(Note: This story contains spoilers, but it will only enrich your viewing.)
At a recent cocktail gathering in Washington, political operatives at the Ritz-Carlton were abuzz—but not about the impeachment hearings underway on Capitol Hill. They were chattering about the third season of The Crown. “I was watching that episode about Princess Margaret, and I immediately googled ‘Princess Margaret and LBJ,’ but I came up with nothing!” said Tamera Luzzatto, Hillary Clinton’s former chief of staff.
Luzzatto was referring to one of the most hilariously entertaining bits in the second episode, “Margaretology.” She couldn’t find it on Google because it never happened, at least not in the way it was portrayed: a raucous White House dinner hosted by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson for Princess Margaret and her husband, Lord Snowdon, featuring the hard-partying princess and the famously profane president drinking each other under the table, trading dirty limericks, dancing and singing with abandon.
As it happened, President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, hosted a far more conventional White House dinner on November 17, 1965, for the Snowdons, with 150 guests. “The president called Princess Margaret ‘little lady,’” recalled James Ketchum, the White House curator at the time. In his toast, Johnson cited a Mark Twain quote: “I have traveled more than anyone else, and I have noticed that even the angels speak English with an accent.” The princess saluted the Johnsons’ 31st wedding anniversary that day.
Contrary to The Crown’s telling, there was no diplomatic mission hastily assigned by the Queen to her unpredictable younger sister and no “thousand-million-pound bailout” secured from an Anglophobic president beguiled by the giggling “vice Queen” to prevent Britain from going broke.
In the episode, the Queen sniffed, “He had a cold,” recalling L.B.J.’s failure to show up for the funeral of Winston Churchill as evidence of his hostility to Britain. Johnson had actually been hospitalized with acute bronchitis in the week before Churchill’s funeral. He had been desperate to attend, despite the opposition of his doctors and advisers. The Queen offered to give Johnson a private audience at Buckingham Palace. But three days before the funeral, Johnson stood down. He had already been stricken with pneumonia a half-dozen times, and he couldn’t risk high-altitude flying.
Contrary to The Crown’s telling, there was no diplomatic mission hastily assigned by the Queen to her unpredictable younger sister.
Welcome to History 101 in the 21st century: a lavishly produced, superbly acted, tautly plotted, cleverly written saga so compulsively addictive that many viewers stream all 10 episodes at once on Netflix. Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown, takes selected facts, uses his imagination to supplement the historical record, adds dramatic flourishes, makes up acres of dialogue, and even invents entire episodes. Real facts and alternative facts jostle on-screen as the spellbound viewer is immersed in the human drama. It’s Downton Abbey but with more of that unique charm.
Morgan is a masterful dramatic conjurer. I was his consultant for more than a year on his award-winning stage play The Audience. The production, starring Helen Mirren, was about the private audiences between the Queen and her prime ministers and allowed Peter to give free play to his imagination. For me, after writing three deeply researched biographies about members of the British royal family, it was a window into how he worked his fact/fiction magic and helped me understand how he uses the technique in The Crown.
Unless you’re a student of the royal family, disregard chronology or else you’ll go bonkers. In Episode Eight, “Dangling Man,” for instance, the action in England and France jumps forward and backward in the interest of narrative convenience. What happened in 1972 may be set in 1970 and vice versa. As Peter said to me when I queried him about a chronological glitch in a scene for The Audience, “That is a hole, alas. No one need know exactly that it was February 5.”
Peter scrupulously nails the little details—an effective way to create the atmosphere of verisimilitude. He once asked me if I knew the Queen’s weaknesses: “Chocolate? Peppermints? Whiskey? Biltong? Snuff? Gin? Dubonnet?” He mused about imagining Harold Wilson enjoying a cigar with her when she “discovers it’s his secret—too toxic a symbol of capitalist power for the campaign trail,” where he smokes a pipe instead—as she confesses to “a ‘weakness’ herself.” The idea pops up in slightly revised form in Episode Three, “Aberfan,” when Wilson offers his cigar secret after the Queen has confided that she finds it difficult to cry.
Unless you’re a student of the royal family, disregard chronology or else you’ll go bonkers.
It’s no surprise that dramatic showdowns are a leitmotif of the series. I once suggested that Peter tamp down a confrontational exchange between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher in The Audience. “Don’t put the fire out!!!” he replied. “I want a clash or no scene at all.” The same principle applies to the moment in The Crown when the Queen—acting like an absolute monarch—blisters Prime Minister Edward Heath at the end of Episode Nine, “Imbroglio.”
Such transgressions by a meticulous constitutional monarch are among many mischaracterizations of the Queen, who as far as I can tell has always been consistent and measured in her role. She may have been remote with her children and preoccupied by her job, but it’s hard to imagine the cold cruelty she inflicts on her eldest son in the third season.
Her relationship with her sister is similarly off. Margaret did brood about being second fiddle, but it wasn’t in the Queen’s nature to be jealous of her sister’s exuberant personality. The real-life Queen is a free spirit with friends—blowing bubbles at a birthday party in the London Aquarium, singing madrigals with Margaret at the piano, eyes sparkling, hands gesticulating, her joyous laugh echoing through the rooms of Sandringham House, in Norfolk. “Laughter has always been around the corner with the Queen and Prince Philip,” Prudence Penn, one of their lifelong friends, told me.
