Is historical accuracy something we should expect from TV dramas?
By Max Lunn
The controversy surrounding The Crown is not about accuracy but the fragility of monarchy. In any case, is historical accuracy something we should expect from TV dramas?
Over the last year, television has taken us on several escapades through time and space, engaging us with a variety of histories and issues. This has been something of a tonic for a period during which our own explorations have been distinctly local. During the first lockdown, Normal People was praised for its accurate depictions of teenage sex and mental health. A couple of months later I May Destroy You picked up equal levels of praise for its deep dive into consent and race – again, receiving acclaim for its “accuracy”.
At the other end of the scale Bridgerton and The Queen’s Gambit eschewed realism for a healthy dollop of escapism: we were presented with a vision of a black Queen Charlotte and a female chess prodigy from a time when such women did not exist. Both received acclaim for their diversions from the history books, but of course neither made any serious claims of truth telling.
Towards the end of last year, The Crown’s fourth season appeared and was lapped up by a public slobbering at the prospect of Netflix’s opulent take on the ultimate relationship drama: Charles and Diana. This time, however, there was no praise for its slight diversions, and in fact the subsequent fallout and controversy around its historical fabrications meant it ended up being debated in Parliament.
“I’m struggling to find any redeeming features in these people at all,” admits Margaret Thatcher to her husband Denis after a weekend at Balmoral. The sentiment appears to be shared by a host of critics of the latest instalment of The Crown who believe the monarchy took an unnecessary bashing in its especially harsh depiction of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.
Simon Jenkins and Simon Heffer led the anti-Netflix brigade, reasoning, not unjustly, that a drama concerned with current affairs and real, living people – holding prominent positions in society – has a duty beyond dramatic storytelling. They claimed Netflix and Peter Morgan need to make clear their elision of fact and projection.
On the other side, many argued the dramatist must take over when the historian exits. All drama that involves real people, they said, is to some extent fiction. More poignantly, they made the point the drama was grappling as much with the psychological effects of the Crown, as an institution, on both the Royal Family and the nation, as it was with an accurate telling of events. No one would really believe the disappearance of Margaret Thatcher’s son was the reason she invaded the Falklands, but they might now understand the complex gender politics that underpinned her relationship with her children.
The Royal Family was always going to be a touchy subject: if a drama tells the story of the dead, well-behaved and insignificant, there is no concern. If, however, those portrayed are still in the limelight, adulterous and one of their number is soon-to-be King, things are trickier.
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, decided things were so outrageous he demanded Netflix affix a “health warning” at the beginning of each episode which detailed the untruths. Labelled by The Economist as “virtue signalling to conservative Britain,” the whole thing laid bare the fragility of the monarchy and its increasing loss of control over its own carefully constructed narrative.
As Barack Obama pointed out after the US election, the US and the Western world is “entering an epistemological crisis: if we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work”.
When truth-telling is put in its wider context, it has ramifications for both sides. On the one hand, it is evident that vigilance is required in the post-truth era. We shouldn’t allow Netflix to rival GCSE History books and control our vision of the past: it would be foolish to dismiss its sway and effect. Netflix is not motivated by a commitment to either the truth or its opposite – merely what sells. We should not allow its lavish spectacle to guide us.
As Barack Obama pointed out after the US election, the US and the Western world is “entering an epistemological crisis: if we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work”
On the other hand, this epistemological crisis has eroded trust in institutions, of which government is one. The people want to control their own narrative. When Oliver Dowden comes along accusing Netflix of dishonesty, the issue becomes in many people’s eyes a conflict of who is the biggest liar. The Tories are not renowned for truth-telling: we are all painfully aware of the “£350 million” we were supposed to be saving, or the “oven-ready” deal that only just materialised.
Returning to accuracy: is it something we should expect and demand from our television dramas? Aside from The Crown, there have been a number of historically accurate dramas that have sensitively and honestly depicted current affairs and historical events of significant public interest. Recent British examples are The Salisbury Poisonings, dramatising the poisoning of the Skripals, and Three Girls, about the grooming and sexual abuse of underage girls in Rochdale, both from the BBC. These dramas have different ambitions to The Crown. They humanise and dramatise the realities of what were just news stories to the vast majority of the nation.
The Crown grapples with the psychological effect the monarchy exerts on itself and its subjects. Perhaps its best analogy lies in the “historical fiction” of Hilary Mantel: liberties can be taken that in centuries to come may not be seen to be so significant. The death of Princess Diana, and the ensuing outpouring of collective grief, was a truly bizarre episode of British history: a simple telling of the facts may not help us understand it.
Max Lunn is a journalist based in London