Since its debut in 2016, fans of the Netflix series “The Crown” have been looking forward to when this depiction of the life of Queen Elizabeth II would take the story of the royal family and British politics into the 1980s. For Americans who love the show because it satisfies their yen for celebrity gossip with a gloss of politics and social commentary, the arrival of Princess Diana as a major character was highly anticipated.
Much of what “The Crown” shows is either a distortion of actual historical events or outright fiction. Season four was of particular interest, however, since the many fans of the late princess of Wales couldn’t wait to see her sad story brought to life. No doubt, most of them relished the depiction of Prince Charles as an unfaithful royal heel as well as an insecure, self-absorbed pseudo-intellectual.
Political conservatives have also been dreading when the show would come to this period. Anyone who was familiar with the source material and the politics of series creator Peter Morgan knew he would spare no effort to trash the reputation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
No Sympathy for Thatcher
Thatcher is arguably the most consequential British leader since Winston Churchill and easily one of the most important women of the 20th century. Yet despite the endless chatter from the entertainment industry about the way women are shortchanged and the obligation of art to combat sexism, Thatcher has never gotten her due from popular culture.
Rather, to the extent the life of this remarkable woman has been noted in the arts, it has been to demonize her as an evil, heartless conservative. Thatcher’s treatment shows that feminists in the arts are primarily interested in leftist politics, not the advancement of women.
In the musical “Billy Elliot,” the second act opens with an Elton John song in which striking British coal miners vent their hatred for the prime minister by singing, “We all celebrate today ’cause it’s one day closer to your death.” The leftist narrative of Thatcher as a “milk snatcher” who victimized the poor to pursue her heartless free-market vision of Britain is so pervasive that the West End production of the show chose to perform that number, reportedly with the enthusiastic support of the audience, even the day after she died at the age of 87 in 2013.
Even the one Hollywood film about her life, “The Iron Lady” starring Meryl Streep as Thatcher in 2011, chose to center on her last years when she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, rather than to focus primarily on her unmatched achievements as a woman who broke a glass ceiling American politicians have yet to shatter, as well as become the longest-serving prime minister in modern British history.
It was hardly a surprise that Morgan’s show would follow this pattern by portraying Thatcher as a rigid ideologue, whose lack of empathy for the suffering of the British people would alienate her from the queen. Her defense of policies that ultimately shook Britain out of its postwar socialist lethargy and lead to its rebirth as a dynamic economic power receive short shrift. For good measure, she’s also shown as an ally of apartheid-era South Africa in an episode that strips the controversy about sanctions on that regime out of its Cold War context.
A Sub-Par Depiction
While the acting in the series has been almost uniformly excellent, the one exception is Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Thatcher. Anderson plays her with odd, unnatural mannerisms redolent of old age. That makes little sense.
The conceit of Morgan’s play, “The Audience,” upon which the series is largely based, centers on these regular encounters between the United Kingdom’s head of state and the succession of political leaders who have led the country during her long reign. Since the Iron Lady was in her mid-50s and blessed with energy and charisma to spare when she arrived for the first of her weekly meetings with the queen in 1979 and retained during her record run of 11 years in office and three smashing general-election victories.
One can sympathize when the thoroughly middle-class Thatcher — her uniqueness in British politics and the Conservative Party was as much a product of her humble background as it was of her sex — arrives at Balmoral, the royal summer home in Scotland, and doesn’t fit in with the snooty upper-class royals. For the most part, however, “The Crown” treats her as a villain.
The key to understanding the show’s attitude toward Thatcher is the episode devoted to the bizarre incident when Michael Fagan, a mentally unstable, unemployed man, breaks into Buckingham Palace and enters the queen’s bedroom, where he regales the sovereign with his complaints about Thatcher’s conservative policies. Elizabeth, ably impersonated by Olivia Colman, regards Fagan’s plight with sympathy. The whole point of the episode is to show Thatcher is the real problem, not a dysfunctional person who, in real life, was institutionalized and later jailed for trafficking heroin.
Empathy for Diana
Indeed, none of the royals come off particularly well in season four. The queen’s lack of empathy for Diana parallels that of Thatcher’s distance from the suffering of the poor.
The princess was a relative child whose fairy-tale wedding propelled her into a difficult family and a marriage with a man who loved someone else: Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles’s first love, mistress, and eventual wife after his divorce from the princess. Despite her obvious shortcomings, Diana receives a remarkably sympathetic portrayal by the show’s writers and actress Emma Corrin.
Notwithstanding the genuine inspiration she evoked through her charity work and outreach to ostracized communities, much of the admiration Diana received in her life is easy to mock. She was, for a large segment of her fandom, primarily beloved for the same reasons people are popular in high school: for being skinny, blonde, and charming rather than for brains, taste, common sense, or emotional maturity — it’s hard not to regard her as a victim. When she seeks sympathy and advice from her mother-in-law, the queen rings the buzzer that ends audiences and reacts to the princess’s desperate hug with the sort of horror she didn’t show when Fagan broke into her bedroom.
For all of that, however, it is the denouement of the Charles-Diana soap opera in the season’s last episode that ultimately undermines the show’s obsession with Thatcher’s lack of empathy.
The royal family’s emotional stiffness leaves Diana out in the cold and explains why all of them are unhappy for one reason or another. In the end, however, the queen’s insistence that her son and his wife shape up and stop complaining is an apt metaphor for the same dose of cold, hard reality that Thatcher was administering to Britain, albeit with less ultimate success than the prime minister’s efforts.
This exchange between the queen and her eldest son when he seeks to get her support for separating from his wife sums up why the tough love and stiff-upper-lip approach to life that Elizabeth and Thatcher embodied is still worth applauding and emulating:
Charles: I have done my best, my very best, and I am suffering.
Queen: No, you are not suffering. We’re all suffering having to put up with this. Let me make something clear. When people look at you and Diana, they see two privileged young people who through good fortune have ended up with everything one could dream of in life. No one, not a single breathing, living soul anywhere, sees cause for suffering.
Charles: Well, they would if they knew.
Queen: Knew what? They know that you betray your wife and make no attempt to hide it. They know that thanks to you, she has psychological problems and eats or doesn’t eat or whatever it is she does or doesn’t do.
They know that you’re a spoiled immature young man, endlessly complaining, unnecessarily, married to a spoiled, immature woman, endlessly complaining, unnecessarily — and we are all heartily sick of it. All anyone wants is for the pair of you to pull yourselves together, stop making spectacles of yourselves, and make this marriage and your enormously privileged positions in life work.
In that same episode, the queen rightly acknowledges Thatcher’s achievements and the unfairness of her eventual betrayal by her upper-class male colleagues who could never stand being ordered around by a woman with convictions that were firmer than their “wet” desire for compromise and approval.
More empathy couldn’t fix Charles and Diana’s problems any more than it would be enough to allow Britain to overcome the toll that decades of the dead hand of socialism had taken on its economy and society. Almost in spite of himself, Morgan’s celebration of the queen’s devotion to duty undermined his attack on Thatcher — and that, more than the soap opera or the pomp, made the latest 10 episodes of “The Crown” worth watching.