But for all that Prince Charles and Princess Diana had one of the most extraordinary marriages in human history, the show does well to suggest how it might have been simultaneously sad in extremely ordinary ways: it’s a point poignantly made, in particular, through a conceit in which fictional couples whose divorces were stamped on the same day detail their own marital breakdowns. And while there had been some speculation that this current series might prove the very worst of PR for the new King, in fact, on top of championing his progressive values and work with The Prince’s Trust, its arbitration of the Wales’ marriage feels very equitable. One scene between them that sticks out for its unadorned sadness comes in the penultimate episode when an attempt at a truce, made over a plate of scrambled eggs in Princess Diana’s Kensington Palace flat, suddenly descends into recrimination: here, the show suggests, were two people that, through no singular fault, simply could never have been compatible.
As for the performances? They are, this time round, a very mixed bag. Inevitably it becomes harder for each new round of actors taking on royal duties to convince, as what happens on screen converges with more and more viewers’ real-life memories. Regardless, some performances here really just don’t work. That applies to Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret, who brings a strangely prim, pinched quality to the famously larger-than-life royal sibling. Equally, West as Prince Charles is all wrong: where his predecessor Josh O’Connor disappeared into the role, perfectly capturing the prince’s unworldly diffidence, among other things, West isn’t able to quell his roguishly assured star charisma.
Those actors who fare better, by contrast, are ones who don’t themselves have such an established persona to conceal. The relatively little-known Claudia Harrison follows Erin Doherty as another inspired choice for the Princess Royal, a perfect balance of severity and warmth, while Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip offers a masterclass in creating a convincing impression of a person without looking anything like them, and Debicki pretty effectively inhabits Princess Diana using a more obviously studied mimicry (the eyes directed upwards, the ethereal, slightly wooden intonation). And as for Staunton? At first, she seems badly miscast, somehow both too naturally bullish and too knowing. Yet, as the series goes on, she’s a performer of such intense conviction that the question of how much her Queen is really the Queen becomes increasingly less important.
Come the final episode of this series, a sense of déjà vu takes hold, as Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) arrives in power and Princess Diana is seen packing her bag for a visit to Mohamed Al-Fayed’s yacht, where she will encounter his son Dodi – because, of course, in its due-to-be-final next series, The Crown is set to cross over with The Queen, Morgan’s fine, Oscar-winning 2006 film about the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, which was the first fruit of his interest in Britain’s ruling family. I suspect the comparison with that rather more sophisticated work will do The Crown no favours at all – though regardless of that, as an incontrovertible TV “event” that is also a fail-safe controversy machine, it will undoubtedly have the world rapt until the very end.
The Crown series five is released on Netflix on 9 November.
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