Brits love, lambaste new season of Netflix’s ‘The Crown’

As England entered its second national lockdown, and pubs and shops closed their doors once again, Kate Cutler hunkered down in front of her television to binge-watch the latest season of “The Crown” on Netflix.

Like millions of others, Cutler had seen previous seasons of the critically acclaimed drama, which charts the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. But this season proved the most gripping to date by introducing the future Princess Diana and portraying the early years of her tumultuous marriage to Prince Charles.

“It did feel like a soap opera, and very entertaining,” Cutler, 35, said. “But I was also aware that a lot of this stuff — not to the letter necessarily, but the general gist — was true.”

“General” isn’t good enough for Dickie Arbiter. For the former aide to both Charles and Diana, Netflix’s dramatic liberties with real-life events that many still remember are a right royal scandal.

“It’s disingenuous,” Arbiter declared, “and at the end of the day, it’s a lie with a capital L.”

The pandemic has killed more people here than anywhere else in Europe. Britain is teetering on the edge of a chaotic final break with the EU and staring at its worst recession in 300 years. But the treatment of its crowned heads in a jolly good show that doesn’t purport to be a documentary is what has some Brits worked up — particularly readers of the country’s right-wing, royalist press, who refuse to just Netflix and chill.

The blurry line between fact and fiction in Season 4 of “The Crown” has even led some to accuse the streaming giant of ghoulishly taking advantage of the royal family’s pain for financial gain. Never mind that Britain’s tabloids routinely do the same.

This is “trolling with a Hollywood budget,” an unidentified palace source huffed to the British press. Friends of the 72-year-old Prince Charles, who comes off poorly in the series, broke with protocol by publicly jumping to his defense and complaining that the royals were being “hijacked and exploited.”

Previous seasons of “The Crown” have contained factual inaccuracies and altered real-life events for dramatic effect. The queen, for example, did not harbor a burning jealousy of Jacqueline Kennedy, as depicted in Season 2 (not that they were fast friends, either). But those inaccuracies did not spark the kind of vitriol the latest season has encountered.

That might be because there are more people around who can recall the events chronicled in the latest season than who lived through the previous eras shown. Or it could be that those earlier historical changes largely “painted ‘the Firm’ in a good light,” Phil Harrison, author of “The Age of Static: How TV Explains Modern Britain,” wrote in the Guardian newspaper, using a nickname for the royal family.

Not so this season.

In the new episodes, which cover the period from 1977 to 1990, Elizabeth is often seen as cold and detached, putting the monarchy’s needs before her family’s. Her sister, the flighty Princess Margaret, continues to rage against the constraints of royal propriety, often with the aid of liquid refreshment.

A slouching Charles is depicted as an emotionally unavailable cad who weds a young, naive Diana despite being in love with his married former girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles. The fact that viewers know how the story plays out — the couple’s bitter, highly public divorce and Diana’s 1997 death in a Paris car crash — does little to help his image.

While Elizabeth may not be amused by the show, “the queen is pragmatic,” said Arbiter, who served as Buckingham Palace’s spokesman. “Unfortunately, it goes with the job.”

Charles, however, “will probably be a bit upset,” Arbiter added. “It’s portraying him as the big, bad wolf, and he wasn’t. It’s portraying him as a perpetrator and Diana as the victim. Not once has he spoken a bad word about her.”

In royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams’ view, “what we are seeing for the most part are not people but caricatures.” He laid a heavy responsibility on Netflix’s digital shoulders, suggesting that the monarchy’s very survival could be at stake, or at least offering an unflattering opinion of the gullibility of his fellow Britons.

“The Netflix audience is vast,” Fitzwilliams said. “A lot of them are young viewers who wouldn’t know [whether] what is portrayed is frankly untrue or a distorted truth. If they are led to believe that the royal family is so monstrous, selfish, self-absorbed … you could ask, why have a royal family if it’s like that?”

Eyebrows have also been raised as to how Charles and Diana’s younger son, Prince Harry, and his wife, the former actress Meghan Markle, felt able to sign a reported multimillion-dollar deal to produce content with Netflix when the company has created something so scathing about his family.

The intense scrutiny of and devotion to Britain’s royal family is nothing new, of course, either here or in the U.S., where plenty of fawning Americans seem not to understand that their forebears did in fact decide to rid themselves of this very family in 1776.

Nearly a quarter century after Diana’s death, the circumstances surrounding her rupture with her in-laws and the pressures she was under are still debated. Most recently, the BBC has been forced to launch an investigation into whether correspondent Martin Bashir used unethical means to secure his bombshell 1995 interview with the princess, who famously stated that there were “three of us” in her marriage. Prince William, Charles and Diana’s elder son, supports the investigation.

An endless stream of books, exposés, documentaries and films about every aspect of the royals’ most intimate lives continues to fill bookshelves and airwaves. Some of those have also made questionable claims. But it appears that “The Crown” is being held to a different standard.

The show’s obsessive attention to period detail — getting the costumes and set design just right — and acclaimed cast, including Oscar-winner Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth and Gillian Anderson as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has apparently led some viewers to believe that the same authenticity applies to the script.

“It’s a beautifully produced work of fiction, so, as with other TV productions, Netflix should be very clear at the beginning it is just that,” Oliver Dowden, Britain’s secretary of State for digital, culture, media and sport, said recently. He added that the series should come with a warning label so that young viewers who did not live through the events do not mistake it for reality.

Even Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Princess Margaret, has weighed in, telling the show’s official podcast that “The Crown” has a “moral responsibility” to inform viewers that it is a drama, not a documentary.

Few observers have bothered to point out that the same online magic that allows viewers to stream “The Crown” on demand also allows them to check within milliseconds on its veracity, if they so desire.

As one of the show’s many fans, Cutler said she found herself Googling key scenes and contentious moments so that she could be clear in her mind where to draw the line between reality and drama.

Perhaps, she said, the current controversy is due in part to how beloved Diana remains among many Brits.

“The wounds are still too fresh. … It brings things back to the surface,” she said. “I feel for William and Harry. They were both so young when Diana died. It must be so traumatic for them to have this all raked up for entertainment.

“But I’m still going to watch it, because it’s really good.”

Times staff writer Henry Chu contributed to this report.