England

British Culture Minister Threatens a 'Health Warning' on Netflix's The Crown

The show takes plenty of creative license, but viewers are smart enough to distinguish drama from documentary.

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It has been a busy year for fact-checkers. First, they had to navigate the uncertainty and mixed messages surrounding the coronavirus. Then they had to filter out all the smears and lies during the presidential campaign. And then, just when they thought their work for 2020 was complete, Netflix released season four of The Crown

The arbiters of truth and falsehood had one job left to do: Defend the honor of Britain's royal family from the streaming giant's scurrilous script writers. And thanks to an overzealous government minister, the row about what did or did not happen between Charles and Diana has also become a story about a limp attempt by the British government to limit how Netflix presents its blockbuster drama to viewers at home.  

In the weeks since the show's release, the gaps between the dramatic depiction of the royals and the truth have been pointed out and debated at soporific length. No detail is too minor to deserve close scrutiny. Here's a sample of the British press's fact-checking effort, courtesy of The Daily Mail

Princess Diana was dressed as a 'mad tree' for A Midsummer Night's Dream when she first met Prince Charles: FALSE

Prince Andrew dated a 'young, racy American actress': TRUE

The Royal Family are bloodthirsty and obsessed with hunting: PARTLY TRUE

For some people, however, a widespread and thorough debunking of the blockbuster show was not enough. Step forward Oliver Dowden, British culture minister and Conservative member of Parliament. Apparently not confident in the British public's ability to treat a fictional depiction of the royals and Britain during the 1980s with the skepticism it obviously deserves, Dowden wrote to Netflix demanding that a "health warning" be attached to the program. Unless they did so, the minister worried that "a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact." 

The first thing to point out here is that there is no agreed line between those two things. Much of what happens in The Crown takes place behind closed doors, and so, inevitably, involves some speculation on the part of the show's creators. Viewers know that and don't treat the show as the definitive truth. When there is a clear line between fact and fiction, TV directors and screenwriters should be free to cross it without a slap on the wrist from the government. Around the world, Netflix faces censorship from governments who protect religious sensibilities and gets criticized for "normalising homosexuality." Does the British government want to join that club to defend the honor of the royal family, or does it want to trust the people and stick up for free expression? 

Now, to take Dowden seriously for a moment (but no longer), The Crown does perform a frustrating sleight of hand in the claims it makes, or implies, regarding historical accuracy. Netflix has spent lavishly on the show to deliver a high naturalism in its sets and costumes. Palaces and Parliament are meticulously recreated. Much has been made of the attention to detail with which The Crown recreates famous outfits worn by the figures depicted. The queen (Olivia Colman) wears military dress that is painstakingly true to life. Princess Diana's (Emma Corrin) coveted wardrobe is dazzlingly reverse engineered. Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) struts around in pussy bow blouses that are just the right shade of Tory blue. 

And yet, when it comes to more consequential matters, the show is suddenly very relaxed about the truth, perfectly happy to prioritize compelling television over historical accuracy. 

To inject drama into the narrative, The Crown depicts Lord Mountbatten writing a letter encouraging Prince Charles to marry on the same day Mountbatten was murdered by the Irish Republican Army––a small fib that belies the broader approach to the truth. It leaves viewers with the impression that her majesty is more in tune with the needs and concerns of the average Brit than grocers' daughter Margaret Thatcher––a contested idea to say the least. It falsely suggests that the queen wanted the press to know that she thought the then–prime minister "uncaring." When it comes to the disastrous marriage between Charles and Diana, it stretches the grim truth beyond its elastic limit to hammer home the point that the two could hardly have been a worse match and Charles wasn't exactly husband of the year. (Charles' friends have called the depiction of the prince as "trolling on a Hollywood budget.")

Peter Morgan, The Crown's creator, defends the creative license by arguing that "sometimes you have to forsake accuracy, but you must never forsake truth." He is right, though I think he falls short of the standard he sets himself. Whatever his script's shortcomings, Morgan is hardly the first person to take that approach to past events. Generations of audiences have watched Shakespeare's histories and learned something about the past while remaining fully aware that creative license is being exercised. 

Dramatic depictions of past events, especially those involving people who are still alive, are unavoidably fraught. But the tensions and tradeoffs involved cannot be resolved by a government-enforced health warning. 

Netflix's response to the British government was as unapologetic as it should have been. "We have always presented The Crown as a drama—and we have every confidence our members understand it's a work of fiction that's broadly based on historical events," said a spokesperson. "As a result we have no plans—and see no need—to add a disclaimer."

