Did Charles really cheat on Diana with Camilla? Is that really what Buckingham Palace looks like? Did they wear exactly those clothes? The Crown is an immensely popular drama series based on real – and still alive – people. But how close to the truth is The Crown really? Let’s find out.
In this article, we will go through multiple elements that can reflect historical accuracy about the royal family. It’s not just the story that reflects true life, but it’s also the costumes, manners and setting. Are you ready? Let’s go!
What is The Crown?
Okay, if you’ve been living under a rock this month (or last couple of years) and you don’t know what The Crown is, here’s a summary.
The Crown is a Netflix drama series, produced by Netflix itself. It follows the life of Queen Elisabeth in the United Kingdom. While she is the central point (as wearing the crown), episodes also follow royal family members and their struggles with the crown. Think about her husband Prince Philip and how he handles the fact that he is – in the hierarchy – beneath his wife. Or her sister Princess Margaret, the rebellious sister. Each episode focuses on one event or happening.
The first season started in 2016 and just last week (Nov 15th) season four was released on the digital platform. Every season follows a couple of years. Season one started in the 50s, the second season was orientated on the 60s, the third season was the 60s going to 70s. And now the fourth season will focus on the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. Yes, Princess Diana will make her appearance!
Interestingly, the actors playing the British royal family change. As the series spans about 50 years, it was impossible to have one actor play all those decades. Therefore, the actors switch every two seasons as the characters get older. Claire Foy played the queen for the first two seasons, followed by Olivia Colman. The last two seasons will be played by Imelda Staunton (you probably know her as professor Umbridge in Harry Potter). The same goes for all the other family members.
Creating the show
Peter Morgan is the creator and writer of the crown and we can call him a royalty specialist by now. He has also written the film The Queen (yes, that one with Helen Mirren) and a theatre play ‘The Audience’ about the queen Elisabeth and her sessions with the prime ministers. It was during that last one that Morgan got the idea to write a piece about the relationship between the queen and Winston Churchill. Diving deeper into it, he widened and widened the perspective up to the point that we will have six seasons of the crown, spanning Queen Elisabeth’s life from just before the crowning until early 21st century.
No expenses are spared to make The Crown. Although exact numbers are not known, it is said that each episode costs around 5,5 million pounds to create. Others sources mention 50 million pounds per season. This means that the series has cost Netflix more than 200 million pounds by now. (Read this article if you want to know where all the money goes too). The Crown is Netflix’s showpiece and it shows. With its well-known actors, amazing setting and strong writing.
How historically accurate is the story of The Crown?
The Crown is historically accurate in some ways. A lot of what we see in The Crown is true. We see no fictional figures in the series. All people did really exist. The events are often true as well. Other aspects are completely made up. Okay, let’s set it apart:
Getting it historically accurate
Once a week in the writing phase, a team of researches come to Peter Morgan’s house for a script meeting. They will discuss any research done, based on the episode that is being written at that moment. Think about old interviews, pictures but also any written biographies or witnesses. Of some events, a timeline will be put together with as many images and information as possible. Think about Princess Margaret’s wedding. This way, the story will be as historically accurate as possible. Once the writing is done, the script will be shown to historical consultant Robert Lacey to make sure all the facts are right.
In season 4 of The Crown, we see the assassination of Lord Mountbatten in 1979 by the IRA. That event has been recorded as truthfully as possible, based on research. We also see Diane roller-skating in the palace, which according to the producer of the script department, really happened and it made it into the script as it shows how young Diana really was at that point.
It’s also in the little details. Things like: how did the queen call her father? Was it daddy of something else? It turned out she called him poppa, which was used in the series. And how will the queen phrase questions? An expert is summoned to help find out.
Taking some liberty
The Crown is, however, as costume designer Amy Roberts correctly says: not a documentary, it’s a drama series. Peter Morgan takes some liberties with the record. A lot of the story is grounded in historical facts, but timelines have been tweaked and some events fused for dramatic effect or a better storyline. In The Crown, Mountbatten is sacked in 1967 instead of 1965, as it fitted better in the story. In an article in The New York Times, Peter Morgan states:
‘I think there’s a covenant of trust with the audience. [..] They understand a lot of it is conjecture. Sometimes there are unavoidable accuracy blips – an event might not have taken place where, or even when, I imagined it did. But I’m absolutely fastidious about there being an underlying truth.’Peter Morgan
We don’t know what happens inside Buckingham Palace, we only know what the press or other outside sources tell us. So Peter Morgan has to fill in the gaps and according to The New York Times he himself is baffled how he made a career out of guessing ‘the inner life of a countryside woman with limited imagination’. The gaps are fiction. We do not know what the queen told Prince Charles. We don’t know the exact phone calls they made. We do not know how frosty or nice the members are with each other outside the camera.
