No one can accuse The Crown of being too subtle. As the regal Netflix drama returns, tight-lipped close-ups of Lord Louis Mountbatten are intercut with newsreel of soldiers and rioters on Belfast streets.
A Republican terrorist rants in voiceover about shedding British blood, as Mountbatten (Charles Dance) joins the Queen at the Trooping of the Colour.
Then the narrative switches to Prince Charles, meeting a teenage Lady Diana Spencer for the first time. All this before the opening titles have even rolled – at least we know what this one’s going to be about.
The Crown season 4: The show gives nonstop high drama and emotion, wrapped in a fairytale including the meeting of Charles and Diana (Emma and Josh portraying Charles and Diana at the Royal Opera House in March 1981)
Blushing bride: All eyes are on newcomer Emma Corrin, who has the daunting task of showing us who Diana was before she became the most famous person on the planet (Left is Emma in the homage and right Princess Diana on her wedding day)
It’s like the heading on the first chapter of a Victorian novel: ‘In which the Prince of Wales encounters his future bride, while his uncle meets an unfortunate end.’
Most of the cast are old hands. Olivia Colman returns as the Queen, with Josh O’Connor as Charles and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret.
But all eyes are on newcomer Emma Corrin, who has the daunting task of showing us who Diana was before she became the most famous person on the planet. How is it possible, writer Peter Morgan asks, that anyone in the Royal Family or the media could have imagined that this shy, inexperienced young woman was suited to the international spotlight and all the duties of a future Queen?
When we first see her, she is 16 years old and in costume for a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dressed in flowers and green leggings, she announces she is ‘being a mad tree’. While Charles is mooning around the entrance hall of her family’s stately home, Althorp, waiting for a date with her older sister Sarah, Lady Di makes sure he notices her by tiptoeing ostentatiously from one hiding place to another, calling out, ‘Sorry, I’m not here!’
Artistic licence In The Crown, even the woman Prince Charles loves, Mrs Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell – left), thinks he should take the plunge and marry her
Later, Sarah says her little sister ‘was obsessed with the idea of meeting you’. Di does it again months later, making sure to bump into Charles at a showjumping event following Mountbatten’s murder by the IRA. As the Prince simpers and sighs at the wheel of his Aston Martin, she pours out her condolences.
In this version of events, Di has a plan and executes it perfectly. She endears herself to the Royals, making it impossible for Charles to avoid being married off to her. The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh (Tobias Menzies), Margaret, Anne, the Queen Mum… all the senior royals, whom Charles very improbably calls ‘the whole ghastly Politburo’ – they are all besotted with Diana.
Even the woman he loves, Mrs Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell), thinks he should take the plunge.
It’s a quite different story to the one painted in ITV’s The Diana Interview, on Monday, which claimed the teenage bride-to-be was so in awe of her royal fiance that she addressed him as ‘sir’ instead of using his Christian name.
Back again: Most of the cast are old hands, including Olivia Colman, (pictured) who returns as the Queen (in the trailer pictured left, and right is The Queen pictured in 1979)
Death of an icon: The Royal Family is once again hit by tragedy as they attend the funeral of Lord Mountbatten, after he was assassinated by a bomb hidden aboard his fishing boat in Ireland
Scary: Helena Bonham Carter returns as Princess Margaret, who faces a nasty health scare after years of heavy smoking
Morgan never has minded turning his characters into caricatures, without regard for the real people who inspire his story. Perhaps he thinks they deserve no consideration, or that they’ve learned to ignore everything about them in the media. But his callousness is hard on peripheral figures such as Sarah Spencer, now McCorquodale, who is first depicted hustling Charles off to a private lodge on the grounds, and later tries to sabotage her sister’s chances.
Subsequent episodes are unsparing in their portrayal of Diana’s suffering, including her bulimia. Several carry ‘trigger warnings’ that they include ‘scenes of an eating disorder which some viewers may find troubling’.
Before her marriage, we see her standing in front of a palace fridge in the middle of the night, gorging on desserts. Then she kneels over a toilet, thrusting her fingers down her throat to vomit repeatedly.
Serious: Subsequent episodes are unsparing in their portrayal of Diana’s suffering, including her bulimia (above Corrin as Diana)
Distressing bouts recur in Australia, during her first tour abroad with Charles and their baby son William, and in 1990 when the marriage is on the point of irretrievable breakdown. It is brutal to watch.
This season is 24-year-old Miss Corrin’s only chance to give her interpretation of Diana.
When the series returns for a fifth time, it will be Elizabeth Debicki – star of The Night Manager – who plays the Princess… though how long we’ll have to wait for that, given the restrictions placed on filming by the pandemic, no one can say.
It is also the only chance for Gillian Anderson to do her Margaret Thatcher impression. And it is an impression, though more like the send-up Faith Brown used to do on the Mike Yarwood Show than the real Prime Minister. Anderson sways constantly as though she’s on deck in a heavy swell – something comedians always copied, though Maggie never did it.
The Queen tries to like her, even enduring political lectures over the phone, but the final straw comes when Mrs Thatcher arrives at Balmoral in court shoes and her trademark blue dress suit, instead of wellies and a Barbour. Apparently, Her Majesty is such a snob that she can’t abide anyone who doesn’t know how to dress for a hike on the Scottish moors.
Anderson might be doing a cheap impression but Olivia Colman certainly is not. She’s nothing like the Queen in any respect – doesn’t look like her, move like her, talk like her, resemble her in any way. She plays the monarch as a middle-class suburban housewife, which is doubly bizarre when the rest of the cast are behaving like Spitting Image puppets.
Knocking back a gin and tonic, the Queen Mum cries, ‘Chippety choppity, down with the Nazis.’ Prince Philip reacts to Mrs Thatcher’s election by complaining, ‘That’s the last thing this country needs, two women running the shop.’
Denis Thatcher (Stephen Boxer) goes further: ‘Two menopausal women, that’ll be a smooth ride.’
Smooth, perhaps not. But it’s definitely soapy. For all its flaws, The Crown gives us what we demand from the royal cavalcade – nonstop high drama and emotion, wrapped in a fairytale.
Whether it’s a glimpse of Philip behind his steely facade, drunkenly accusing his son of poaching Mountbatten’s fatherly affection, or Margaret at her most appalling as she scolds Mrs T for being ‘common’, this series never fails to show us the Royal Family as we dearly love to imagine them… ‘whatever love is’.
All ten episodes of The Crown, series four, are available to view on Netflix from Sunday November 15
Political icon: It is also the only chance for Gillian Anderson to do her Margaret Thatcher impression. And it is an impression, though more like the send-up Faith Brown used to do on the Mike Yarwood Show than the real Prime Minister (Thatcher is pictured right in 1979)
Oh dear: Anderson sways constantly as though she’s on deck in a heavy swell – something comedians always copied, though Maggie never did it