British Royalty and Why You Shouldn't Trust TV

At a moment when Britain is disquieted by scandal about Prince Andrew, disgraced for his friendship with the pedophile Jeffrey Epstein; the ongoing drama of Megxit, the withdrawal of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle from royal duties; and the rift between the two royal brothers, William and Harry, the British TV soap opera, ten episodes of The Crown, season 4, has appeared to provide alleged entertainment of the doings of the British Royal Family.

Because it is lavishly produced, well written, carefully acted, and cleverly invented, it is easy to accept The Crown as an accurate representation of a twenty-year period in British history.  However, no one should be confused.  It is not a documentary of the life and behavior of Queen Elizabeth II, members of the Royal Family and associates, in the stately homes of Buckingham Palace, Windsor, and Balmoral, and the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.  Rather, it is a psychodrama written with what can generously be termed artistic license about the actions and motivations of the leading figures.

Some of the invented incidents in The Crown can be noted.  Discussions concerning Lord Mountbatten and Prince Charles, or the supposed political dialogue between Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Fagan, who infiltrated Buckingham Palace and spoke to the queen in her bedroom, or the tension with Margaret Thatcher because of personal concerns about the safety of her son and public concerns over the Falklands war, are not accurate representations of history.  In particular, all of the remarks of Elizabeth, who bestrides the series as a colossus, are invented.

One troubling image is the depiction of the relationship, mostly prickly encounters, between the queen and the prime minister.  More controversial is the picture in an unflattering light of the prince of Wales, trapped in a loveless marriage, twelve years older than Diana, and seen as self-pitying, sometimes brutal to her, and resentful of her triumphs.  He appears as a callous person compared with the sympathetic portrait of Diana and her problems, including an eating disorder.

More important mistakes concern the relations of queen and prime minister, the absence of royal neutrality, the intrusion of the queen on policy questions, and her implied skepticism about Thatcher's free-market ideology.  It is unlikely that the queen asked Thatcher to sign a commonwealth statement on South Africa.  It is equally unlikely she could she have talked to Thatcher about predictions of the next election, or that Thatcher had asked the queen to dissolve Parliament to gain political advantage.

The Stately Homes, manors, country retreats, palatial villas have for centuries been the hallmark of the privileged lifestyle of the British upper class, a small minority.  The introduction of substantial taxation led to the demolition of some of them and adaptation of others, like the formidable Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, and Chatsworth House, to allow them to survive.  The cult of the British countryside, and with it the life of the upper class, remains popular.  One need only look at a testament to the success of the novel Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, and the TV series based on it, and to the six seasons of Downton Abbey, with their portrayals of hereditary privilege and chic amiable insouciance and exhibition of charm.

The great homes are splendid to visit with their extraordinary objects of art — Canalettos, Titians, Van Dycks, Gainsboroughs, porcelain, and furniture.  They are also socially relevant as visible signs of the past wealth of their inhabitants, their social and economic status, and as homes of the hierarchical oligarchy of the former power elite.

The TV series The Crown is a useful starting point for consideration of two issues; the class nature of British society and the relations between the queen and the prime minister.

Britain has long been preoccupied with class: George Orwell commented that England is the most class-ridden country under the sun.  The manifestations are well known by manners , dress, language, a touch of formality, and adherence to accepted values.  Though social mobility has increased with changes in education and social welfare, the class structure has been and is still defined by objective factors — heredity, income, wealth, occupation, circles of connections, and educational background — and subjective assertion of people putting themselves in certain categories by unwritten rules.  People are transferred by changes in their life, as Kate Middleton, from a middle-class background, was transformed into an upper-class superstar by marriage to Prince William.

In Britain, class and class distinctions have been and remain important.  One fictitious episode in The Crown is particularly insightful and almost resembles the setting for a musical standard by Rodgers and Hart.  It portrays the humiliation of Margaret Thatcher in her visit to the queen in her stately home of Balmoral by wearing inappropriate clothes, refusing to take part in field games, abstaining from drinking, not fitting in the world of royal life, and being unaware of the unspoken code of conduct for visitors, though she was anxious about getting the details of procedure and protocol right.  She got too hungry for dinner at eight; never went to Balmoral in tweeds, sweaters, and country boots; didn't like party games with barons and earls.  Social circles spun too fast for her; that's why the Lady is not upper-class.  To prove the point, Thatcher insisted, contrary to the rules, that a married couple should sleep together, not in separate rooms, saying those that sleep apart grow apart.

Even with her vocal changes and makeover style, Thatcher was never able to cross boundaries and fit in, even when prime minister and the "Iron Lady of the Western World." She was the "grocer's daughter from the town of Grantham whose father was also an alderman and a Methodist preacher. Clearly, a petty bourgeois not working class.  But Thatcher, with an Oxford education, research chemist, barrister, and prime minister 1979–1990, the first woman to be P.M. in the U.K., did not have the easy confidence of a true member of the upper class, and she was never seen as such.

The nature of class and identity in Britain remains ambiguous if one looks at celebrities, such as Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Cary Grant, all coming from poor working-class families, who can be considered because of their success as upper-class.

Sean Connery, born in Scotland, grew up in a one room tenement.  Leaving school at 13 with no qualifications, he delivered milk, laid bricks, was a coffin-polisher, in the Royal Navy at 16, truck-driver, lifeguard, model at a college of art, and amateur football player, this working-class Scottish boy materialized into the extraordinary character of James Bond, the upper-class British spy.  The uneducated Connery became James Bond, educated at Eton, the archetypal upper-class man with beautiful women, vodka martinis, debonair womanizing, charisma, self-confidence, and defying easy classification in spite of upper-class mannerisms.

Knighted in 2000 in spite of his support for independence of Scotland, called by many the world's greatest Scot, Connery came to dislike Bond, but the character remains symbolic as a person who moved from one class to another.  Bond would give more plausibility to The Crown.