Peter Morgan likes to take big historical moments of the recent past and subject them to some fiction as he fills in the details with his imagination. If something doesn’t work, he will change the script. Or add things. He is present on-set and can change things in a heartbeat when he thinks things don’t work out as well as planned.
A good example is mentioned in Vogue. In The Crown, Diana and Prince Charles meet, while Diana is wearing a costume from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oona O’Beirn, producer and leader of the script department, mentions that the costume was Peter Morgan’s idea, but the research behind it was that Diana loved dancing and performing as a teenager. It’s also true that Diana and Charles met when Diana was 16 at the home of the Spencer’s. But how they met exactly is fictionalized and in this case, added some dramatic effect.
So take things with a bit of salt. Honestly, after watching the third episode of season four, I hated Prince Charles. What kind of person engages with a lovely young woman and doesn’t call for six weeks AND upon return decides to spend the night cheating with his old girlfriend. But we don’t know if that is what happened. Camilla, the cheating old girlfriend and now wife of Prince Charles, has acknowledged in interviews that they had an affair while Charles was still married to Diana. However, she said that it happened from 1986 onwards, while the engagement was in 1980. So, most likely, Peter Morgan made it up.
How accurately do the actors represent their characters?
Well, as accurate as possible.
First of all, all the actors have a dialect coach to get the speech right. There is some funny interview going around from actors who found it very difficult to get the accent right.
Second of all, the actors do their research. Helena Bonham Carter has mentioned all the research she had done for her role as Princess Margaret: she read all possible materials, met the former hairdresser of Princess Margaret, spoke to the princess’ friends and even went to see a medium. Josh O’Conner, who plays Prince Charles in The Crown, watched a lot of old footage of the prince to get his mimic rights. However, he also mentions in the Guardian: ‘I realised I had to let go of this person who exists – or just take aspects of him so that people feel safe – and focus on the idea of a young man. A young man who is waiting for his mother to die for his life to have meaning.’
And of course, there is always Robert Lacey, the historian on set. If the actors act out of order, he will step in and correct them.
How accurate is the etiquette in The Crown?
Very accurate, I would say.
The series has a team of eight fact-checkers, and an on-set etiquette consultant to make sure that everything goes as it should be. The etiquette consultant David Rankin-Hunt is – of course – responsible for making sure the proper etiquette is followed. Think about curtseying or when you should say ‘your royal highness’, ‘your highness’ or ‘your majesty’. He is the one to make sure the queen does not shout out ‘cheers’. He has worked in the royal household for 33 years, so he knows what he is talking about. Although a few embellishments are allowed to make the storyline better. So, in general, we can call this aspect relatively accurate.
How historically accurate are the costumes, hair and make-up?
The costumes are created as accurately as possible. The costume department, led by costume designer Michele Clapton (for the first two seasons) and later by Amy Roberts, get a lot of research information from the research department and they try to match the costumes. The same accounts for the hair and make-up department. Cate Hall is the designer for that department and wrote in the Guardian that she has created ‘bibles’ with photographic scrapbooks showing the month-by-month fashion of all the decades.
Clapton told magazine Grazia that most clothes are created specifically for the show. It was too difficult to use only vintage clothes, as good ones are quite rare and they needed clothes fitting for royalty. And then they also had to fit the actors. So it was decided to make the costumes themselves, although some vintage pieces do appear.
A good example of historical accuracy is Princess Diana’s wedding dress. The original dress was made by David Emanuel (you may know him from Say Yes To The Dress) and his ex-wife, and the costume department reached out to him. He gave them the original patterns, so they could recreate the dress. So the dress you see in the movie is an replica of the original dress. The costume department needed about 600 hours to create it, using a hundred meter of lace and a budget of about 10.000 pounds. (Creating historically accurate costumes don’t come cheap. In the first season, we see a replica of the Queen’s wedding dress. That dress alone cost 35.000 dollars to create.)
