(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There is a killer moment in the latest season of the Netflix series “The Crown,” the biggest event of the new TV year in Britain and many other places. Prince Charles tells his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, as she visits his new country mansion at Highgrove in 1982: “I really think I shall be happy here.” The personal pronoun reflects his self-obsession, oblivious of the fact that his bulimic wife lies sobbing upstairs, expecting their first child.
This intelligent and intrusive soap is hard to resist. In the latest episodes, the Royals, who in their leisure moments together look more like the Addams Family, are joined onscreen not only by the divine Princess Diana - an award-worthy performance by Emma Corrin - but also by Gillian Anderson, caricaturing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, her hair so bouffant that it threatens to achieve liftoff. Prince Charles is every inch the Prince of Wails, forever bemoaning his lot, and Princess Margaret, the Queen’s younger sister, is never without a drink and a smoke.
Tens of millions around the world are watching the series – including more than 1 million Americans – and when the opening titles include a warning of “sex, nudity and violent scenes,” this does not refer only to cruelty to all the wildlife that gets shot and skinned. Writer and creator Peter Morgan makes it plain that the sudden death the Windsors inflict upon birds and beasts they also brought upon the fawn-like Diana Spencer.
But how much of it is true? Some British commentators have attacked the series as exploitative, cannibalistic, maligning people almost all of whom are alive, but cannot answer back. Critics leap on wrong details: The Queen is too buxom and frumpy, and bungles her salute at the Trooping of the Colour (the celebration of her birthday). The Queen Mother was nothing like the coarse washerwoman on screen, instead a companionable Scottish grandee. Prince Philip, the Queen’s royal consort, would not shoot pheasants in August. Princess Margaret would never use such a word as “limousine.”
None of this matters. “The Crown” is gripping viewing, and even if many of its scenes and all the dialogue are invented, Morgan conveys a central truth: Britain’s royals are among the most dysfunctional families on the planet. Some critics have complained that Prince Charles emerges as principal villain, and obviously the whole Family was complicit in the appropriation of the young Diana as a human sacrifice. But Charles’s weirdness and petulance are hard to dispute. He is not at all a bad person, but is certainly an almost childishly spoiled one.
I was a privileged spectator of the royal dramas of those years. As a newspaper editor from 1986 to 2002, I trafficked with almost all the Family, and was among those whose support Diana sought after her separation from Charles. I had the privilege of having my advice – publicly to say nothing, say nothing, say nothing about their troubles - rejected by both the Prince and Princess of Wales.
My meetings with Diana remain vivid in my mind. I once asked: Did she have any happy moments with Charles? She responded succinctly: “The marriage was hell from day one.” She made explicit her bitterness toward her husband, asserting a commitment to seeing their son William succeed to the throne, bypassing his father: “I don’t think Charles should do it.”
Like most men, I was potty about her, of course. She possessed a radiance that lit up any company; was also fun. Our private meetings started in 1992, in much the same fashion as those she initiated with other journalists. She wrote me a coy little note, suggesting that I should come up and see her some time:
“Dear Max, I read the editorial about me in today’s Daily Telegraph with interest (as you might imagine!). Though in many ways doubtless a model of good sense, I feel it suffers for being based inevitably on incomplete knowledge. I wonder if you might find it useful to come to Kensington Palace to talk to me privately. Your next pronouncement might be even more authoritative!”
She never concealed her loathing for the Royal Family’s enthusiasm for killing things. One day when I had been to lunch with her, she came out on the drive to see me off, and stared aghast at the back of my car, laden with guns and fishing rods for a trip to Scotland. “Oh God!” she exclaimed. Then we both laughed.
One among many reasons so many people liked, indeed loved her, was that she had impeccable manners. She always remembered the names of my children and asked after them. The rest of “that family” do not do feel-good. Seldom if ever, in conversation with outsiders, do they avow curiosity about others. They believe their circumstances are so different from those of the rest of us, that the usual rules of courtesy do not apply.
One evening in the early 1990s, I dined at St. James’s Palace with the Prince of Wales and our mutual friend Nicholas Soames, whose grandfather, Winston Churchill, had his own share of dealings with the Royals.
The Prince delivered an hour-long monologue about the world’s failure to understand him, which moved me at last to say, “Sir, I think most people do understand your problems and feel a lot of sympathy. All three of us here have had failed marriages, and know the pain. But there comes a moment when we must recognize that all of us, even you, are immensely privileged people, and have to get on with life.”
Charles was unimpressed by this, banging his fist on the table so that the silver and china rattled in protest. “Nobody but me,” he said, “can possibly understand how bloody it is to be Prince of Wales!” Unsurprisingly, that proved my last meeting with the heir to the throne.
