The Royal Soap Opera

Dec 02, 2023
Source: Getty Images.

Despite many Australians expressing republican views, any news about, or insights into the British Royal family always generate enormous interest – and the more salacious the news (or gossip), the better. While it has been eagerly anticipated, Season 6 (Part One) of The Crown (streaming on Netflix) has not pleased everyone. In the main, the newest episodes of this long-running series have attracted criticism for replacing the dignified drama of previous seasons with the sugary suds of a soap opera.

Having recently viewed this first half of Season 6, I can see from where that criticism arises. The first four episodes (the rest will follow in December) focus primarily on two characters, Charles, the then Prince of Wales, and his first wife the then Princess of Wales, Diana, and they are definitely soapie. Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and the rest of the Royal Family have been reduced to bit players on the royal stage.

However, it is entirely plausible to see this soapie representation of The Crown as a case of art imitating life. These episodes demonstrate how much has changed over the forty years between Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and the breakdown of Charles’ marriage to Diana, and that is reflected in the less than dignified tone of Season 6 (Part One) of The Crown. What must be remembered is that the early seasons of The Crown were set in times when access to Information about the royals was limited and largely controlled by the issue of official photos, speeches, statements, and press releases from Buckingham Palace. That was well before media baron, Rupert Murdoch, expanded his interests to Britain. The term ‘paparazzi’ had not yet been coined when Queen Elizabeth was enjoying the first decades of her long reign.

Magazines, such as The Australian Women’s Weekly celebrated the British Royal Family with posed cover images and approved feature articles about their official tours, family holidays at Balmoral, and such. In addition, The Australian Women’s Weekly published an assortment of commemorative issues for anniversaries, royal weddings, and royal christenings.

By the 1990s, however, the palace no longer coordinated the royal narrative. Instead, a Murdoch dominated media took control. The paparazzi were handsomely paid for ‘gotcha’ images of the British Royals, especially Diana and Charles in their unguarded moments, and went to extraordinary lengths to ply their trade. The British family was portrayed in a context of secrets and rumours, mistresses and lovers, betrayals and melodramas, culminating in the very messy divorce between the two major players, Charles and Diana.

Adopting the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle, the Murdoch media’s royal narrative was one dimensional with an obvious line drawn between the goodies and the baddies. Accordingly, Diana became the tragic heroine, a beautiful, wronged woman (the people’s princess), thrown over by her unfaithful, callous husband. Charles became the entitled villain, a priggish prince in his palace. At the time, who really knew (or cared) what the Queen was doing while the Charles and Diana soap opera had their undivided attention?

The veracity of those Diana v Charles stories is questionable, but the bias was obvious. There are always two sides to a story, and the public only ever heard Diana’s. Charles’ point of view remained largely unknown. With the benefit of hindsight (and if we include Camilla Parker Bowles), it is clear today that there were three victims of the disastrous arranged marriage between Charles and Diana, not one.

The audience of Season 6 (Part One) of The Crown already knows a lot about Diana’s soapie years, but not everything, of course. Along with her glamorous lifestyle and charity work, the writers of The Crown stress that being a mother to her ‘boys’ was the source of Diana’s greatest joy. The appearance of Diana’s ghost (as a substitute for inner dialogue?) is a clumsy device that adds to the “soapiness” of these episodes.

Funnily enough, I am sure the ghost of Diana really did haunt senior members of the Royal Family for years after her death. I was both surprised and delighted to see the roles of Charles (now King Charles II) and Camilla (now Queen Camilla) in Season 6 (Part One) of The Crown giving voice to a far more complex and nuanced interpretation of the events and circumstances of those times. Camilla is no longer portrayed as a home-wrecking scarlet woman and Charles is allowed to be the thoughtful, new age man many of us always suspected him to be.

Needless to say, this reimagining of the Charles and Diana soap opera will have its critics, especially amongst those who are more comfortable with the hero/villain scenario. If you are looking for a villain in Season 6 (Part One) of The Crown, you will have to settle for the character of Mohamed Al-Fayed, who is portrayed as a controlling father whose schemes include cementing himself into the British establishment via a marriage between his son, Dodi, and the newly divorced Diana. The brilliant performances of Dominic West (Charles), Elizabeth Debicki (Diana), and Olivia Willams (Camilla) brought their characters to the screen with uncanny accuracy. That, surely, is one thing about which all viewers can agree.

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