The iron-faced Duke of Edinburgh (Tobias Menzies) is as usual castigating his son, the Prince of Wales. It was 40 years ago, the Duke barks, that a king had to abdicate because of a married woman; does Charles really want history to repeat itself?
This temporal nudge suddenly reminds us that this scene also stands at four decades’ remove. As the action of Netflix’s The Crown moves into living memory, watching feels more prurient than ever. Writing from his castle in Co Sligo, Lord Mountbatten urges Charles to forget Mrs Parker-Bowles and find someone “sweet and innocent and well-tempered” to marry, just before getting into his sailing togs. Happy endings were not in store.
Since she isn’t the only high-profile blonde joining the season this time around, at least Emma Corrin’s Lady Diana Spencer doesn’t have to carry the whole of series four. Gillian Anderson’s whisky-fuelled Margaret Thatcher captures the birdlike cock of the head, the bossy walk and the throaty, deliberately modulated voice. The two most powerful people in the land are both mothers. Or, as Denis Thatcher puts it: “Two menopausal women — that’ll be a smooth ride.”
The very familiarity of the story works in writer Peter Morgan’s favour, supplementing a necessarily compressed, edited and speeded-up narrative. He manages to make Thatcher look sympathetic, after she endures a ghastly weekend at Balmoral, with the Highland Games thrown in. Royal boorishness only reinforces her resolve to rid the cabinet of out-of-touch grandees. Thatcher’s maternal example forces the Queen (Olivia Colman) to contemplate her own spoilt children. “Andrew . . . if he doesn’t change . . . ” she muses after enduring her second son’s smutty conversation over lunch. Recent events have no doubt effected some retrofitting of his character.
Both Josh O’Connor and Emerald Fennell as Prince Charles and Camilla appear more enticing than their real-life counterparts. As for Corrin’s Diana, it’s a big ask to play the most photographed and scrutinised young woman in the world. She gets the shy, posh voice, the bashful tall-girl stoop, the coy expression that stops just short of a simper exactly right. With her flicky mop of hair and wardrobe of patterned cardies, pie-crimp necklines and pussy-cat bows, there are times when the likeness is astonishing. Beneath the ingénue lie glimpses of guile. Engineering a first meeting with the Prince of Wales wearing only leaves and tights is a power move, as is telling her prospective father-in-law: “I’m a country girl at heart.”
Colman shows a monarch groping hopelessly for emotional resonance and self-knowledge. The sheer audaciousness of the script continues to thrill: how could anyone know what the Queen and Princess Anne talked about, seated on a picnic blanket in the middle of nowhere? But the omission of almost the entire Spencer family in the run-up to the wedding is curious: the bride-to-be becomes Little Orphan Diana as soon as she moves into the palace, with only grim granny Lady Fermoy (Georgie Glen) around to assist.
Left to her own, lonely devices, Diana roller-skates along the lushly carpeted enfilades of Buckingham Palace, listening to pop music on her Walkman. Whether or not it’s true, as drama it strikes exactly the right note.
On Netflix from November 15
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