What The Crown tells us about the monarchy... and what it doesn't

Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles in The Crown

Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles in The Crown - Credit: Netflix

Far from being a crypto-republican enterprise, hiding in pay-per-view, The Crown is at worst neutral when it comes to the validity of the monarchy, says WILL SELF.

Much fulmination on airwaves and in print has accompanied the arrival of the latest season of Netflix’s staggeringly successful series, The Crown. In a way, this is merely Round 4 of an ongoing bout between the royalists and the bogeyman they’re fashioning out of Peter Morgan, the show’s creator: whose latest historical liberties only compound those he’s taken already in previous seasons. Fulminating in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins relied on a list of solecisms compiled by the historian, Hugo Vickers, that include the assertions that "Prince Charles called Camilla Parker-Bowles every day in the early years of his marriage", and that "the royal family laid protocol traps to humiliate Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Balmoral".

According to Jenkins, such deformations of the historical record are tantamount to ‘fake news’, and are as destructive of democratic politics as Trump’s lies. I’ve been an admirer of Jenkins’s writing over the years – but in this instance he really should’ve declared an interest; namely, that he is in fact a ‘Knight Bachelor’, an honour he received for services to journalism in 2004. I would have been perfectly happy with his receiving this accolade for, say, his work with English Heritage, or the National Trust, but there’s something more than a little infra dig about a serving member of the fourth estate bending the knee to a reigning monarch: the whole point about the press’s influence being that it retains its independence by expressing its opinions without fear… or favour.

Vickers is of course a royal biographer by trade, so his interest in the preservation – and indeed lustre – of the fabled (and baubled) institution is self-evidently professional closure. But anyway, what do these untruths really amount to? No one has disputed for a long time now that the heir to the throne continued an intimate relationship with his second wife throughout his marriage to his first; while as for the ‘news’ that the British upper classes are a fearful bunch of snobs, surely this is something known the length and breadth of the realm? The Royal Family didn’t need to actively humiliate the daughter of a Grantham grocer who’d had her accent warped so severely by elocution lessons she sounded like some weird parody of them – she’d already done it to herself, with the collusion of her parents.

Surely, Jenkins – public school and Oxbridge-educated – knows the score when it comes to the class system in these isles? For the aristocracy genealogy is ideology; while the only way not to betray that you mind not having blue enough blood in your veins is to simultaneously feign complete indifference to their social mores, whilst slavishly conforming to them. The scene at Balmoral in which the Royals shame Thatcher by forcing her to play an absurd game in which they – seemingly inadvertently – black themselves up with burnt cork, while chanting childish rhymes cannot really be accorded a departure from reality, even if nothing precisely of this ilk took place. Why? Because the whole culture of the British aristocracy – and in particular the monarchy – is a charade of exactly this type, the outward-facing form of which is all the absurd flummery and mummery to which we’ve become so accustomed, we believe it to’ve endured time out of mind.

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The truth is that most of it was concocted by the novelist Walter Scott in the early 1820s, when he was charged with organising the visit of George IV to Scotland. This role of fabulists in the maintenance of the British Royal Family’s status is something Peter Morgan (appointed Commander of the British Empire for services to drama in the 2016 New Year’s Honours list), will be only too aware of. And I’d argue that far from being a crypto-republican enterprise, hiding in pay-per-view, The Crown is at worst neutral when it comes to the validity of the institution. This is after all a constitutional monarchy, whose political power is solely a negative capability exercised through the display of wealth and privilege. If you like, the monarchy is a sort of potlatch: the ceremony practiced by American First Nations peoples in which they gave away as much wealth as possible, in order to prove the non-material nature of ultimate power.

If, as Jenkins implies, Morgan is fanning the flames of the conspiracy theories that have danced macabre attendance on the heir to the throne ever since the death of Princess Diana – then he has nonetheless held back from the greatest lèse-majesté available to him; Prince Charles’s infamous leaked phone-call to his inamorata, Camilla, in which he voiced a wish to achieve the greatest possible intimacy with her, by taking on the role of her sanitary protection. Yes, if you want to undermine the airy battlements of the British monarchy you should say it out loud and proud that the future king wished to be his lover’s tampon not just once or twice, but pretty much constantly.

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At least, that’s the case if you want to maintain the institution as it’s currently constituted; for my own part, I still find Charles’s long since launched flight of fancy utterly endearing; while if I try to imagine a monarchy that also felt pride in such a viscerally affectionate assertion, I can also conceive bending the knee to it myself.

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