Based on award-winning play The Audience by series showrunner Peter Morgan, The Crown is a lavish, Netflix-original drama chronicling the life of Queen Elizabeth II from the 1940s to the modern day. Series one began with an inside look at the early reign of the Queen, who ascended the throne aged just 25 after the sudden death of her father, King George VI. As the decades pass, each series unveils the personal intrigues, romances and political rivalries that played a role in shaping the events of the late 20th century. Series three touched on the events that shaped the royal family in the 1960s and 70s, ending with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. Series four kicked off at the end of the 1970s, and found the royal family preoccupied with safeguarding the line of succession by finding an appropriate bride for Prince Charles, who – gasp – was still unmarried at 30.
In the fifth series, it’s the 1990s and – in true The Crown fashion – there’s a third set of actors for audiences to get to know. Imelda Staunton plays the Queen, Leslie Manville is our favourite chain-smoking royal Princess Margaret, Jonathan Pryce has taken over the role of Prince Phillip, Elizabeth Debicki is a completely convincing Princess Diana and Dominic West has landed the role of Prince Charles. In this series, the Queen approaches the 40th anniversary of her accession and reflects on a reign that has encompassed nine prime ministers, the advent of mass television and the twilight of the British Empire. Yet new challenges are on the horizon. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the transfer of sovereignty in Hong Kong signals a seismic shift in the international order presenting both obstacles and opportunities. On the political landscape, we wave goodbye with Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher and say hello to John Major, played by Jonny Lee Miller of Trainspotting fame. There’s also an appearance from Bertie Carvel as Tony Blair as the series races towards the era-defining 1997 election.
As with previous cast changes, it takes a while to warm up to the newcomers – especially West, who seems far too statuesque and – dare we say it, old – to play 43-year-old Charles in 1991. Throughout the series, trouble brews between the prince and his mother, as Charles pressures his mother to allow him to divorce Diana, presenting a constitutional crisis of the monarchy. The series also makes occasional flashbacks featuring previous incarnations of the royal family – such as to the launch of the Royal Yacht Britannia in 1954, which stars series one and two Queen Claire Foy – which vary in success.
One of the things we liked best when watching early series of The Crown was learning so much about the Queen’s early reign and seeing the past brought to life. This becomes more difficult as the series progresses into more recent history. Many viewers will vividly remember the scenes unfolding on screen – whether that’s the scandalous publication of a recorded phone call between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, Windsor Castle going up in flames in 1992, tabloid photos of Princess Diana’s ‘revenge dress’ or her infamous BBC interview with Martin Bashir – which makes the blurring of historical fact and fictional portrayals a harder line to tread. In fact, for the first time, Netflix has put a disclaimer in the trailer for the fifth series, saying the production is a ‘fictional dramatisation’ and ‘inspired by real events.’ Still, it makes early scenes such as the prime minister and Prince Charles plotting to remove the Queen as head of state seem all the more unrealistic, while making for uncomfortable viewing given recent events.
One of the highlights of this series is the exploration of the Al-Fayed family. As soon as they’re introduced, viewers will no doubt be well aware of Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla) going on to become Princess Diana’s lover and their tragic end. Much of episode three is dedicated to Dodi’s father, Mohamed (a brilliant Salim Daw) – from his humble beginnings in Egypt to his rise on the British society scene as he buys both Harrods and the former King Edward VIII’s Paris mansion – all in a bid to impress the monarchy. He and his son certainly get the Queen’s attention, but these early scenes are fascinating and demonstrate much of what made the first few series so magical, as they lift the curtain behind some lesser-known developments.
Although Peter Morgan previously announced series five would be The Crown's last, Netflix confirmed in summer 2020 that the show would get a sixth season after all. As the series begins to hurtle towards the present day – and with the obvious ending now in sight, given Her Majesty’s death earlier this year – it’ll be intriguing to see just how much drama will be packed into the final series. Will it take us up to its natural conclusion, or will an extra series – and yet another cast change – be required to portray the Queen’s final decade and the coronation of King Charles III? For now, The Crown is still essential viewing. It might be increasingly controversial, but behind the scandals and family drama, it still deservedly highlights the hard work and duty of both Queen Elizabeth II and King Charles III – especially in an episode dedicated to Charles's work with The Prince’s Trust. Either way, we can’t wait to see where it goes next.
Series 1-5 of The Crown are available to watch now.