Millions of Netflix viewers will, on hearing of the duke of Edinburgh's death, think first of the character played by Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies in The Crown. That version is irascible, discontented, dynamic, potentially unfaithful and consistently irreverent.
Worse was written about Queen Elizabeth’s consort during his life. Any perusal of the euphemisms thrown at Prince Philip in largely positive obituaries will confirm he was seen as, to employ one more evasion, a complex character.
The New York Times called him abrasive. Reuters went with “blunt-speaking”. The Wall Street Journal favoured “sometimes outspoken”. We needed only “didn’t suffer fools gladly” to complete the Prince Philip bingo card. Oh, hang on. The Daily Telegraph has just obliged. Bingo!
The writers of The Crown couldn't resist pulling the duke into the outer rings of the Profumo affair. Mystery still surrounds that peculiar business, but it was mischievous to broadcast whispers about the duke's adjacency
Yet facts do matter. Semifactual depictions of real-life characters have enormous power. Mention Richard III and a good portion of your listeners will think of an artificially crooked Laurence Olivier wearing the same false nose that would later disfigure the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Shakespeare got most of that wrong. The world is full of people who, still stuffed with Oliver Stone's JFK, believe that a southern businessman, working with the New Orleans gay community, organised the assassination of the United States' 35th president. He almost certainly didn't.
And it can’t be denied that, in the interests of heightening drama, the version of Prince Philip familiar from The Crown is the result of some creativity with the historical detail. The writers couldn’t resist pulling the duke into the outer rings of the Profumo affair. Mystery still surrounds that peculiar business – a melange of sex and espionage that contributed to the demise of Harold Macmillan’s premiership – but it was mischievous to broadcast whispers concerning the duke’s adjacency. The series also implied he was unfaithful to the queen during his 1956 world tour.
These variations are particularly significant as they go to places not covered by the popular stereotype of Philip as – what were those adjectives again? – an abrasive, blunt-speaking naval man prone to linguistic insensitivity. They add whole new flavours.
Disputes about the historical flexibility of The Crown's portrayal of Prince Philip – who will be played by Jonathan Pryce in the upcoming fifth season – and other royals did not reach fever point until the recent fourth series. As the makers caught up with the arrival of Princess Diana, the midmarket tabloids agitated. Oliver Dowden, the UK's culture secretary, seemed to suggest he would like some sort of warning at the beginning of the show. "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," he told the Mail on Sunday. "Without this, I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact."
The Crown is clearly not “a work of fiction”. There is fiction within it, but the characters and the larger story arcs are drawn from life. One may as well plaster such a warning before Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia or The King’s Speech. It is only when departures from verifiable facts offend personal preferences that the holders of those preferences call for correction.
Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown, has long worked in the netherworld between fact and fiction. Few royalists objected to his largely favourable portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in The Queen. Not many supporters of Gordon Brown objected to his portrayal of that politician as a wronged man in Morgan's The Deal. Netflix responded to Dowden's objections by leaning on the word "drama". "We have every confidence our members understand it's a work of fiction that's broadly based on historical events," the company pronounced. "As a result, we have no plans – and see no need – to add a disclaimer."
And for every royalist yelling that Netflix has debased Prince Philip, a dozen republicans are wondering why so many millions of dupes are watching a show that celebrates this anachronistic constitutional outrage (or whatever).
The first batch have some grounds for complaint as regards the now late duke. The series never holds back in pointing up his irritability. But it is decades since he has been presented as such a glamorous figure. Portrayed by one of the era’s hottest stars – a former matinee-idol Dr Who – the young Philip enters the series as a zealot for modernisation. Later it offers him significant sympathy as he struggles with his role as second fiddle to a divinely appointed spouse.
The episode in which he compares his own supporting role with that of the visiting astronauts from Apollo 11 – less dynamic than dull in the series’ eye – is among those that play most vigorously with the facts, but it does so to humanise a figure often caricatured by media. There are worse ways of being factionalised.
The wonder of The Crown is that it gave the duke of Edinburgh – and Princess Margaret and the queen mother and all the older participants – a place, any place, in contemporary popular discourse. What spectator, watching the duke's wedding, 73 years ago, could have imagined that, in 2021, the then-unborn TV viewers of Peoria, Illinois, would have any opinion about him whatsoever?
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. Oscar Wilde said that.