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Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth and Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip in a scene from “The Crown” on Netflix, which has returned for a fifth season. Photo: Netflix via AP

The Crown Season 5 on Netflix: praise for Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana, cast on the defensive as series takes on royals’ turbulent 1990s

  • Diana’s divorce from Charles, the late Queen Elizabeth’s ‘annus horribilus’: series enters sensitive territory and critics want a disclaimer saying it’s fiction
  • Its cast disagree. ‘The queen is in no danger’ from The Crown, says Jonathan Pryce – though Imelda Staunton says the discontent is ‘absolutely understandable’

The Crown is back on our screens after a two-year absence, and the splintering marriage of Charles and Diana and more woes for Queen Elizabeth are in the spotlight.

There is swirling offstage drama as well for the Netflix series that began with Elizabeth’s marriage in the late 1940s and, in its fifth season, takes on the British royal family’s turbulent 1990s.

The queen famously labelled one stretch her “annus horribilis” – Latin for “horrible year”.

The safe distance of history is gone in the 10 new episodes set within recent memory for many and whose stories, sight unseen, have been denounced.

The death of Queen Elizabeth, 96, in September adds an uneasy dimension: we speculate freely about the famous before and after they are gone, but is more owed to a country’s beloved and longest-serving monarch?

Among the prominent critics is Judi Dench, an Oscar winner for her role as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. In a letter to The Times, the actress blasted elements of the drama as “cruelly unjust to the individuals and damaging to the institution they represent”.

Dominic West as Prince Charles and Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in a still from “The Crown”. Photo: Netflix via AP

She called for each episode to carry a disclaimer labelling it as fiction.

It is a demand that Netflix has heard before and continues to resist, framing the series as drama inspired by historical events. Series creator Peter Morgan was unavailable for comment, Netflix said.

Dench is not amused by the streaming service’s intransigence.

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“The time has come for Netflix to reconsider – for the sake of a family and a nation so recently bereaved, as a mark of respect to a sovereign who served her people so dutifully for 70 years,” she wrote.

Her plea followed criticism of the series from former British prime minister John Major, shown in the new season being lobbied by Prince Charles – now King Charles III – to help bring about the queen’s abdication. A spokesman for Major labelled the scene false and malicious.

Cast members including Jonathan Pryce, who plays Elizabeth’s stalwart husband, Prince Philip, beg to differ with the series’ detractors.

Judi Dench, an Oscar winner for her role as Elizabeth I, blasted elements of The Crown as “cruelly unjust to the individuals and damaging to the institution they represent”.

“The queen is in no danger from The Crown,” says Pryce. He says critics are lambasting the new season despite ignorance of it.

“I think a lot of the protests this time, people haven’t seen this series. They don’t know how these issues are treated. I have to say they’re treated with a great deal of integrity and a great deal of sensitivity.”

The latest season of hit royal drama has already divided critics.

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“Season five of The Crown now arrives as the first to be shown since its protagonist’s death – and the show itself feels as if its time has come and gone,” Britain’s The Guardian newspaper said.

“These new episodes are bitty and often just boring.”

Among the main storylines this season is the bitter divorce between Charles and the late Princess Diana.
Elizabeth Debicki as Diana, Princess of Wales, in a scene from “The Crown”. Photo: Netflix via AP

“Despite the thousands of outraged words that have been written accusing it of turning the royal family into a cheap soap opera … the first three episodes are ditchwater dull. But here’s the good news. It gets better. Much better,” The Times wrote.

“And the absolute star is Elizabeth Debicki, whose performance as Princess Diana is at times freakishly good.”

Hollywood publication Variety, which called season five “The Crown’s “weakest outing yet”, also praised Debicki as “very strong” in a role that would challenge any performer”.

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Imelda Staunton, stepping in as the latest actor to play Elizabeth, defends the series, its award-winning creator and its viewers.

“I think it’s underestimating the audience,” says Staunton. “There have been four seasons where people know it’s been written by Peter Morgan and his team of writers.”

Morgan, writer of the movie The Queen and play The Audience, both starring the Oscar- and Tony-winning Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth, has made royalty a speciality.

The recent criticism may suggest his winter of discontent is ahead, but Morgan has it easier than another writer who feasted on the British monarchs as material: William Shakespeare, who dramatised the reigns of seven kings.

Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth in a scene from “The Crown”. Photo: Netflix

All were in the past, with Shakespeare treading lightly around the rulers of his time, Elizabeth I and James I.

“We all imagine it being sort of sweetness and light, and we’ve all seen Shakespeare in Love and everyone’s sitting around drinking. Actually, it was like Stalinist Russia in many ways,” Shakespearean expert Andrew Dickson says of the rigidly controlled society in which the bard worked circa 1585 to 1613.

Plays were approved by the master of the revels, a sort of civil servant with the power of censorship, says Dickson, author of Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe and The Globe Guide to Shakespeare.

Authors could be and were imprisoned, or worse, for transgressions, he says.

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“His very few representations of royals recent to his time were pretty flattering, and early audiences even called them patriotic,” says Harvard teacher-scholar Jeffrey Wilson, author of Shakespeare and Trump and Richard III’s Bodies.

Theatre in general was viewed as illusory and deceptive, he says. “He told this politicised version that was flattering to the powers that were in his time,” Wilson says.

It became the “dominant framework for telling English royal history all the way through the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s now called the ‘Tudor myth’,” Wilson said, a reference to the House of Tudor that ruled the country for more than a century.

Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret in a scene from “The Crown”. Photo: Netflix via AP

It is problematic if people similarly begin recounting the Netflix show’s “fictionalised version of history as fact”, he says.

Lesley Manville, who plays the queen’s sibling Princess Margaret this season, says she defers to those in charge of The Crown on whether a disclaimer is or is not warranted.

“For my part, I can only be crystal clear that what I’m doing is a drama,” Manville says. “We’ve never supported it to be anything other than a drama about a real family, a very world famous family.”

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Staunton says she is grateful that the season addresses a period that was “quite tumultuous, and therefore that creates quite a good drama”. She traced the recent protests about the series directly to the queen’s death.

“There’s no doubt that if we were releasing the series two years ago there wouldn’t be this amount of sensitivity, which again is absolutely understandable,” Staunton says.

She found herself deeply affected by the queen’s death, which she learned of after a day of taping on the show’s sixth season.

“‘Why am I feeling so distraught?’” she recalls asking herself. “But of course I’d been living with her for two-and-a-half years” of preparation and production.

For Pryce, working on the series has provided a better understanding of the royal family.

“They’ve always been a part of society and it looks like they’re going to continue for some time,” he says. “I’m looking forward to King Charles’ reign, and seeing what he can do to change things.”

Additional reporting by Reuters