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Paul Vallely: Beware The Crown’s approach to facts

04 December 2020

Its confabulations are potentially harmful, says Paul Vallely


Prince Charles and Diana at the announcement of their engagement, in 1981, which is featured in the latest Netflix series of The Crown

Prince Charles and Diana at the announcement of their engagement, in 1981, which is featured in the latest Netflix series of The Crown

IS THE CROWN inducing younger members of the public to mistake fiction for fact — and does it matter?

Defenders of the popular Netflix drama say that it was ever thus. The series changes dates, manufactures characters, creates imagined conversations, and invents incidents that couldn’t have taken place in real life. But Shakespeare did much the same thing in his plays, its defenders say. Viewers are sophisticated enough to know the difference.

Up to a point. Most people have enough grasp of the historical facts to contextualise Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The same was true, more recently, of the ridiculous scene of Winston Churchill talking to ordinary Cockneys on a Tube train in Darkest Hour. Like Oliver Stone’s wild movie theory that Lyndon Johnson was part of a coup plot at the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it runs counter to too much else that we know.

But fiction can turn to fact. Shakespeare’s Richard III — which cast the last of the Plantagenets as a villainous usurper and the first of the Tudor monarchs as a prophetic saviour — alchemised Elizabethan propaganda into received historical wisdom.

Similarly, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall transformed the ruthless opportunist Thomas Cromwell into a figure of heroic 21st-century pragmatism — and did so by denigrating the great humanist Thomas More as a cruel hypocrite. So powerfully written is this tendentious revisionist fiction that students going for interview at Cambridge, one don has revealed, routinely blur the line between fact and fiction. Mantel’s much-proclaimed anti-Catholicism — “The Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people” — has failed to alert intelligent members of the younger generation to the line between history and polemic.

We are offered a variety of justifications for this cavalier approach to mere facts. “There are two sorts of truth. There’s historical truth and then there’s the larger truth about the past,” said the popular historian Robert Lacey, who is a historical consultant to The Crown. Factual accuracy is different from what is true in spirit, its writer, Peter Morgan, has maintained.

Mantel is altogether more sophisticated. All history is story woven from a selection of historical facts. The past is not something that we passively consume, but something that we actively “create” in each act of remembrance. “Facts are not truth,” she has said, but merely “the record of what’s left on the record”. At one point, she has Cromwell say: “What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales.”

The danger of such historiography is more obvious when the same technique is applied to living persons, as happens in The Crown. Into the vacuum of public ignorance is poured a plausible scenario, which is all the more pernicious for its verisimilitude, sumptuous settings, and fine acting.

Did the Queen really feign her grief at Aberfan? Was Prince Philip once a Jack-the-lad philanderer? What really happened in private between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer? The Crown has deluded the public into feeling that it knows the answers to such questions. In an era when fake news is readily believed the world over, such confabulations are unfair, amoral, and potentially harmful — not merely to historical reputations, but to flesh-and-blood individuals.

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