To be a television critic these days is simple: you just need loads of things to say about the late Queen’s hair. You need to be able to describe it in absolute flinty detail; how it curled, for example, in a slightly ironed fashion, like the terrier on the front of a can of upmarket dog food.
You need to be able to detect the infinitesimal differences between two identical actresses offering exactly the same performance as her daughter-in-law Diana. You need to have a high tolerance for an inordinate number of mentions of the word “femly” and for entirely fictional soap opera scenes where members of the “femly” will tell each other how disappointed they are to be a prince/princess/duke before asking each other, as if they had no idea they were royals: “But what is the monarchy for?”
You need to understand that however much you hate The Crown (Netflix), you will still avidly watch it.
What is its trick? Objectively I know the show is rubbish — laughable, syrupy scenes or comical, desperate story lines based on the hokey love life of, say, Princess Margaret (“Without sun and water, crops fail, Lilibet”). Where once the vast sets and sheer scale of this titanic series were attractive, now it’s as if you’re watching little brittle toy figures pinballing around empty aircraft hangars.
But still you watch it. The new series starts in 1990, a time that should be about millions of ordinary people greedily reading newspapers and beginning to pry into royal lives. But in Peter Morgan’s hands it is still a femly affair: almost no one else features. There is no sense of the outside world. Diana stays, imprisoned almost, in her flouncy, wintry drawing room at Kensington Palace (“the leper colony”) while Charles holds airless meetings many miles away. He has all the best lines — he wants “a welfare monarchy”, he tells baffled courtiers. Dominic West is oddly brilliant as the chuffering plant lover — part Monty Don, part seedy RAF captain, he’s both arrogant and needy.
This is not a series for the women. Elizabeth Debicki looks and sounds the part, but while Charles is given a series of revealing monologues, Diana is given almost nothing. I couldn’t tell you a single thing she did or thought in the first five episodes. Her only purpose in this series, it seems, is to die.
Objectively I know [The Crown] is rubbish—laughable, syrupy scenes or comical, desperate story lines based on the hokey love life of, say, Princess Margaret.
The Queen is an unreachable Mrs Tiggy-Winkle with a beetling Crufts wig. She spends the first half of the series whinnying about the Royal Yacht Britannia and telling the Milk Marketing Board that “this state-of-the-art dairy complex is testament to the continuing vitality of British udders”. Did she ever say that — or are the scriptwriters bored? One of the joys of Claire Foy’s performance was her vulnerability, but that isn’t what Imelda Staunton does. She is beady, intense and powerful — and seems lost in this cold, subtle little role.
Even the grayest men are built up into mysterious sex gods. Jonny Lee Miller — Sick Boy from Trainspotting — is John Major, a man “full of fascinating contradictions”, says the Queen. Is that what people thought in 1992? It wasn’t until much later that anyone thought he was anything but flat and dull.
By far the best scene is in episode five when The People publishes the transcripts of Charles and Camilla on the phone. Instead of some hectic montage of people reading at their breakfast table, again it focuses masterfully on the royal family individually reading words like “I’m going to press the tit” or “I wish I could just live inside your trousers” while that menacing, light music plays. It’s mortifying to watch them, but I don’t believe Princess Anne wouldn’t have guffawed.
The worst scene comes at the end of the fifth episode, when Charles is shown break-dancing with some young people he has helped for the Prince’s Trust, while credits run telling us about the trust’s achievements. Why would they have them — as a sop to Charles, after complaints about the show’s “fiction”?
By the end you are desperate to get away from the vain lot of them — the show’s most interesting episode hardly contains them at all. In episode three we learn about Mohamed Al Fayed. What a fascinating picture of rabid social climbing it is — a former Cairo street hawker, he’s willing to take any number of snubs from the royals while obsessing over them and hoovering up everything around them, including the Duke of Windsor’s Bahamian valet and, eventually, Diana.
Season Five of The Crown is available for streaming on Netflix
Camilla Long is a columnist and television critic for The Sunday Times