The fourth season of The Crown revolves around three of the most powerful, beloved and divisive women in 20th century British history: Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher and Diana, Princess of Wales.
That makes Season Four of Peter Morgan’s half-century-plus spanning political, dramatic opus perhaps the most anticipated year of the series to date. Filled with intrigue the post-WW2 years of Elizabeth’s coronation or the revolutionary state-led changes to British societal fabric of the 1960s might be, they struggle to hold a candle to the scandal-fuelled, politically thrilling 1980s as Her Majesty finds herself balanced between two very different wars. One between the newly-minted Thatcher and the people suffering thanks to her policies, with her one-woman quest to banish economic decline and revive moral-led, individualist British values in full flow. The other betwixt her son and heir, Charles, and his beautiful new wife, a woman who swiftly captured the heart of a nation.
Many viewers of this season of The Crown will have been there and recall this period of modern British history vividly.
Taking place between 1979 and 1990, I was a touch too young to remember key incidents play out here, born as I was in 1982, but having come into the world a mere three weeks before Prince William, I grew up acutely aware of Princess Diana as someone who meant a great deal to my mother. She encapsulated something the Royal Family had never encountered before and might never encounter again – a bridge between the huddled masses who still, at this stage, believed in the traditional pomp and ceremony of royalty, and the Royal line themselves. My mother had the Charles & Di wedding memorabilia. She bought into the marriage and was, like many, disappointed to see it begin to break apart.
The Crown brings to bear history that remains powerfully tethered to the world we now live in, to a greater extent than any season before. That adds to the expectation and, ultimately, doubles the disappointment when the end result isn’t quite as excoriating or far reaching as you want it to be.
Having said that, let’s get this immediately out of the way: I enjoyed this season very much. I will always enjoy The Crown given how lusciously it brings the 20th century to life, how slick the writing frequently is, and how impressive both casting and performance are when it comes to depicting these figures of real life legend.
Not because the history being portrayed here is less compelling, indeed the opposite could well be true. Rather, Season Four feels the year that Morgan has to work the hardest to find a way into the historical grand narrative the show weaves for our main character, Elizabeth II, played once again quite magisterially by Olivia Colman. Philip (a grimly abrasive yet charming Tobias Menzies) at one point describes her to Diana as “the oxygen we all breathe”, yet the narrative at points struggles to prevent Her Majesty being somewhat overshadowed by the travails of Charles & Di, or the dynamic and divisive politics of Thatcher. There is less of a clear, dramatic role for the Queen to play.
Perhaps this was inevitable at this stage of the series. Colman does so well here because she has little opportunity to showboat as Elizabeth firmly enters middle age. She starts the season in her early fifties and ends it in her mid-sixties, and she is firmly entrenched at this point as sovereign. She and Philip’s marriage is what it is, secure and fixed as both understand their roles to play. Her children have grown up (Favourites revolves around an attempt to figure out which of them she favours more). Her sister Margaret (a wonderful yet underused Helena Bonham-Carter) remains unstable but less so, and less inclined to court controversial headlines. Everything about her reign is safe and established following Britain’s post-war years of boom, trailed swiftly by bust, except for one thing: the social stability of the nation. That is what she sees begin to fragment across this season, and the two women who steal her limelight play no small part in influencing public opinion.
Firstly, Margaret Thatcher. Easily the most controversial and towering Prime Minister of the 20th century after Winston Churchill, she arrives in 1979 loaded for bear as the first female leader of the country, determined to pull the flagging British economy out of the doldrums following global recession and what she sees as a stagnating reliance on state welfare and nationalisation. Gold Stick introduces her with grand-standing relish as a purveyor of political and social change; the daughter of a greengrocer and alderman from Lincolnshire who came from humble beginnings with a fervour that inspires devotion among her Conservative Party subjects. When the hapless Michael Fagan visits his MP to rail against Thatcherite policy, his dismissive Tory representative defends the picture of Thatcher he has on his wall, Jesus-like (or perhaps more Stalin-esque). “*She* is my boss” he promises his constituent when Fagan reminds him he is supposed to work for the people.
Thatcher’s drive for individualist pursuit of social and economic prosperity as she privatises business and guts the welfare sector makes her enemies within cabinet and a figure of loathing without.
It is, as you can imagine, a star-making part and Gillian Anderson’s casting in the role has been well-publicised as perhaps the main draw of Season Four, with The X-Files legend and frequent 1990s pin up startlingly transformed in her suits and bouffant wig.
Yet this feels a role Anderson, despite being a curiously Anglo-American actor who is hard at points to define, was born to play. She may have begun as the scientific-minded yet humane Dana Scully but The Crown feels like the logical passage from her turn in Hannibal as contained psychologist Bedelia du Maurier or even her black comic performance as sex therapist Jean in Sex Education. Anderson has the icy detachment imbued with rigorous seriousness needed for Thatcher and she is far better written in the role than Meryl Streep was in her nonetheless Oscar-winning turn in the average The Iron Lady. It’s nigh on impossible to prevent a level of caricature given how distinctive her drawl, how unusual her gait, and how impassioned her words, but Anderson steadily beds into the role and escapes pure pantomime.