Not only the wedding dress was recreated. According to David Emanuel, Diana wears about forty to fifty outfits during the season and all of them are based on original clothing owned by her.
When no picture is available, the costume is created based on the character (what does he or she normally wear?) and the time period (what is the fashion in that era?). In Harpers Bazaar, Clapton, the costume designer, tells she imagines that The Queen would have been a country wife if she didn’t inherit the throne. So her clothes in private are simple and pretty. Purposefully not sophisticated.
In the make-up and hair department, the actors are prepared for accuracy. In the Evening Standard, Hall tells how Tobias Menzies (playing Prince Philip) has to bleach his eyebrows every three days to match his blonde wig. On average, a principal actor will need six wigs. Margaret Thatcher’s wig caused many worries to find the right colour of blonde. It had to be dyed and dyed again until they got it just right.
But also here, not everything is completely historically accurate. Costumes that the royal family wears indoors are unknown, so the costume department makes it up based on facts that they do know. Also the hair and make-up department sometimes has to wing it. Hall said in the Guardian that it’s not always about the accuracy, but giving the right feel to the character. Helena Bonham Carter does not look much like Princess Margaret, but with the right costumes (all made-up) and hair she does suddenly feel ‘Margarety’.
Netflix made a 10-minute film about the costumes in The Crown, season 4. If you want more information, you can watch it:
How historically accurate are the settings?
Beautiful as the settings are, actually none is really accurate as almost nothing was shot on the place it represents.
They couldn’t film in Buckingham Palace. So what you see are replicas or – at least – recreations to the best abilities with the information the team had. Once again, it is the research team who finds the details to make the scenes as accurate as possible. They went on tours in Buckingham Palace, looked at floor plans, pictures and more.
Then the production designer Martin Childs and set decorator Alison Harvey take over, together with a team of 24 experts. And they do research as well in their field: how do houses look in a decade and a certain place. And next: how will you use all that information and put it in a usable set? For every episode, there are about 40 sets created. That’s 400 sets per season!
They are, however, not exact replicas. The show creators went for the goal of recreating the atmosphere of the palace. The setting also has to fit in the narrative and help the audience understand where they are. An example is 10 Downing Street: the actor playing Winston Churchill is a lot bigger than Churchill was. So the design team scaled the door to 10 Downing Street to make the actor look shorter.
Let’s start with Buckingham Palace. Most of the scenes in Buckingham Palace are recorded in the Elstree studios (as is 10 Downing Street and some exterior shots). There are about six or seven sets that represent Buckingham Palace. And although it’s not really the Palace, every object on set is monogrammed and based on information found.
Then we have other palaces and places within Britain that play an important role. Balmoral Palace for example. Only a few scenes are actually recorded on the place where they happened: in season three we see Prince Charles receive his Prince of Wales title at the same place as the real Prince Charles did fifty years ago. Other locations are grand houses in the UK and Spain. What is supposed to be Kensington Palace is actually Brocket Hall. While Clarence House is actually filmed in High Cannons House.
Scenes that are supposed to be outside of Britain, like tours in Australia or America, were filmed in South Africa (first two seasons) and Spain (second two seasons).
Filling in the blanks
When a space is unknown, it will be designed with the character in mind. Just like with the costumes. There is no information about the royal family’s private apartments. But there are rough layouts. So they had to use, what Childs calls: ‘informed imagination’. In the layouts, it became clear that rooms are connected without a corridor. This allowed for all the scenes where the Queen and Prince Philip look at each other from two different rooms. Another example is Harold Wilson’s office in season three. As he was an intellect, the designers filled the space with books. Trinkets and souvenirs laying around to remind the viewers that he is a travelled man.
And then there is the famous green screen. According to Childs in Fortune, about two-thirds of what we see on screen is real. The rest is added in. This is often the case when filming outside (you need to somehow hide all those modern buildings) or when large crowds are involved (it’s too expensive to have thousands of extras).
In the end, the style of the setting has to be true to the spirit of the real location.
To wrap it up
So is The Crown historically accurate? Yes, for a big part. But don’t take everything for granted. A lot of it is fiction, fitting within the facts and gesture. Go watch The Crown and enjoy it. Know that the main events are true. Know also that everything in between in probably imagination. If you want to know if something is true, google it. I know people who google the truth after every scene.
The Crown is a drama series and the makers go to great length to make it as accurate as possible. But in the end, it’s a drama. Not a documentary.