In 1981, televisions worldwide transmitted a tableau of a man and a woman standing before a crowd to announce their engagement. She’s in a blue dress, smiling coyly beneath a sweep of blonde bangs. He stands behind, smiling stiffly, his hands on both of her shoulders. In 2020, a similar image is projected. This time the woman looks similar, but the man stands almost sullen and barely touches her. Both are recordings of real people, posing for effect in order to tell a mythical story — acting. Both images are, at least partly, political. We consider one image to be history and the other fiction. But which is more true?
The tension between accuracy and truth is as old as the moon, with its consoling face. The fundamental difference between what we know to be accurate, and what we believe to be true, is one of perspective. If we see a thing constantly from only a single aspect, such as the lunar surface constantly facing us, we retain only its romantic image. But once we contemplate the backside of the moon we begin to perceive a fuller truth.
There is of course great power in the dominant-angle story; kings, priests, and politicians have always used it. We now call it “controlling the narrative,” and the best way to do it is while the cameras are still rolling. But the Greeks mastered it eons ago. Shakespeare designed his “history plays” from Henry IV to Richard III to reinforce the legitimacy of the Tudor line, to which Elizabeth I was the reigning heir in Shakespeare’s day. His politics were thus fundamentally conservative — and prudent, given the boundaries imposed by patronage and power in that age.
One reason we still read and perform Shakespeare today is for his interweaving of multiple plot lines, crossing kings and fools, dukes and drunks, leaders and led. We thus see a story from multiple angles, and the plays’ colliding worlds reconcile into larger spheres that encompass society as a whole. The sovereign becomes ruler of not just the nobles, but of the common people too. The monarchy is legitimized further still.
Netflix’s “The Crown” has been criticized for historical inaccuracy — in particular for taking asynchronous events and making them occur simultaneously. Yet in almost every episode, we can see the effort behind this artifice — to combine stories from different aspects of British society that illuminate both the royals’ story and the country’s. In Season 3, a Welsh mining disaster exposes the gulf between Britain’s industrial reality and its pampered aristocracy. Elizabeth’s struggle to openly mourn the town’s dead reveals her desperation to care for the country, her poignant inability to do so, and the emotionally stunted nature of the royal family. The episode is not so much concerned with the accuracy of the mining disaster nor of the royal response to it, as with the tragic dance of desire and alienation between them.
It’s a theme to which the series returns again and again. In season 4, an unemployed and desperate man breaks into Buckingham Palace and purloins an audience with the Queen. We learn these facts in the opening sequence but then flash back to scenes from the intruder’s bleak and violent life set against Elizabeth’s privilege. When their worlds finally collide, he actually persuades her to listen to his plea for social justice, and — in a historically dubious scene — she carries his message into her next audience with the Prime Minister.
It’s been said that series creator Peter Morgan is “left-wing,” and that “The Crown” is “dangerous” to the monarchy. So far it’s the opposite. The series up to now depicts a Queen struggling to fulfill the needs and desires of her “subjects” as best she humanly can, and British society conversely struggling to love her as it lurches through the travails of the past 75 years. As in Shakespeare’s plays, that’s a fundamentally legitimizing, conservative story. What seems uncomfortably true is that the next royal generation will find their task exponentially harder — both because royalty is that much more at odds with contemporary Britain and because the royals themselves are burdened with yet another generation of family dysfunction. I think that’s the truth “The Crown” is now trying to foreshadow, no matter what inaccuracies it uses to tell it.