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The Crown, Fact and Fiction

By Hugo Munday • February 16, 2018

At the end of 2016, Netflix launched a historical TV drama written by Peter Morgan called The Crown which dramatizes the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Through 20 episodes and two seasons so far, we've watched a chronological story unfold from just before her 1947 marriage to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh through 1963 and the fallout from the Profumo Affair.

This is not like anything we've watched before, either from the networks or the burgeoning on-demand production industry. Not only is there very little titillation and no dragons, but the main characters in the fiction are real and at the height of their powers and still very much involved in their real-life game of thrones. Queen Elizabeth II is the longest reigning monarch of a still United Kingdom, and she is Head of the Commonwealth. The story is fiction, but it isn't.

The arch of the series is the progression of the current Queen, thrust into her role by the death of her father, George VI in 1952, to become the head of a backward-facing, old-fashioned institution presiding over a widening gap between ideals and the everyday needs of a depressed, post-war population. We progress from crisis to crisis and see how the Crown (Elizabeth and Philip) negotiate obstacles and how the institution morphs from anachronistic museum piece to the house of the largest players on the paparazzi/social media-fueled stage. All this happens with and without the help of her succession of Prime Ministers, over whom Elizabeth has little legal control, but with increasing skill, she is able to influence for the longevity of the House of Windsor.

Did that really happen? That's the question that is never far from the engaged watcher's mind, and therein lies the secret of what Morgan is doing. Backed by an army of researchers, he is taking what we know and what we can assume and fitting it to a plausible narrative. I can't recall any character of consequence that are out-and-out fiction; in fact, his hindsight is better than 20/20. In 1958, when the exiled Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII) seeks permission to re-enter the United Kingdom and dossiers summarizing the Nazi sympathies of the former King come to light, the writer is able to draw on a ton of archival evidence made public since 1958, to strengthen the storyline.

Checking history and deciding what is fact and what is fiction explains a lot of the popularity of the show, and that's where we can help. Three of the biggest crises that the show has coped with are Edward VIII and his abdication, the constant challenge that Princess Margaret posed to the establishment, and the Profumo Affair, where season 2 ends. All these are very well chronicled and within those lists, it's easy to spot what are the more pro-crown, official versions of history, what tends towards the less official versions, and even to those that are blatant check-book journalism.

Now we wait with baited breath for Seasons 3 and 4, and I can only see the show gaining in popularity because as the years go by, more and more of us know what's coming.

About the Author: Hugo heads up Customer Service at ThriftBooks. He collects US and UK maritime histories but happily tries most recommendations. His favorite book is from an obscure World War II historian, who died decades ago. His Dad introduced them when Hugo was very young. He bought a used copy from ThriftBooks and when it arrived—it turned out to be signed.

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