I have occasionally encountered his wife, Camilla - the Scarlet Woman, as she is depicted in “The Crown” – who possesses an earthy, infectious charm and wit. She is jolly company, as is her ex-husband, Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, who is underplayed in “The Crown,” being much more rewarding company than his onscreen impersonator.
I do not think I have ever met a woman who fails to find attractive “the Brigadier,” as everybody calls him. One night years ago, after he had been to dinner at our house, the woman I placed next to him described the experience like a shellshock victim: “He made me tell him everything! I told him stuff about my love life I have not told my husband.”
Even if the Parker Bowles marriage was doomed, I often dare to suspect that Camilla, herself now a royal captive, would have enjoyed a happier life if the heir to the throne had never come into it. Princess Margaret in real life once demanded of friends: “Why do my sister’s children marry such common people?” The likely answer is that few sensible people with grounded lives would marry a royal.
The only exception is Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, who has thus far shown herself miraculously well suited to her role alongside Prince William, Charles’s oldest son and heir to the throne. The goldfish bowl of palace life, the crushing formality and robotic conversation with strangers who can only be asked, “Have you come far?” would drive any normal human being mad, and has indeed had that effect on several.
By far the brightest member of the Family is Prince Philip, who once memorably observed to a mutual friend, “My trouble is that I don’t belong anywhere” - meaning that he is a mongrel descendant of Greek and German royals. Philip seems to me much better portrayed now by Tobias Menzies, who reflects his intelligence, than by Matt Smith in the earlier series, who captured only his youthful Naval hunkishness. Philip has been a peerless royal consort, for which he receives less credit than he deserves.
One feature of “The Crown” seems completely mistaken: The intimate conversation between family members. The Queen says stuff onscreen to her children, and to her prime ministers, that I refuse to believe she would really articulate. The hallmark of her monarchy has been discretion, carried to the point of obsession. She never lowers her guard; sidesteps confrontation; is an instinctive listener rather than a talker, except to a very few trusted confidants.
A British foreign secretary in the 1990s described to me a conversation with her on a royal tour of India, in which they discussed possible changes to the monarchy. The Queen repeatedly interjected: “But I don’t know how Charles will feel about that.” My friend the minister, recalling this, told me: “It kept being on the tip of my tongue to say, ‘Why don’t you ask him, Ma’am?’ ” But of course he never said this. The Queen has always found it impossible to hold frank exchanges with her eldest son.
The Family refer to themselves as “The Firm,” but doggedly reject the desperately needed innovation of employing a CEO to impose discipline on their more wayward members: to prevent - for instance - Prince Andrew’s deeply damaging dalliances with unsavory characters such as the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. (Just this week, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a story about Charles’s little brother with the headline: “Prince Andrew Helped a Secretive Luxembourg Bank Woo Sketchy Clients.”)
The Queen never checks her favorite son. When her last private secretary, the excellent Sir Christopher Geidt, attempted to impose some order on the rival royal households, both Andrew and the Prince of Wales were affronted by his perceived lese-majeste. Three years ago they had Geidt fired, and were the only members of The Firm to boycott his farewell party.
For some of us, Olivia Colman can never be as pitch-perfect a Queen as was Claire Foy playing the younger Elizabeth in earlier seasons. But Colman has the voice right off. This woman who has for almost 70 years superbly sustained the British throne must endure a loneliness that the series only occasionally captures. There is no good answer to the dilemma for every monarchy: How can a family sustain, in the 21st Century and under a 24/7 glare of floodlights, the 19th century fairytale the world still yearns for?
In Peter Morgan’s version, the young Prince Edward says plaintively to his mother, the Queen: “There has to be some upside in being who we are.” In truth, there is not much, even if not all the casualties meet such a squalid end as did Diana.
The Royal Family’s experience of the past century has often been described as a soap opera. There is a sad symmetry that it should now have become compulsively watched soap TV. I would not wish on my worst enemy such real lives as theirs, however richly gilded are the stages on which they act out their real-life parts.
The last time I saw Diana, a few weeks before her death in 1997, I was being taken to lunch with a woman colleague when we stopped at a traffic light. The driver suddenly said: “Look sir, look! It’s Princess Di, waving at you!” I glanced out of the window and indeed saw Diana in the car alongside, fluttering those famous eyelashes and waving away.
I waved manically back, prompting giggles from my colleague in the car. Princesses make simperers of most of us. But whatever the fictions and injustices in the remarkable TV series, it captures one almost unanswerable truth. Diana, an innocent, did nothing to deserve the ghastly fate which royal captivity and global celebrity inflicted upon the people’s princess.
(Corrects spelling of Olivia Colman’s name in 24th paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy" and "Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943."
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