OPINION: This season of The Crown is not bad. It’s cruel.

"Darling boy, Mummy's been in a car crash."

We know these are the words Prince Charles said when he woke his youngest son, Harry, to the gloomy Scottish dawn of August 31, 1997.

We know because Harry has told us himself. The Prince is one of those still living who actually knows how things unfolded for Diana’s children in the days and weeks after her death and, unsurprisingly, the answer is – not well.

"When my mum was taken away from me at the age of 12, I didn’t want the [royal] life, sharing the grief of my mother’s death with the world," the prince told Oprah Winfrey in one of two interviews last year.  

He said that watching the public openly wailing and crying in their grief made him feel removed, possessive and unemotional.

Watch: The official trailer of The Crown Season 6, Part 1. Post continues after video.

Video via Netflix.

"[I was] showing one-tenth of the emotion that everybody else was showing: This was my mum – you never even met her," he said.

In his memoir Spare, he wrote: "There were 50,000 bouquets of flowers to our mother and there we were shaking people's hands, smiling... And the wet hands that we were shaking, we couldn't understand why their hands were wet, but it was all the tears that they were wiping away.


"Everyone thought and felt like they knew our mum, and the two closest people to her, the two most loved people by her, were unable to show any emotion in that moment."

All this strangeness – of the world having emotional reactions to your very private loss, of everyone having an opinion, a theory, a take on her life and death – has never gone away. It's been kicked up yet again this week in The Crown's telling of the worst morning of the princes’ lives. Dominic West, as Charles, sits on the edge of Harry’s bed in that murky dawn and moves his mouth in silence. We all know what he’s saying.

This final season of The Crown is dropping in two bundles. The first is all about Princess Diana’s death. The second is all about Prince William and Kate Middleton. So far, we’ve only seen the first, and it recounts the summer of 1997 in minute, slow-motion detail.

Among the other imagined real-life moments in Drop 1:

The final phone call Diana shares with her sons

Diana’s reaction when her summer fling, Dodi Al Fayed, proposes to her on the last night of her life.

His last conversation with his father (also now dead).

Charles and Diana making a saccharine peace over their final custodial handover. 


Camilla’s reaction to the news of Diana’s accident.

And so on. And so on.

For many, this part of history isn’t really history at all. It’s memory. If we were around, we all know where we were when we heard that news Charles was delivering to his son at Balmoral. We remember the oceans of flowers. The funeral. The procession. Elton John. Maybe we wept, maybe we rolled our eyes a little, maybe we stopped buying gossip magazines for a week or two in protest at stalking paparazzi.

Certainly, even in this retelling, it’s hard to fathom the dangerous urgency of trying to get one more snapped photo frame of two people sitting in the back of a car, hands over their faces. 

But for a handful of people, this story is neither history nor memory. It’s their life. And they have said, many times, that they would really rather we stopped picking and picking and picking at Diana’s memory.

It’s not exactly unexplored territory, after all. 

There’s been The Queen – a brilliant, masterful film made by The Crown’s creator about the intense reaction to the Princess’ death and the royals’ slow-dawning realisation that they've got theirs wrong. There have been other, less elegant mini-series and movies, including an intense art-house piece starring Kristen Stewart. There’s been a stage musical. There have been hundreds of documentaries, possibly even more books.

And crucially, The Crown – once one of the best, most surprising, “prestige” shows on television – adds nothing new to it.


In fact, it doubles down on the schlock-horror. Diana appears as a ghost, to talk to Charles on his flight home from Paris as her body lies in the hold, and popping up to counsel the Queen by a fire in Scotland. She’s also portrayed as a flake, taking Dodi to visit a psychic to make predictions about their relationship. And a wimp – happily telling Charles they’ll ace divorce and co-parenting, even if she was "runner-up" for his love. And a home-wrecker, untroubled by the reality of Dodi’s fiancée.

Netflix launched The Crown to the world in 2016 – the year of Trump and Brexit – and we all latched on to the lavish escapism of a history lesson in motion. But even before this crop of episodes, the industry that had so admired The Crown had begun to sour. "Cruelly unjust," is how Dame Judi Dench – who has played a few Queens herself –described it in an infamous open letter last year.

Listen to The Spill where the hosts talk about the latest season of The Crown. Post continues after podcast.

In its earlier seasons, with events at a more comfortable distance, the show enjoyed a veneer of respectability and even collusion thanks to its creator Peter Morgan, who, after making The Queen, was honoured with a royal acknowledgement of his services to the arts.

Prince Harry’s connections with Netflix – he delivered them a different kind of royal mega-hit this time last year when he and Meghan chose them as the TV partner for their own documentary series – also adds to that whiff of credibility, of endorsement, to The Crown’s version of events.


That’s hard to imagine now. 

There are many people in the world more deserving of sympathy than the British royal family. The institution itself is a toxic relic. But the individuals within it have had their missteps and tragedies and pain raked over with the kind of callous regularity usually afforded to people who have tried extremely hard to be famous, and didn't just have the misfortune to be born into a dysfunctional, gilded fishbowl.

Prince Harry has called The Crown “fiction” but admitted to watching it on occasion. Hopefully, this isn’t one of those occasions.

It doesn’t take a particularly vivid imagination to conjure what it must feel like for your mother's final days to be the most-watched, poorly written soap opera the world is watching and taking as truth. Again.

The Crown was once brilliant. Untouchable. Powerful.

As it stumbles to its end, it feels more like tired gossip with a side of icy cruelty. 

Kate, presumably, is ready for her turn.

Feature Image: Netflix.

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