflix and its director get the measure of the man so wrong?
As for newcomer Emma Corrin in the role of Diana, she is the re-incarnation of the people's princess and no doubt she will spark a new wave of Diana mania from fans who weren't even born when the princess became a global superstar.
Corrin captures her youthful spirit, playfulness and empathy and the eyes ever cast downwards. She also successfully shows a believable transformation from the gauche nursery school assistant to the goddess-icon who finds solace in public acclamation.
Interestingly, and most importantly, given the unfair portrait of Prince Charles, I also think Corrin shows that the the princess is manipulative and craves approval. We also see the despair that comes from knowing the fairytale prince loves someone else. The scenes where she is shown to be suffering from bulimia are shocking and tragic and contrast sharply with her position of privilege.
The moment where she is shown lying on the floor in New York alone in her beautiful gown after vomiting is a powerful call to action.
While it is a challenge to portray someone so iconic with a serious mental health condition without the risk of sensationalism, I think it is important to show that anyone can be affected, and to open up the conversation around self image and eating disorders.
We also witness the remarkable fashion transformation, as the frumpy skirts and pie crust blouses she wears at the beginning are replaced with Catherine Walker's elongated column gowns that flattered her boyish frame and height and the power suits that could rival any Hollywood icon.
Once Diana understood the power of image to get the adoration she needed from the public in place of Charles, she used fashion as a weapon.
The scene where she first attracts her prince's attention in her tree costume at Althrop is full of charm and the stuff of fairytales, and at that point one cannot imagine the misery and unhappiness to come. However, the scene is entirely made up.
From my own experiences as a feature writer and and celebrity journalist I was often told by the royal photographic rat pack that Diana was gorgeous, dazzling and also manipulative and difficult. They were all in love with her and she cultivated her favourites.
While the late royal couturier, Catherine Walker, who I came to know well after working on a series of high profile cover stories for the Times in the noughties hinted that being the designer tasked with making Diana look like an icon all the time was in itself a huge pressure.
Less than a decade ago, and with my life-long interest in organic food and farming, I spent a year of my professional journalistic life being vetted to set up an interview with Prince Charles about his passion for the environment and organic producers. The interview was approved by the palace. Just six weeks before the feature and interview was due to take place, it was hijacked by new blood coming into the newspaper I was commissioned to write the piece for.
Suddenly, I was being told to get a personal angle on Camilla and William and Harry as well as the organic one. This was out of the question and I told them so. You don't ask off topic questions of the Prince of Wales. In fact, all questions have to be agreed in writing. I knew this, the broadsheet editor new this, but that didn't stop them trying to bully me and hi-jack my feature.
I was the pawn between the palace and the newspaper and I was blamed when the prince's press attache found out about the paper's hidden agenda. I was distraught. I had behaved with integrity throughout. The stress would lead to months off work. I wrote to Prince Charles and told him the truth of what had happened to me. I have no idea if he read the letter. I never received a reply. Sadly, it seemed to me that he surrounds himself with people who don't really understand him or his great passions in life. Charles is misunderstood, that is his tragedy.
He is the philosopher king in waiting and something of an activist who has been proved right about climate, farming and nature decades after he first warned about the impact of pesticides on biodiversity and the soil and the menace of plastic packaging. As a result for what has been described as 'meddling', he has been ridiculed and constantly undermined because he is attacking big business and the status quo and that is a dangerous game.
It is a great shame, but doesn't come as a surprise that The Crown has almost ignored his crusade for nature, farming and the many people he supports through the Duchy of Lancaster and The Princes's Trust.
One character in the royal soap opera who surprisingly doesn't come off badly in the Crown, but could have done is Camilla Parker Bowles played by the appealing Emerald Fennell.
Emerald is a multi-talented actress, scriptwriter and producer and she plays Camilla in a way that is rather likeable, low key and rather stoic. You can see why Charles would like a woman like her because she makes him feel good, she is relaxed, fun and there is never any drama. She's like his girl Friday and she is happy to play a supporting role.
What does come across is how the palace machine wanted Charles to marry a sweet, innocent virgin he doesn't remotely understand to give the world the 'fairytale' rather than Camilla who would become a divorcee and without a title.
This goes back to the abdication crisis and the disapproval surrounding divorce. If the palace had relaxed its views on marriage and Charles had been free to marry Camilla, years of unhappiness and tragedy could have been avoided for Diana, Charles and Camilla.
In contrast Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher is perhaps someone quite a few people would secretly admire, but in no way is she portrayed as likeable.
Anderson plays her as a steely, headstrong, self-made blue-stocking who is still at heart the greengrocer's daughter who went to Oxford. A woman who happily feeds and fusses over her male cabinet while ordering her hubby to stay in their double bed at Balmoral and ruthlessly slashing the public purse without emotion.
You've got to admire her fearlessness and femininity supported by a love of tailoring, Launer handbags and clouds of Elnett. The scenes where she and the Queen fall out of South Africa and sanctions are like a game of chess and unmissable.
It's the battle of two top dogs and neither has any intention of giving way.
In many ways, it is the female actors who have all the plum parts in The Crown. The men are accessories apart from Charles.
Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret the rebel royal is absolutely delicious to watch. Margaret was widely known to be rude, grandiose and extremely tricky. She could also be wild, brilliant fun and daring and Helena brilliantly conveys her fragility, her disappointments and her lack of purpose as second fiddle to the Queen.
In her younger days, Margaret was also very beautiful. Hers was a film star beauty and you can still see the vivacious royal beauty as she dances around her apartment to Bowie and in Mustique even though she has done as much as she could to ravage that beauty with a sixty cigarettes a day habit and the drinking that would wreck her health.
Bonham Carter captures the incredibly awkward position of being No 2 to the Queen. We see it when she agrees to see a 'head-shrinker' and she is scarily imperious, demanding to be called ma'am. There are also flashes of real heartfelt emotion, sadness and empathy when she stands up for Charles and the cousins who were locked away for decades, hidden from scrutiny to protect the royal blood line from the fear of imbecility.
It's a tricky thing to thrive as a member of the royal family. How can one possibly live a normal life when one represents a thousand years of heritage, battles, aggrandisement, mysticism and the divine right of kings and queens to rule over us all? They cannot possibly be human or like us at all - now that would break the fairytale.
Alison Jane Reid Copyright November 2020.