They are right. Viewers are not fools who can't understand the difference between drama and documentary. 

It is telling that this controversy has erupted over the season that paints the royal family in the least flattering light. Ultimately, when it comes to the royals, British officialdom is not committed to the truth, but rather to preserving the reputation of the monarchy. When Wendy Berry, one of Prince Charles' housekeepers, wrote a tell-all memoir she faced a sinister legal assault from her old boss, was barred from publishing in the U.K., and was forced into temporary exile. The hounding was because of her honesty, not in spite of it. Meanwhile, many of those "fact-checking" The Crown are current or former royal correspondents whose existence depends on the delicate dance of keeping the Windsors happy. For many of them, access will trump the truth. 

Censors always claim pure intentions. In the case of the soft censorship proposed by the British government, a purported commitment to the truth obscures the main concern: keeping the boss happy.

NEXT: Biden Acknowledges Constitutional Limits to the Power of the Presidency

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  2. Straight to Netflix is not a sign of quality.

    1. Isn’t this made by Netflix to show on Netflix? It’s not like it’s a new Steven Seagal movie.

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    2. That’s not true at all.

      Straight to *Insert Streaming Service Here* is fast becoming the new standard. It’s not the same as straight to DVD.

  3. “”Dowden wrote to Netflix demanding that a “health warning” be attached to the program. Unless they did so, the minister worried that “a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.”””

    Fact or fiction is under health?

    Orwell knew the British way well.

    1. There is a health warning – it warns that the show depicts an eating disorder.

      Maybe the warning should be that the show depicts a class of people who are kept as pets in a gilded cage and are thus not capable of rational thought or behavior.

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  4. I’ll bet Dowden would drop dead of a heart attack if he ever saw the Netflix documentary Man in the High Castle. And for God’s sake don’t let him know about Jurassic Park.

  5. Well, it’s one consolation that Americans aren’t under the rule of these inbred morons. Not even nominally.

    Though it seems Americans are a large part of the audience for royal family news. Aren’t there enough salacious stories about Hollywood stars here in the USA? Why go abroad for one’s royalty fixation?

    1. Sadly, the royals and hollywood have interbred and moved to la.

    2. American media love people who are famous for being famous. Since the monarchy has been stripped of most of its powers, and circumspect to use those it has left, lest they be removed as well, the Windsors are the ultimate family who are famous but largely useless.

      1. And America has … the K people. Bless them for their sculpted chins and cheeks and mostly for the trans guy, the former Olympian and the Wxmxn of the Yxxr that deserves it’s own stand-alone show.

  6. Still trying to figure out what the “health warning” is about. How does a TV show affect your health?

  7. The frightening thing about censorship in this country is that both parties seem to want to suppress speech they don’t like.
    It used to be only the social conservatives looking to ban things, but look at the NY Times’ campaign against Pornhub.

    1. “It used to be only the social conservatives looking to ban things…”

      It always has been. You just believed a lie.

  8. Diana was an airhead. Charles is a twat. I just saved you 2 hours of torture. You’re welcome

    1. Charles was tortured as a child and forced into marriage for their benefit by his demented parents. He is still a twat.

      Diana was a girl who was dazzled by royalty as so many are, and found out the rotten underbelly of the beast in the most awful way. Her brother gave the royals a comeuppance at her funeral, but he was not nearly mean enough.

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  10. My first thought after reading the headline: Smoking?

    1. Yes, I thought the same initially. But then, I was naive about the definition of “health” they seem to be using.

  11. Bureaucrats always assume the lowest common denominator. In this case, the operating assumption will be “no viewers are smart enough to distinguish drama from documentary”.

    1. “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

  12. In just 4 years, it’s warped from Absolutely Fabulous to Absolutely Fabulist.

    The meltdown titles are still the best part.

  13. “Much of what happens in The Crown takes place behind closed doors, and so, inevitably, involves some speculation on the part of the show’s creators.”

    The problem being when the scriptwriters take liberties with things that are part of the public record in order to push a particular agenda, which is much of the complaint around say, he depiction of Thatcher. Too much of this will come close to libel, and many will be unsure of what is the actual truth, and what is propaganda. This is similar to Jon Stewart being taken seriously as a news source on the Daily Show and then hiding behind the excuse “I am just a clown” when called upon for being misleading.

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  15. What is most irksome is the huge chunks of dialog that were liberally lifted from The Flintstones first season. And of course, no attribution let alone a thank you note from the producer of The Crown. I mean we know what Barny said to Fred that time they had the problem with the thing; no different when Charles was looking down Di’s tube top in that great scene at the beach.

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