The humanisation of the royal family in Netflix’ The Crown

Peter Morgan’s The Crown is currently listed as number one on Netflix U.K. Now in its fourth season, the TV show depicting the British monarchy from Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne in 1952 to (presumably) the present day has taken the world by storm.

The show is based in reality, taking inspiration from what the public knows of the royal family, but does in fact take liberties with the story and dramatises it. As we follow the royal family throughout the seasons, it is hard for the audience not to sympathise with their struggles as royals, how they are perceived by the public, and the intense scrutiny they face every day. This humanisation of the royal family, whether intentional or not, makes it all the more difficult for people like me, who are critical of what they represent — namely wealth, power, privilege, and the imperialist British Empire — to watch The Crown.

As a person of colour, who was born in a former British colony, I am not exactly a royalist. I enjoy the pageantry of the royals but I do not like what they stand for, what they have prided over in their many years on the throne, which is the subjugation of other countries and people in the name of the British Empire. During the years depicted on the show, many colonies are struggling for independence from Britain and the royals are disappointed by this. The production of The Crown, with the swelling of music to entice an emotional reaction from the audience, makes us feel sorry for the royals as they lose control of the countries they have been rulers of for many years.

The Crown on Netflix

The Crown’s portrayal of the royals shows them as characters in a story rather than real people who have always been at the upper echelons of our society, surrounded by gold pianos, tiaras, and extreme deference from their ‘subjects’.

Until recently, The Crown served as a PR exercise for the royal family, showcasing the battle of duty versus reality. We feel sorry for the Queen, who is described as never wanting to be on the throne. We feel sorry for Prince Phillip, who struggles with being second to his powerful wife and not being able to enjoy himself due to the duty he has to the Crown. We feel sorry for Princess Margaret, who always wanted to be Queen but has been relegated to the ‘spare’, and is not allowed to marry the love of her life Peter Townsend because he had been divorced. Later, we feel sorry for Prince Charles and the absence of love he feels from his family. We feel sorry for Anne, who is deemed ‘grumpy’ and not ‘pretty enough’ by the press.

The Crown has changed how we perceive the monarchy, making them seem “just like us” rather than an unmovable and glorious ideal that we are supposed to aspire to but can never be a part of. These are people who accept millions of pounds in taxpayer money every year to be ceremonial figure heads of Britain, showing up at banquets and building openings but doing little else. The fact is, they are not “just like us”, they are not working for minimum wage in a pub or awful 9-to-5 jobs that pay barely enough to live.

I love the show, as do many people in the U.K and across the world if Twitter is anything to go by, and it’s great fun to get a bit of insight into the royal family, even though we have to be aware that it is not historically accurate. But, the humanisation of the royal family, at a time where we are continually reckoning with the legacy of the British Empire, racism, the power and privilege of the upper classes, and how many people in this country are suffering, is not acceptable. It is difficult to not be angry at The Crown for forcing sympathy onto them.

The Crown’s creator, Peter Morgan, previously compared the monarchy to a “mutating virus” but has since changed his opinion. “I came at it as completely anti-monarchist and I’ve turned around utterly,” he said. “I’m a royalist now.” If even The Crown’s creator, who knows how his show is created to a positive reception of the royals, has had his anti-royalist views changed by this show, what hope do the rest of us have?

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Michele Theil

I am a freelance journalist based in London writing about culture, LGBT+ rights, race, women and their intersections.