Distinguishing fact from fiction

Should series like The Crown come with a fiction alert?

The quote “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” is most frequently attributed to Mark Twain. With appropriate irony, no one is absolutely sure when, where, or in what context he said or wrote it, or even if beyond any doubt he said or wrote it at all. What is certain is that the maxim has been embraced and adopted by many writers down the years as well as being adapted to “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” by numerous journalists and news publications in pursuit of a scoop.

Most writers would argue that when fiction and fact come together, an element of artistic license must always be expected and enjoyed, but when those facts are extremely well documented and focus on arguably the most famous family in the world, then the resulting work is bound to be closely scrutinised and highly likely to be controversial.

From the outset, the Netflix TV series The Crown has been hugely popular and a ratings winner. Now in its fourth series, it’s the blockbuster tale of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II from the beginning – warts and all! Right from the start, creator and principal writer
Peter Morgan’s racy take on royal landmark moments and events has been contentious. But with the most recent series, launched
last year, although the major events portrayed happened in reality, arguments have raged over whether or not there is any truth at all in the telling of some of the stories.

A main thread in series four is the ill-fated marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. As it crumbles towards its grisly conclusion, the “facts” revealed and the dialogue spoken has left many viewers shaking their heads in disbelief. Similarly the depicted row and stand-off between Her Majesty and then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, over sanctions against South Africa has raised both eyebrows and temperatures. Not for nothing was Mrs Thatcher known as the Iron Lady, but would even she have spoken to the Queen as shown, when no other Prime Minister before or since would have dared?

Ultimately, though, does any of this matter? The Crown is terrific, brilliantly made and compelling television drama, the viewing figures and the awards collected confirm it. It’s purely entertainment, and everyone knows that. Don’t they?

What our surveys show 

We love The Crown, but nevertheless an overwhelming majority of viewers think that to help us distinguish fact from fiction we should be clearly told when dramatisations of real events or people are fictional. A huge 71% of those surveyed agreed that shows like The Crown should carry a “fiction warning,” with just 12% thinking such a warning unnecessary. A further 17% said they didn’t know one way or the other. Opinions were divided on whether or not The Crown provides an accurate portrayal of royal life. Nearly half, 46%, were “don’t knows”, but then 42% of those surveyed reckoned the show gave either a “very” or “fairly accurate” picture of how it really is
for the royals. Only 12% thought it was either “not very” or “not at all” accurate.

But despite the Royal Family’s apparent displeasure with the series and its inaccuracies, The Crown is largely a royal public relations hit. A full 49% said watching The Crown had made them “more sympathetic” towards the royals, with only 19% “less sympathetic” and 26% feeling the same.

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