Peter Morgan’s own edgy humor is actually a hallmark of the series, popping out of the mouths of various characters. Princess Anne is the latest to benefit from his ventriloquism, often outshining the verbally caustic Princess Margaret. Anne is a sassy subversive, easy to envision running to the stage to join the cast of Hair, which she did in 1967, but not in The Crown.
Morgan takes selected facts, uses his imagination to supplement the historical record, adds dramatic flourishes, makes up acres of dialogue, and even invents entire episodes.
In Episode Six, “Tywysog Cymru,” when Charles is moaning about being forced to learn Welsh at Aberystwyth University, in Wales, he asks if Anne would like to be first in line for the throne. “Not if it means going to Wales,” she cracks. She gives him a reassuring kiss and then a punch to his stomach, prompting affectionate laughter. In less than 20 seconds, the viewer gets the dynamic of brother and sister.
Although the British royal family has been his meal ticket for well over a decade, it’s safe to say that Peter is ambivalent about the monarchy. Every time one of the characters speaks about the dilemma of the British sovereign—the almost inhuman need for self-abnegation and scrupulous neutrality—I can detect Peter’s mixed feelings. They emerge from the soliloquies of the Queen, Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Prince Philip, and Prince Charles. As Peter remarked to me some years ago, “What a strange family—what a bizarre institution—and if you took them away, the country wouldn’t fall apart so much as be lost, wondering who or what was left.”
Underlying The Crown—and one reason for its distinctiveness—is the impulse to thread edification through the entertainment. This season we’ve had a suspenseful depiction of the Aberfan mine disaster, Lord Mountbatten’s history of coups d’état, an explanation of the Emergency Powers Act of 1920, the fundamentals of Welsh nationalism, and the “hollow crown” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. Peter knows his history and his literature, and these scenes and riffs can be counted on for accuracy.
There is a requisite measure of imagined sex, mainly courtesy of Princess Margaret, and now Prince Charles and his girlfriend, Camilla, as well as Princess Anne and her liaison with cavalry officer Andrew Parker Bowles (himself Camilla’s on-and-off lover). In Episodes Eight and Nine, we see each of the couples in bed, and in one scene Camilla soaks in a bathtub, cigarette in hand, as Charles writes a letter. Jealousy and intrigue mingle in the romantic plots.
The edgy Peter Morgan humor is a hallmark of the series, popping out of the mouths of various characters.
In The Crown’s first season, the Queen’s longtime friendship with Lord Carnarvon—affectionately known as Porchey—is questioned by Prince Philip. She bristles and tells him, “To everyone’s regret and frustration, the only person I have ever loved is you.” But the innuendo returns in Season Three’s fifth episode, “Coup,” when the Queen and Porchey spend a month in France and the United States on a Thoroughbred fact-finding trip (an unthinkable amount of time for her to be away from her job).
I never worked on The Crown, but we had some exchanges as Peter was mapping out his scripts for the first season. “Porchey? Did she or didn’t she??” he asked one day. I told him I was convinced the Queen was always faithful to Philip. I said that in a long interview with Jean Carnarvon, Porchey’s widow, I inquired if the Queen was capable of deception, and that she instantly replied, “No,” adding, “I couldn’t imagine her lying.” I reiterated to Peter that the underpinning of the Queen’s relationship with Porchey was their knowledge of horses.
“Absence of evidence and an iron circle of loyal insiders don’t add up to innocence. I just don’t buy a lifelong marriage without significant difficulties,” countered Peter, who is separated from his wife and has five children. “It’s just not human in any way that I can recognize, or more importantly, sympathize with. People always make the assumption that one wants to write problems or poke fun or belittle. Quite the opposite. It’s actually the only way to get an audience to like them. Make them bleed.”
It was reassuring that no blood was shed over Porchey and the Queen this season. The Crown shows their shared love of racing believably, along with the warmth of their friendship. And in Philip’s flash of jealousy, the strength of the royal marital bond is literally sealed with an earnest kiss.
I had to smile during the fanciful seventh episode in Season Three, “Moondust.” Its focus is Philip’s midlife crisis over his obsession with the first astronauts to land on the moon, in 1969. After watching Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” moment with his family, Philip compulsively remains glued to the television long after everyone else has gone to bed. I remembered an exchange Peter and I had about a scene with the Queen and Margaret Thatcher he was writing for The Audience. During their conversation, Peter wanted the prime minister to say her son was marrying a Texan. “Any Texas anecdotes?,” Peter asked me.
I suggested that the Queen talk about her wish to visit Texas. She was fascinated by the astronauts after seeing the first moon landing, and the three astronauts had come to Buckingham Palace, exhausted and ailing. I told Peter that she finally got to Houston in 1991. At the Johnson Space Center, she quizzed the astronauts about how they could see through the gold visors of their space suits, and why food didn’t drift off their plates during space travel.
“I love the stuff about the astronauts,” Peter replied. “Will use some of this with your permission.” He never asked, but I surely would have given it—in the interest of high-flying entertainment.
Sally Bedell Smith is the author of Elizabeth the Queen and Prince Charles