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Ireland is more obsessed with Britain’s royals than they are with Ireland

Diarmuid Ferriter: Our appetite for the TV series The Crown shows no sign of dimming

Almost 20 years ago, Irish Dominican monk Patrick Hederman told an amusing story about his mother. In 1936, she seemed very knowledgeable about the royal abdication crisis as a result of Edward VIII’s relationship with Wallis Simpson, despite attempts to keep such filthy foreign news out of Ireland: “When my mother began to tell people at parties in Dublin, they thought she was off her head. Being a conscientious Catholic she asked a Jesuit priest whether it was libel, detraction, or scandal to be spreading news that was common knowledge in America but completely unknown over here. ‘I’m not quite sure which it is’, he said ‘but it’s very interesting, tell me more’”

The interest was sustained over the decades; Mary Kenny’s 2009 book Crown and Shamrock is an intriguing dissection of what she calls “love and hate between Ireland and the British monarchy”. In the summer of 1953 when she was aged 9 and living with her aunt and uncle in Sandymount, they, leaving Mary behind, headed off to a private soirée in the local Methodist Hall where, behind closed doors, they watched the film of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. When this was revealed to Mary, she was told not to tell anyone: this was a clandestine and guilty pleasure, it seemed, especially because Dublin cinemas had withdrawn plans to show it following bomb threats from the Anti-Partition League.

Many younger people were introduced to Michael Collins in Neil Jordan's 1996 biopic, which also took serious liberties with history and depicted cartoon villains and heroes

There is no sneaking about now to watch the hugely popular Netflix series The Crown, but unlike with the Queen’s coronation film, the makers of the Crown have revelled in imagined happenings and conversations, while seeking to broadly portray contemporary events or versions of them. It is an alluring mix, but ultimately it is pure soap opera.

Whether or not the producers should advertise that it is fiction has generated an interesting debate in Britain. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Princess Margaret in the series, did her research by talking to some of Margaret’s inner circle, including ladies-in-waiting and relatives and she has voiced defences of the “misunderstood” Margaret, suggesting her snobbish rudeness was a reaction to her vulnerability. In that marvellously royal way, after the Guardian newspaper revealed the series writer Peter Morgan had regularly met senior royal staff, the Queen’s secretary announced the palace was not “complicit in interpretations”.


More recently, Bonham Carter has added her voice to the demand, including from British culture secretary Oliver Dowden, that Netflix should add a disclaimer as it has a “moral responsibility” to tell viewers it is “historical drama” and not fact. Without this, suggested Dowden “I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.”

Perhaps they will, or perhaps that is patronising and assumes younger viewers do not have the critical faculties to manage that process themselves, but it seems a legitimate point. In this country, many younger people were introduced to Michael Collins for the first time in Neil Jordan’s 1996 biopic, which also took serious liberties with history and depicted cartoon villains and heroes.

We should be wary of seeking 'historical truth' in lavishly produced soap operas in the same way we should reject 'history' lessons communicated through tweets

The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins sees The Crown as on a par with “fake news” or reality hijacked as propaganda. On the first programme of the latest series, as soon as Lord Mountbatten is seen writing a letter to Prince Charles the day before he was killed, the extent of the liberties taken are clear, also underlined later in the series with Princess Margaret’s clandestine visit to a psychiatric institution to seek out cousins abandoned as an embarrassment to the family.

The difference is, while Jenkins sees the fabrications as “caricaturing the royal family in the worst possible light” we might see it in a different way, as citizens of a republic, formerly a colony saturated with the consequences of actions under the auspices of the crown, and view it as a satisfactory reminder of the obscenity of royalty.

Is that partly why our appetite for The Crown shows no sign of dimming, the lack of references to Ireland notwithstanding? At least that neglect of Ireland is broadly representative of reality; we have always had more of a preoccupation with the royals than they have had with us.

The debate over the Crown illuminates a wider issue of how corrosive of complexity and nuance television “history” can be in an era when we are also saturated with crude, inaccurate soundbites about the past flying from social media platforms daily. The need to highlight the difference between fact and fiction is not helped by the pious and nonsensical claim by Peter Morgan that: “Sometimes you have to forsake accuracy, but you can never forsake truth.”

Calling the Crown “historical drama” however, will hardly mean much; is that not just another label for fiction? We should be wary of seeking “historical truth” in lavishly produced soap operas in the same way we should reject “history” lessons communicated through tweets.