Many have criticized as highly fictionalized, the historical drama, “The Crown,” whose fourth season was just released on Netflix. In recent days, even the series’ stars have urged that the viewer should be warned that its content is fiction.
I spoke last week with journalist and pundit John O’Sullivan, a principal policy adviser for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, who remained close to the prime minister until her death in 2013, about his former boss’ portrayal in “The Crown,” and in general about the value and perils of popular historical dramas.
I first asked Mr. O’Sullivan to describe the relationship, as he witnessed during his time working for Thatcher, between Queen Elizabeth and the PM. “It was an extremely formal and respectful relationship. Mrs. Thatcher wanted to ensure that she never embarrassed or was at variance with the Queen. Also she was very good about keeping the Palace informed. Of course the Prime Minister knew that there might be differences of opinion.”
“The series does an effective job of recounting the Palace conveying concern to senior journalists at the Sunday Times over public anxiety related to Mrs. Thatcher’s monetarist policies. In another issue shown in the series, the Queen was alleged, to be unhappy regarding Mrs. Thatcher’s attitude regarding the Commonwealth. The Queen, since she took the throne, has placed immense importance on her responsibilities as Commonwealth head. So there were differences, though I think they are exaggerated in the series for dramatic effect.”
I asked if the queen and Thatcher had different world views? “Once again, this is something exaggerated in the show. The public often wrongly assume that Mrs. Thatcher had staked out a far right position. That was misleading, indeed, false. She wasn’t on the right of the Conservative Party, she was in the middle. She actually drew more people to support the Party. And more people, incidentally, in what you might call the respectable working class, or the upper working class.”
“I think of the Queen as someone who wanted to preserve social harmony. There were real differences between the two, but significantly, ‘The Crown’ itself depicts the Queen giving Mrs. Thatcher, the Order of Merit — the single most important honor granted in the British honor system. It is a remarkable tribute to the fact that the Queen came to recognize the overwhelming importance of Mrs Thatcher’s transformation of Britain.”
I asked Mr. O’Sullivan to define what struck him as valuable and what was misguided in the series.
“The scenes with Princess Margaret were brilliant. Particularly where she stands out as the only one in the Royal enclave to speak frankly and realistically about the prospects of Charles and Diana’s marriage. She speaks from personal experience when she says it’s all going to go wrong because he’s in love with someone else.”
“It was hard to watch Gillian Anderson’s performance of an almost grim, frail, dour, Mrs. Thatcher. While ‘The Crown’ gets it right that Mrs. Thatcher was a slave to duty, in reality she was vibrant, straightforward, and likeable.”
“The portrayal of Charles is the biased work of a strong anti-royalist. The script loads the dice completely against him.“
“The series depicts Diana as a young girl thrust into a situation in which she had no resources to respond in her own interests. But it’s not altogether true. In order to make that true, they had to make Charles into a villain, albeit a weak one.”
”Though I met the Prince on only two occasions, it seems to me his depiction is as much caricature as Mrs. Thatcher’s. I had a clear impression of his personality, and this isn’t it.”
I asked Mr. O’Sullivan if the same was true of the treatment of Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown.”
“The series started off well, showing a young Queen struggling with the conflict between the desire to be a human being like everybody else versus the duties of her office. I thought that was very well-presented and sympathetically done in the first series. But as things have gone along, the writers have gotten less truthful and more inventive.”
I closed by asking Mr. O’Sullivan if, when all is said and done, historical dramas like “The Crown” have more benefit or cost. “ ‘The Crown’ is able to tell real stories for which there is great raw material. Peter Morgan has done a terrific job. But nonetheless, as the series has progressed, it has become more and more detached from reality, to make the story more spicy.”
“In the end, these dramas are extremely exciting. They engage people who might not normally read history books — or indeed any books at all, and that is good. The downside is that portrayed falsehood and bias often become part of the story fixed in the audience’s imagination.”
• Lee Cohen, a fellow of the Bow Group and the Danube Institute, was adviser on Europe to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and founded the Congressional United Kingdom Caucus.