Morgan—Anderson’s current real life partner—is certainly no rampant socialist, even if his politics perhaps lean to the centre-left, but he portrays Thatcher as a difficult figure. Audiences should be careful not to feel sorry for her in The Balmoral Test, as she struggles to match her meritocratic rise from working class northern roots with the aristocratic traditions of the Royal Family & their odd rituals and practices, because Fagan—for me, the standout hour of the season—shows the darker side of how her neoliberal policy destroyed the lives of the poor up and down the country, and 48:1 displays just how easily Thatcher was prepared to disregard the Commonwealth and cosy up to authoritarian rule – we get a handy reminder she was prepared to accept South African apartheid, for example. Yet by the end, The Crown gives Thatcher a sense of dignified exit, stage left, that she probably doesn’t deserve, following a through-line across the season of somewhat contrived conflict with Elizabeth that carries from Gold Stick to War.
Season Four confronts a facet of Elizabeth that has reared its head in earlier seasons, formed a central part of Morgan’s dry run for the series, his 2006 film The Queen, and indeed recently in modern history played a part during the wake of the Brexit referendum: just how involved in the emotional journey of her people should the sovereign be?
Fagan is the showcase for this, an aggrandised version of a remarkable moment in 1982 when a down on his heel Londoner scaled the walls of Buckingham Palace, jumped through the window of the Queen’s bedchamber, and proceeded to have a chat with her while sitting on her bed.
Some of these facts have since been debunked to an extent but Morgan sees the potential for a grim reflection of British social realism as Thatcher’s policies took hold, and for Fagan—as a ‘real’ person freed from protocol—to make Elizabeth understand how destructive they are to the common folk. The episode has fun with this event and tethers it to Elizabeth’s grappling with just how connected her role, her duty, should be to her subjects. The world around her continues to evolve and adapt, and Thatcher proves her most combative Prime Minister since Churchill, to the point in 48:1 there looms a potential constitutional crisis as the Queen appears to adopt an anti-Thatcherite position. It feels like writing on the wall for change The Crown will later depict, with Thatcher a catalyst more than anything else.
Such change is embodied in Diana Spencer to an even greater degree, and while Anderson’s impression of the lady not for turning stands out, it’s fitting that as Diana took the world by storm as she romanced and married Charles, so too does newcomer Emma Corrin utterly steal the show in the role.
Immediately banishing all thoughts of Naomi Watts in the paltry Diana biopic that did the Princess of Wales no posthumous favours, Corrin is not just an astonishingly good likeness but she embodies and imbues a woman so well known and remembered by the British people, watching her fairytale entrance onto the Royal stage followed by her mental and physical decline—fuelled by bulimia—across the season becomes hard to digest. Corrin takes her from a star-struck young aristocrat, living in London at the end of the disco era, through to becoming a standout feature of global life as we see in Terra Nullius, where she wows Australia, before in Avalanche entirely upstaging Charles’ birthday celebrations. Diana is at once naive, manipulative, selfish and entirely a victim of press intrusion and Royal psychological abuse. Her complexity is clear for all to see.
Credit must also, in this regard, go to Josh O’Connor as Charles, because after skilfully essaying the role as he becomes an adult in the previous season, he faces the difficult task of keeping Charles a sympathetic, somewhat tragic Royal figure across this season without him simply becoming the villain he so clearly could have ended up characterised as. Charles, after all, makes no secret of carrying on with Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell) while married, or admitting how she is the soulmate Diana never can be. Their relationship very quickly grows toxic, fuelled by all kinds of outside influences, and the episodes in which Morgan hones in on their fractious chemistry prove fruitful.
While these aspects prove personally less interesting to me as a viewer, it is hard to argue that the majority of standout episodes in Season Four concern Charles & Di’s relationship, rather than the political machinations happening around the Queen – who herself struggles to acclimatise to just how much Diana connects with a public whose attitudes are changing, both culturally and as to how they view the Royal institution.
Given the pervasive presence of Charles and Di, Season Four only gets chance to pay lip service to other events across the 1980s that one might consider worthy of greater attention.
Gold Stick depicts the IRA and the assassination of Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), Favourites touches on the Falklands War (though sadly it tethers it to Mark Thatcher’s brief disappearance while racing the Paris-Dakar rally, suggesting it fuelled Thatcher’s decision making process regarding Argentina, which feels quite absurd), and Margaret is allowed one showcase in The Hereditary Principle (which does shine a light on a forgotten and quite surprising Royal secret which hasn’t carried down the ages as much as it probably should have done), but you get the sense a great deal more in this decade could have been covered. The Crown is also dangerously close to its already shaky historical record, mashing dates and events together as it has done since the beginning, becoming untenable. Season Four at points stretches narrative credulity perhaps more than any previous year, and threatens to spiral the show into outright fantasy if not careful.
Despite these reservations, The Crown remains a singular joy. Eminently watchable, eternally classy, and enormously well performed, Season Four at times sparkles and other points exasperates, but in that sense reflects the tenor of the era it covers. The well-ordered, Establishmentarian rigour of Royal life starts fragmenting here, and what that means for the final two seasons, as Imelda Staunton inherits the crown, is tantalising to consider.