the royals remain more relevant than ever, even when told they’re obsolete

The fifth series of The Crown opens with a fanfare of controversy and a hard-hitting metaphor for the ocean. The first episode begins with the young queen launching the royal yacht Britannia with the hope that “this brand new ship, like your brand new queen, will be reliable and steady, able to weather any storm”.

Alas, when we see her again she has transformed into Imelda Staunton, it is 1991 and Britannia is collapsing from old age and eyeing for scrap by those who want the monarchy to fit into the modern world. “Think,” she is advised, “of the cost of repairs when she’s so obviously past her best.” Metaphor alert!

It turns out the audience also feels the Queen is getting along a bit and needs to be replaced. A poll reveals that – my, how dated – more than half of people think she should abdicate in favor of Charles, namely, Dominic West, as the epitome of youth. That bombshell lands just as he and Princess Diana are leaving with the boys for what Charles’s publicist optimistically describes as “a second honeymoon.”

Once Charles hears about the poll, to Diana’s disgust, he heads straight back to London to harass John Major about how awful it is that poor Edward VII has been suspended for 60 years as Prince of Wales when he had so much to offer. Subtle, huh?

So that’s where this series is heading: the Queen is seen as out of touch, Charles is desperate to move into the limelight, his marriage is doomed, especially because of his relationship with Camilla, and nearly every member of the family blame their miseries on the Queen, including her husband.

Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II and Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip

Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II and Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip

Does it matter that some of this is pure speculation, like the meeting between Charles and John Major (played by almost unrecognizable Jonny Lee Miller)? No. I would say the thing about The Crown isn’t what it makes up, it’s that it conveys so much of what really happened. The difficulty, of course, is that the reality (which you couldn’t make up) is juxtaposed with the speculative elements (which were), but you can’t get around that.

Elizabeth Debicki has the trickiest call as Diana, but she comes pretty close: her way of doing Di is always to look up from under her lashes, which Diana did. She transmits something of her grace, her bewilderment and her humor. For most of the actors, especially Imelda Staunton, the faces are all fake, but the demeanor and diction are so plausible you don’t mind. Dominic West channels Charles’ mannerisms so effectively that he makes the original feel unsatisfying.

The exception is skinny Marcia Warren, who looks like Miss Marple, as a queen mother, who in life was well-padded and always up for a gin. She and Lesley Manville (resembling Raine Spencer) as Margaret don’t get close. Jonathan Pryce is a gruff but compassionate Prince Philip – especially sympathetic to Penny Romsey-slash-Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone, here look-alike of Jemima Khan) who becomes his carriage-driving companion. But he also has a soft spot for Diana and warns her that what she is married to isn’t just a family, it’s a system.

An entire episode is devoted to this fascinating character, Mohamed Al-Fayed – nailed by Israeli actor Salim Daw – and his fatal obsession with the Royals. This translates movingly into his relationship with Sydney Johnson (the brilliant Connie M’Gadzah), Edward VIII’s former valet, who plays Henry Higgins to Fayed’s Eliza Doolittle, transforming the Egyptian shopkeeper into an English gentleman. The series ends with the Fayeds capturing the greatest royal prize of them all… Diana.

Dominic West as Prince Charles and Olivia Williams as Camilla Parker-Bowles (Keith Bernstein)

Dominic West as Prince Charles and Olivia Williams as Camilla Parker-Bowles (Keith Bernstein)

And yes, we get the transcription of the unforgettable Tampongate tapes. That’s what I mean when I say the problem for the Royals isn’t that Peter Morgan is making things up; it reminds us of what happened. Camilla is happily playing cards with her family and the phone rings. It’s Charles, who wants to talk about his speech about the abuse of the English language, and one innuendo leads to another until Charles is seen whirling around the toilet as Camilla’s tampon. Prince Philip’s face as he read this was quite the picture. Surprisingly, this episode ends up being openly pro-Charles, linking the work of the Prince’s Trust to young people of tremendous diversity.

You might be wondering how Camilla is doing with Charles; it turns out that she agrees with everything he says.

Prince Philip also gets an episode for himself. It begins with the brutal murder of Tsar Nicholas and his family by the Bolsheviks in 1917, after George V ordered the government not to rescue his cousin. And now Boris Yeltsin is visiting, and the queen makes him promise to bury his loved ones nicely in exchange for a royal visit.

All of this has Prince Philip channeling his Russian side. He turns against the Queen for making him give up his Orthodox faith and his naval career and declares that they have nothing in common. That’s why he enjoys “spiritual companionship” with the charming Penny Knatchbull. Philip and Penny’s relationship is over, but would he have had a confrontation with the Queen? Only God knows.

Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana

Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana

Diana’s tragedy unfolds inexorably, with Martin Bashir determined to get an interview no matter what, and stoking paranoia. “Don’t trust anyone,” he tells her, rightly so, it turns out. The Panorama interview is set up like a spider waiting for a fly. In Eton, where William is, they talk about Guy Fawkes and High Treason. Cut to Diana showing her soul to Bashir. Subtle it is not.

Divorce ensues, but there is a poignant episode when Charles shows up unexpectedly at Kensington Palace. For a while, they’re almost friends, contemplating their marriage if there had been a little more give and take. It doesn’t last, but we get a glimpse of what could have been… a really good partnership, if honesty had been the policy from the start.

Meanwhile, new Prime Minister Tony Blair must decommission Britannia – and Charles agrees completely: it is ‘not fit for purpose today’. As we already know, it’s not just about the yacht he’s talking about. But we know better. This year we have seen that people value duty and seniority. When it comes to The Crown, the Queen had the final say.

The crown lands on netflix November 9

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