Streaming on: Netflix
Episodes viewed: 10 of 10
There’s a strong argument to be made that The Crown has improved season on season since it first arrived in 2016, with Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Matt Smith as Prince Philip. Which is not to say those early series weren’t beautifully made and wonderfully acted. They absolutely were. But the closer the drama gets to more recent events, the more intriguing and enthralling it becomes. Then there’s the Charles and Diana factor. If the actual Royal Family provide a real-life soap opera with a cast of vivid characters to divert many of us from the daily grind of normal life, then the relationship between the then Prince of Wales and Princess Diana is surely the most crazily melodramatic royal narrative of them all.
So while Season 4 gave us many engaging plot strands, and was underpinned by Gillian Anderson’s extraordinary version of Margaret Thatcher and her tense interactions with Queen Elizabeth, it was the arrival of Emma Corrin as Diana, falling for a fantasy idea of a Prince (played then by Josh O’Connor) that added an incendiary spark to the whole exercise. Now Season 5 introduces Elizabeth Debicki (Tenet) as Diana, alongside Dominic West as Charles, and — with all due respect to Imelda Staunton’s powerful new take on the Queen, and the emotional trials and loneliness she endures — it’s the Charles and Di show which dominates proceedings.
The Charles vs Diana strand is expertly handled
Early episodes of this season do try to drum up a sense of jeopardy for the entire edifice of the House of Windsor, with a backdrop of newspaper headlines and TV debates about the worth and value of the royals. There’s even a succession controversy that wouldn’t seem out of place in House Of The Dragon, as Charles attempts to conspire with Prime Minister John Major (Jonny Lee Miller) to float the idea the Queen should stand down and let him become King. (The real John Major has described these scenes as “injurious and untrue”.) But the idea there’s ever any real possibility that the institution of the monarchy itself could crumble seems forced, even when embarrassing scandals like “toe-gate”, involving Sarah Ferguson (oddly absent from the show), and Charles’s excruciating tampon-based phone sex-chat with Camilla (Olivia Williams), threaten to turn the Windsors into a laughing stock. Credit, though, to creator/showrunner Peter Morgan, for depicting these tawdry/juicy developments which could easily have been glossed over.
There are some questionable creative decisions along the way, though. An episode exploring the Queen’s feelings about the Russian revolution and her family’s treatment of the Romanovs opens with an ill-judged flashback sequence of horrendous violence, and there’s a through-line from the season opener to the finale involving the Queen’s love of the Royal Yacht Britannia, which carries no weight at all. Of all the standalone episodes, the one telling the back-story of Mohamed al-Fayed (Salim Daw) and his son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla) is the most engrossing, reminding us that, before his fateful relationship with Diana, Dodi was a successful film producer whose Chariots Of Fire won the Best Picture Oscar in 1981.
But it’s the Charles vs Diana strand that rightly dominates the second half of the season in particular, and it is, for the most part, expertly handled. Morgan emphasises how the Queen could not countenance the idea that the future King would be a divorcee, despite the whole world being fully aware of his relationship with Camilla, and a deep sense of frustration is etched on Dominic West’s face.
But, as impressive as West is, it’s Elizabeth Debicki, taking over from Emma Corrin as Diana, who provides the season’s greatest acting triumph. Debicki not only looks uncannily like the former Princess of Wales, she also imbues her with a wryly funny sense of fatalism and a blunt self-awareness — the latter quality notably lacking in many members of the family into which she married. She dazzles in two spectacularly gripping set-piece confrontations: one with the Queen, when Diana informs her of her wildly controversial decision to take part in an interview with Panorama reporter Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah), and the other with Charles when they have it out over some scrambled eggs.
Of course, no one can ever know the veracity of these intimate one-on-one conversations, but for sheer impactful, emotional drama, they’re hard to beat. Indeed, the whole Panorama saga plays out across two episodes and is as riveting as anything in all five seasons so far, as much for its insights into the workings and politics of the BBC as for its meticulous re-creation of an iconic TV moment. As fictionalised as this drama undoubtedly is, there’s no denying its continuing power to enthral.