I NEARLY signed up for Netflix the other day. I saw a news clip showing how the American network had made The Crown, a 60-episode account of the life of the Queen, which is, apparently, the biggest-budget drama ever made. Series two of six is about to begin. But then something put me off.
The clip showed the care that was taken by the filmmakers over the period detail and accuracy of the royal settings. But then the royal historian Hugo Vickers complained that fact had been twisted to create more sensationalist storylines — the most egregious of which was “a monstrous lie” suggesting that the bad behaviour of the Duke of Edinburgh, as a schoolboy, indirectly led to the death of his sister, Princess Cecilie of Greece, in a plane crash. It was, the historian said, “a truly shocking invention”.
When challenged on the veracity of the drama, its executive producer, Suzanne Mackie, offered weasel words about its having “a spirit of truth”, and that “dramatic truth sometimes has to subjugate accuracy.”
There is a respectable pedigree for historical fiction filling in the gaps in historical fact. But it can create distortion, as the ghost of Richard III might bemoan, and devotees of Thomas More have found in Hilary Mantel’s mendacious portrait of the saint. Yet there can be a defence in the notion of “dramatic truth”: after Stephen Frears made The Queen, his remarkable surmise about the turmoil inside the royal family after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the Queen’s Private Secretary told him that he got the details wrong, but the emotional essence spot on.
In The Crown, however, Mr Vickers suggests that the meticulous care taken over costume and sets only underscores the malignancy of what he calls “this pernicious lie”. The royal family has a tradition of ignoring calumny and detraction in the public prints. It certainly does not make a habit of suing publications for libel, although Mr Vickers’s account suggests that there might be a prima facie case for that being considered by the Duke of Edinburgh, who has given decades of public service to this country.
Myths are “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver”, C. S. Lewis is said to have once told Tolkien. In our post-truth world, where lies are emblazoned on the side of buses, and tweeted in the small hours from presidential mobile phones, falsehoods are not just tolerated: they are celebrated.
The PR manipulator Max Clifford, who died this week, once boasted that the details about a wayward Cabinet minister’s having sex while wearing a Chelsea football shirt were made up. He even fabricated his most famous story, which a Sun front page headlined “Freddie Starr ate my hamster”.
It may not be true, but so long as it is a good story, who cares? The answer to that question is that we should all care. That is why I have resisted the temptation to subscribe to Netflix to watch something that may be a compelling drama, with highly lauded performances, but which, in the end, does a grave disservice to the truth.