The Crown offers a ‘Now That’s What I Call The Troubles!’ version of Irish history

The Crown season four review: The ‘angry Nordie’ stereotype is long past its sell-by date

Episode one deals with the murder of Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) by the Provisional IRA in Sligo

Episode one deals with the murder of Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) by the Provisional IRA in Sligo

 

Series four of The Crown is a tale of two iconic women – neither of whom has the letters “HRH” before their name. Because while Olivia Colman’s wry (and sometimes unsympathetic) Elizabeth II, of course, continues to receive top billing, the season is really all about Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher.

This could have been the point at which Peter Morgan’s reliably middle-brow chronicling of the Queen’s progress through the 20th century went off the rails. Diana and Thatcher are both seismic figures. The obvious worry is that parachuting them into this delicately-wrought drama would capsize the entire endeavour.

But to his credit Morgan incorporates Princess Di and Mrs T seamlessly into his grand chronicling of Elizabeth’s life and times (they may be the stars, yet they are in orbit around her). He is helped by extraordinary performances by Emma Corrin as the bright-eyed young Diana and by Gillian Anderson as a rather wistful Thatcher.

Corrin captures Diana’s naivety and her taste for the spotlight (the first time she is chased by paparazzi, something like a smile flashes across her face). Morgan clearly sees Diana as a victim hoodwinked into tying the knot with a Prince (Josh O’Connor) already in love with the married Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell, bringing shades of panto villainy).

The depiction of her struggles with bulimia are particularly frank and shocking. Still, The Crown is careful not to go far down the road of framing her as utterly hapless. Morgan makes it clear that Diana is an intelligent woman with her own agency (and impressive pair of roller-skates, which she uses to whoosh about Buckingham Palace).

Thatcher is a revelation, too.The part is a showcase for Anderson, who could not be further removed from her X-Files days. An Emmy Award is surely incoming.

However, it’s the first episode that Irish viewers may find especially striking as Charles’s beloved uncle Louis Mountbatten (Charles Dance) is assassinated by the Provisional IRA in Sligo. The good news is that The Crown’s take on the Troubles isn’t entirely as cack-handed as we might have feared. But it feels a bit off all the same.

Morgan, as veteran Crown-watchers will know, has a tin ear for cultures and contexts outside of his chattering class London milieu and so it proves once again.

He sets up the murder of Mountbatten, his grandson Nicholas (14) and Paul Maxwell (15) from Fermanagh by having a Provisional IRA gunman rant in voiceover about Britain’s historical misdeeds in Ireland.

This is accompanied by footage of riots, police charges and Hunger Strike protests – the Now That’s What I Call…The Troubles! version of Irish history. It doesn’t help that the actor delivering the Provo rant appears to have been inspired by Harry Enfield’s William Ulsterman character (ironically a satire of intransigent Unionism). The “angry Nordie” stereotype is surely long past its sell-by date.

Still, The Crown quickly pushes on and gets into the racy stuff: Diana’s disastrous marriage to Charles and the Queen’s uneasy relationship with Thatcher. Charles and Diana are presented as a love affair that started with the best of intentions yet which could not survive Charles’s obsession with Camilla. There is humour here. When Camilla invites Diana to dinner and they agree to go dutch on the bill, Camilla’s eyes twinkle as she declares that she “loves to share”.

Thatcher is treated relatively sympathetically, too. We’re certainly on her side as she is required to undergo the “Balmoral Test” by holidaying with the Royals in Scotland for a weekend (they are such ghastly, silly snobs).

Later, Morgan argues that her refusal to listen to others was her ultimate undoing. This is brought home in an episode in which PM and the Queen clash over whether or not to levy sanctions against South Africa’s Apartheid regime (Elizabeth is passionately for, Thatcher doggedly against).

The Crown’s first “Diana” season was always going to bring a huge novelty factor. And Morgan deserves praise for giving the melodramatic elements of the story room to breathe while staying true to the show’s essentially sober tone.

It isn’t quite a right royal romp. But it’s a fascinating journey through some of the British monarchy’s darkest years – and a cracking soap opera to boot.

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