Britain’s Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, thinks a health warning should be added to the show, because he worries viewers “may mistake fiction for fact”.
Actor Josh O’Connor, who plays Prince Charles, described his remarks as outrageous: “We were slightly let down by our Culture Secretary, whose job it is to encourage culture … My personal view is that audiences understand. You have to show them the respect and understand that they’re intelligent enough to see it for what it is, which is pure fiction.”
Scriptwriter Peter Morgan’s stated approach is that sometimes accuracy may be forsaken, but never the truth. So what are the fictions in The Crown? They range from the way the Queen was dressed for the Trooping the Colour to the frequency of the phone calls between Charles and Camilla at the time of his marriage to Diana, the content of the conversation between intruder Michael Fagan and the Queen when he broke into Buckingham Palace, the nature of Thatcher’s first visit to Balmoral (she regarded it as “purgatory”), and who knew about the Queen’s “missing” cousins, two sisters with severe learning difficulties who were cordoned off in mental health institutions for decades.
Almost all fictions or inaccuracies are irritating to anyone who writes biography or loves history – there is enough juicy, dramatic, wrenching material to use without fabricating more. But storytellers need to fill the gaps. I appreciate what Morgan is essentially trying to do – capture the essence of the truth without knowing precisely what occurred, with incomplete evidence. Telling these stories means making decisions about what matters – Diana’s pain, the Queen’s steel, Charles’ misery and weakness, Margaret’s wildness and search for love, the suffocating remoteness of the court, the peccadillos of prime ministers, the way outsiders are made to feel by the stiff protocols of “the Firm”.
The problem is, we are never told the full truth in the first place. The Royal Family is one of the greatest controllers and censors of biography in modern history. Everyone who gains access to the treasured, precious documents held by the Royal Archives, controlled by the Royal Household, must sign a contract saying they will not publish without first showing them how they use the material found in research. It took me three years to gain access. An Australian historian could not pass muster – even though I had a PhD in history, and a contract to write a biography with a significant publishing house, I was repeatedly refused access on the grounds that I had not written royal history before, nor a biography (as context: a friend who worked at The Women’s Weekly and had done none of these things was let in easily).
After then governor-general Quentin Bryce intervened, I was somehow allowed to squeeze in. But the publication of my book was significantly delayed when the chief archivist wrote to me directing me to remove all sections of my book that referenced material I had found outside of the archives, in Scotland, that provided new insights into Queen Victoria’s relationship with Highland servant John Brown.
I was also asked to remove references to Queen Victoria having had post-natal depression, apparently out of concern about outdated stigma regarding mental health. I refused on all fronts, but was tied up with lawyers on three continents for months.
I quickly discovered I was not alone, and this attempt at control was a modus operandi. Along with the fact that entire boxes and collections are closed, kept secret – and that the archives don’t even contain an index, so searching them is like pinning the tail on a donkey; you just hope you are asking for the right files with the right words as you spin, blindfolded.
Spin is precisely the problem. The royals have spent centuries asking us to prop up their fictions: that they never cheated or raged or supported fascist regimes or associated with paedophiles or turned blind eyes to famines or massacres carried out in the name of Empire.
This debate is not about respect, though respect must be had for history, nor about attempts to tear down reputations: it is about obstacles still being placed in the path of those who wish to write scholarly, careful and honest accounts of the past.
I laughed when I read the account of historian Alex von Tunzelmann who said after she conducted research at the Royal Archives, she had to “fight to be allowed to publish even the tiny amount of tangential detail they allowed me to see”. Since then, she said, she has left the British royal family alone and “focused on the history of more open and accountable organisations, such as the CIA”.
Julia Baird is the author of Victoria: the Queen – an intimate biography of a woman who ruled an empire.
Julia Baird is a journalist and author. She hosts The Drum on ABC TV. Her latest book is Phosphorescence: on awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark.