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Probably the happiest moment realized in the history of Charles Windsor’s relationship with Diana Spenser as envisaged The Crown, fourth season — a rural area of Australia where apart from all others Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana (Emma Corrin) live for a time with their baby son, William


Charles and Diana, the actors and the real pair of people, keeping up the pretense

Friends and readers,

Season 4 differs from the three previous seasons because of the close at times step-by-step attention it pays to a single central story: the meeting, courtship (such as it was), wedding, then almost immediately deteriorating and finally (with a few events now and again bringing the couple together) utterly failed marriage of Charles, heir to the throne of the UK and whatever commonwealth countries still recognize and respect the office & man, to Diana Spenser, the younger daughter of an aristocratic family, the Spensers, whose Anglo lineage goes back to the early modern period (16th century).

Seasons 1 & 2 certainly told the story of Elizabeth, heir and then Queen of Great Britain (Claire Foy) as she both takes on her role of queen and tries to live the life of a loving wife, mother, and individual, vis-a-vis her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith), a Greek prince, who has his problems adjusting to what’s demanded of him, what he must sacrifice (career, last name, private home, Clarence House, and also a private life of larger dimensions);

— but also with her sister, Margaret’s (Vanessa Kirby) and Margaret’s need for a strong protective kindly father figure of a husband she can love, Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) whom she is forbidden to have, and the rake cad-substitute, Tony Armstrong (Matthew Goode), whom Margaret ends up with. Already I have had to bring in a two couple five-way story, yet have omitted the centrality of Churchill (John Lithgow), and his wife, secretary, and political life for its own sake, and later in the second season, Elizabeth’s yearning for another more genial companion, Porchey (Joseph Kloska) and real empathy with her young son, Charles, who takes as a father substitute, Mountbatten (the gentle Greg Wise) because Philip will only domineer over his boy, demand a narrow version of manliness while he spends his life from sports to apparent sexual philandering.

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The real royal couple and the actors

The third and fourth season present Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) and Philip (Tobias Menzies) as a married pair who have accepted one another’s personalities and resigned themselves to the roles they must play in life as Queen and Queen’s supportive husband. He is still having troubles resigning himself (see Episode 7, “Moonstruck”). She learns to unbend a bit more, to be open to labor points of view, and another PM, Wilson, but the most interesting female of the season is Margaret (Episode 10, “Cri de Coeur”), who now likes her choice of sister to the queen, but not all its consquences.

What is concentrated on is the world around them, and in this fourth that means Elizabeth’s relationship with her Prime Minister, here Mrs Thatcher (brilliantly portrayed by Gillian Anderson to the point I forget I was watching an actress and thought there was Mrs Thatcher in front of me):


Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Elizabeth I in one of their periodic meetings


A close up of Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher

We learn what Thatcher inflicts on the British world in the poignant Episode 5 (“Fagan”), about Michael Fagan, an unemployed lone man who entered the palace to talk to the Queen,


Tom Brooke as Michael Fagan and Fagan himself

Elizabeth and Philip’s (Tobias Menzies)’s relationship with their now grown children is context. Philip’s favorite is Anne, whom he pushes and encourages, Elizabeth’s is the egregiously spoilt Andrew (Tom Byrne), who arrives for lunch by heliocopter as if this were nothing unusual or expensive). Charles is no one’s favorite, or he was of Mountbatten, bringing down on Charles (as we learn) his father Philip’s resentment. These relationships are told as parallels, and kept controlled, intermittent. Margaret’s story (Helena Bonham Carter) is reduced to one episode (7, “The Hereditary Principle”) and brief outbursts of memorable truth-telling (rather like the fool in King Lear). She is the only character given truly separate space beyond Philip and Elizabeth, Charles and Diana. Thatcher is always seen as surrounded by people, either her family, or the male politicians she leads and bosses around (including making food for them which they do not look like they are keen to eat). The cast is shrunk, the minor characters very minor most of the time, used as further parallels (Thatcher’s grown children and favoring of her spoilt son over her loyal daughter), or as context to understand Elizabeth and Philip’s lack of sympathy or even real interest in Charles and Diana’s relationship. The courtiers now have little power over Elizabeth; and in 48:1 (Episode 8) she sacrifices a loyal secretary, Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell pitch perfect as ever) when she needs a cover-up.


Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell) — the real Shea was not forced out at all but he did become a popular writer of “insider” mystery thriller

Their view of Charles’ and Diana’s marriage the same as Anne’s (Erin Doherty): just get on with it, as we did and do. Ben Daniels as the faithless hard Snowdon is now there as an obsession and obstacle to Margaret’s peace of mind, getting no more screen time than Dazzle Jennings (Tom Burke) who existed, perhaps as a caring if limited friend to Margaret


Dazzle (Derek) Jennings (Tom Burke) and Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter)

Even the snow “Avalanche” that could have killed Charles (Episode 9), that did kill his close friend (and I still remember a photo of the real Charles weeping helplessly, copiously on a snow mountain that day), even this is just part of an episode, whose riveting content is again another phase of Charles and Diana’s marriage. The world of the fourth season, including Thatcher and the shown-to-be absurd war, a war for show (like the royals’ lives) over the Falkland islands, might be considered background for the season’s focus on Charles and Diana. One can compare the real time-line of the real couple to this fictional reduced one.

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Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell) presented as naturally and deeply congenial

This emphasis, and intertwining of truth and fictionalizing makes how you see the season’s depiction and perspective on the couple the determining factor in how you judge the season. The story and characters fit the overall theme of all four seasons, the price of this crown, but the interest here is not generic. It’s said that “the palace” and defenders of the Royal Family are angry at this depiction, feel it is unfair to Charles and them. They are understandably right. While the film is highly fictionalized, the producers and film-makers are conveniently forgetting how they are doing all they can to make us respond to it as a historical film.

So I can understand the palace’s discomfort since the first time I watched the series while at first I thought there was an attempt to be even-handed (Charles was emotionally blackmailed, coerced into a marriage with a girl much younger than he whose character was inimical to his own), but by the tenth episode (“War”) I was convinced we were meant to see Diana as a victim of a group of people who offered her no aid to cope, no advice, basically ignored her, so she never had a real chance to thrive: all they taught were gestures of submission.


Charles shouting at Diana after she has sung for him and needs praise and validation; his coldness to her


Diana did dance before Charles in a sexual dress to “Uptown Girl” — and meant to please plus yes show herself off, because she enjoyed doing that

In the case of Charles, after an initial attempt to teach Diana to be like him, he turns to cling to Camilla Parker-Bowles, buys a house near hers, phones her every day, is with her and their friends most evenings. He is intensely jealous of how crowds respond to Diana, and care little for him. This is part of why he responds with castigation to Diana’s genuinuely well-meant overtures. She can have no idea he finds spectacle shameful — which he does and I would probably; but he hardly cares for his and her two children whom she appears to love and care for and about, and in the last two episodes will not answer any of her phone calls. Diana only shouts at Charles once he has castigated her.

Elizabeth is cold to her need for affection, berates both of them separately. Her grandmother is obtuse, humiliating her on her first entry to the family by teaching her who and how she must bow to each. Diana is driven (I thought) into promiscuity, the arms of a cad. But the way Margaret talks about her is the degrading unsympathetic misogynist type talk of the 1950s, i.e., she’s a tramp. I felt a great deal of the blame falls on Elizabeth as a frigid individual (misogyny there again – the cold mother). Olivia Coleman is directed to evince a complete inability to respond to Diana’s real need for emotional support. Elizabeth now clearly favors at least two of her children over Charles (Anne and Andrew). Edward (Angus Imrie) is presented as so nasty because sent to a nasty public school it is understandably hard for Elizabeth to warm to him. Elizabeth is shown to have no sympathy with Charles’s love for literature, gardening, anything intangible having to do with imagination and the arts; she berates Diana for playing to the crowd — something she like Charles finds personally distasteful and is jealous of too.

The contrast is Margaret Thatcher’s shameless preference for her spoilt son, Mark (Freddie Fox), who goes missing carelessly and Thatcher’s lack of appreciation for her loving her loyal daughter, Carol (Rebecca Humphries). Thatcher tells Elizabeth she’d never have a woman in her cabinet, they are such emotional creatures.

To me Diana seemed in outer role to resemble the way women are used in powerful families when they are a servant, seduced, impregnated — they are made to disappear and leave their children behind them. That was Diana Spenser’s fate.


Diana lies when she first meets Charles, pretends to try to be escaping him, when she is deliberately encountering, intriguing, seducing him, playing innocent


The second time she is dressed in fetching overalls

But by watching three times now — so I’m into careful watching — I’ve discovered what is implied is that Diana did throw herself in front of Charles at least twice. She dressed herself very attractively and non-threateningly in the first episode (“Gold Stick”), like a pixie and drew Charles’s attention. On another public occasion, she presents herself before him once more, dressed fetchingly and absolutely worshipping him in her face and gestures. She is after him, after a position. Once he sees her, is attracted, takes her out, and then (poor calf) mentions her to his family (without foreseeing they immediately will approve of her for the wife they wanted for him and for children in the family), he is in effect trapped. When Thatcher leaves Balmoral (Episode 2), Diana passes “the Balmoral test” effortlessly — as Mrs Thatcher fails utterly (also effortlessly). Thatcher is no aristocrat. She cannot spend whole evenings playing silly games. By contrast, Diana falls right into charades, brings the right shoes for muck, wears nondescript colors. Philip finds her perfect because she falls into hunting the stag so well. Just before and after Charles goes off on trips (as if escaping what his family wants); Diana does manage to tell him she knows he need not go, but of course she will wait. She does speak up: she tells him after she went out to lunch with Camilla, she understood Camilla was his mistress and knows he has given Camilla an intimate gift just before her and Charles’s wedding — yet she does marry him. She did know what she was intervening on.


The aging Mountbatten (Charles Dance) off to seize and kill lobsters in Ireland while Charles fishes in Iceland, and the rest of the family hunt in Scotland — oh to have such estates ….

Charles is also pushed into this by the death of Mountbatten (Charles Dance), who also loves blood sports, has no sense that an animal has any quality of life; and whose last letter to Charles pushes Charles to marry to carry on a high status line — it was his duty as he Mountbatten had spent his life dutifully. Mountbatten has died as a result of a bomb thrown at him by the IRA. Charles had just rebelled, flung himself away from Mountbatten, accusing his uncle of being part of the group who pushed Camilla into marrying Parker-Bowles. Parker-Bowles carries on having affairs. Mountbatten dismisses this charge as in Mountbatten’s eyes it’s not a charge. When he encouraged Charles to be with Camilla, he thought it would be understood by Charles you are not to fall in love where it’s not appropriate. Charles had not. He does try to bring in his interests (literature architecture &c), but unfortunately not dramatized (I suspect the film-makers thought the average audience member would not sympathize with these aesthetic and poetic impulses. We are told there was no response from her and (with her pregnancies and their social routines), no time for him to figure out why. What I’m trying to say is he never accepted the marriage as she did, to start with — for reasons that have nothing to do with love or understanding — it was a quiet career choice for her. What she didn’t foresee is how alone she’d feel when (what he didn’t foresee) he couldn’t bear to be around her.

I felt the wounded moaning stag killed was a stand in for Charles (Episode 2, “The Balmoral Test”). It was his father who actually liked & accepted her after “examining” her manners, taking her off to watch the killing of a stag. I do loathe these scenes where these characters just slaughter birds, animals, deer. In his childhood it was his father who rejected him, and Mountbatten who was kind, something we learn in this season that enraged Philip: he lost his father figure, Mountbatten and his power over his son. Tobias Menzies communicates this in a power sudden speech to Charles. His mother sees Diana as a convenience whom she wishes would take up none of her time. Like Anne, she is indifferent to this fairy tale beauty. But Charles never had a chance either; once Diana spoke and said she wanted the marriage to work (with no reasons given) in a meeting Elizabeth and Philip arrange presumably to be hear about the marriage from both of them, Charles is told there is nothing more to be said. All he has planned to say in defense of his desire for a life for himself he could have some pleasure in, for a separation and divorce dismissed. The only thing that will free him is if she becomes scandalously sexually unfaithful. So he hires detectives to watch her. And after a while she calls her captain-lover back.

What no one is interested in is her bulimia.  My real objection to the way the story is presented is the inadequacy of the way bulimia is treated. As someone who was anorexic for five years, and knows that anorexia is like alcoholism, not only do you never truly recover, it is interwoven with your whole life and comes from complex and varied causes, I find ludicrous and empty the treatment of Diana’s eating disorder. To be bulimic allows the anorexic woman (trying to be fashionably frail, thin, ethereal) to eat and thus be with other people. So when they are alone, develop a series of techniques to make themselves vomit out the food before it becomes digested. This way they can keep themselves thin, one of the manifestations of this disturbed state of mind. The apologies at the opening of the episodes where we see Diana hovering over a toilet and throwing up have ridiculously over-wrought warnings. You hardly see anything. The behavior is seen as something apart from everything else. No one tries to stop her. We are told nothing about her family life. Had the film-makers truly wanted to understand and create sympathy for this girl and then women they should have read some books and woven their findings into the story. Girls who are anorexic (as Hilary Mantel once wrote) want out: family pressure to have a career, to be admired, to marry; and the predatory demands of heterosexual sex and self-sacrificing pregnancy are too much. One area Diana apparently did shine in was motherhood. Everyone in the family treats what she does over the toilet as unspeakable. No one talks to her. Such attitudes help no one and I just know they did not help Diana.

So yes the story is treated as another instance of the price of this numinous rank, endless wealth, endless deference we see the other characters paying. But it is self-consciously intensely developed because the film-makers know that the audience is paying intense attention. Martyrdom is part of Diana’s cult (the people’s princess), she did die horribly, Charles did remarry Camilla after a decent interval.

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I’d say all the episodes of this season have power, beauty, nuance and intensity of relationships, and it’s in the enjoyment of the many small humane quietly brilliant moments that our deepest pleasure lies, so to keep all these blogs from from being overlong (as I’ve promised) I will treat at length only, not perversely, the one dedicated to Margaret, Episode 7 (“The Hereditary Principle”).


The real Margaret Windsor grown older juxtaposed to Helena Bonham Carter in this season

It was typical of all four seasons in that nothing major or physical happened. It opens with someone named Dazzle (nickname), a companion-lover coming to tell her he is joining the priesthood (see still above of Tom Burke in the role). We are shown how her husband lives apart from her and takes mistresses as he pleases. So again she is left alone, and again she asks Elizabeth for something to do; instead Margaret is removed from the circle of those called upon to substitute for Elizabeth. Elizabeth is apologetic, but this is a slap in the face. I remember in an earlier season Elizabeth being resentful of how Margaret stole the show (like Charles is being presented in this season about Diana). Sometime the series is at its best when all is implicit and one episode refers back to many long ago. Charles visits her and they commiserate.

Then Margaret is at these apparently frequent lunches with her female relatives (Anne, Queen Mother, Queen) and coughs up blood. Switch to her having a dangerous operation after which she is told to stop incessant smoking, drinking and to lose weight. She goes to a psychiatrist (Gemma Jones) although her background teaches her to do this shows weakness and it’s useless. The character can do very little to help the recalcitrant Margaret. But somehow in their talk — Margaret confesses to periods of frantic anger, madness, depression — she learns of four cousins kept in mental asylums – we have been seeing these pathetic inmates of an asylum juxtaposed with the regular story for the hour and didn’t know who they were.


Apparently (but these are actresses) the queen mother’s nieces and queen’s cousins, Katherine and Nerissa

Turns out these are cousins of the Windsors who were not been given any chance to try to have a normal life. Dazzle accompanies her on her visit to these people; she is appalled and he accepting as in “It is what it is” — that awful axiom. The world is what it is.

Margaret is horrified because she identifies. Both Elizabeth and the Queen Mother say oh their diagnosis is imbecility, idiocy — and they would have threatened the throne to let them stay about. As ever Elizabeth avoids the talk, and it is the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) who takes it on. She is (as we have seen for four seasons) someone who is utterly conventional — even if she loved her husband, her hatred of Edward VIII came from her detestation of his bohemianism as did the grandmother’s (Eileen Atkins).

A second place and set of people are juxtaposed to Margaret: those we saw at the end of Season 3 (Episode 10, “Cri de Coeur”, scroll down to summary and commentary), Anne, Lady Glenconnor, her amoral lady-in-waiting, her husband, and all the hangers-on at Mystique Island. After the demoralizing visit with Dazzle, and a final conversation with him, where he now suggests she do like him — retreat from this world, give it up, we see her there once again dressed flamboyantly, half-drunk, singing rowdy songs, drinking and yes smoking. She looks like and is having a wonderful time. It’s empty of the depth of love she once wanted, and instead of which Tony could only give the parties and then eruptions of antagonism and sex. wn up with a husband. The last scene of the episode shows her sitting quietly by the pool in the morning. This is her sad life now — but one she half-chose.


Margaret’s public self — dressed up to go downstairs


Her private self walking about her island at night

I thought the hour moving. You need just to minus the fact these royal characters are all the types who never worry about whether they have a check coming to them for work they did this month.

We then see real photos of two of these people in the asylum grown older. They died only recently. Poor women — sacrificed for this family. The same was done to Leslie Stephen’s oldest daughter by Thackerays’ daughter — put in an asylum for life because she wouldn’t cooperate. Was difficult, stupid it was said. Didn’t respond to discipline.


Carter as Elinor who is freed and gets to live a life on her own for a while …

Helena Bonham Carter has made part of her charity and career work trying to help people who are disabled. In a wonderful film, 55 Steps, based on a real life story, Carter played someone with lower IQ who managed to get a lawyer to free her from an asylum. I wondered if she was somewhat responsible for this choice of topic. Carter said in a feature she works to help mentally disabled people because of something in her background — she is herself related to the Windsors.

If only there were more episodes like this one in the four seasons (e.g., Episode 5 “Fagan” in season 3).

Ellen

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