The fourth season of the Golden Globe, Emmy and BAFTA-winning Netflix series The Crown, which launches globally on Sunday November 15th, spans the eleven and half years of Margaret Thatcher’s time in 10 Downing Street from 1979 to 1990.
Baroness Thatcher of course was no friend of the LGBTQ community. Growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, I was ten by the time she made that infamous Conservative Party Conference speech in October 1987 decrying that “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay”. Then in the midst of the AIDS crisis and heightened anti-gay sentiment, in May 1988 her government’s Section 28 essentially enshrined state-sponsored homophobia into law, banning local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” or propagating “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Although ironically this helped to fire up a generation of LGBTQ activists, like Lord Cahsman, it didn’t help a generation of British queer kids like myself to grow up with self-acceptance or to feel protected or supported at school by the adults around them.
This isn’t something that’s covered during this season of The Crown, although Thatcher’s dedication to fundamentally changing the fabric of UK society is certainly explored, but it’s almost impossible for me to refer to her, particularly writing in The Queer Review, without that obvious context. It also feels worth mentioning because Gillian Anderson—who is a revelation in the role of Thatcher, giving one of the finest performances of her career—manages to discover the humanity in the woman to the degree that I found myself warming to her and even empathising with her at times despite my thoughts on the real life figure. In fact Anderson’s skilful performance is so uncannily good, that I occasionally had to remind myself that I was watching an actor portraying the character rather than Thatcher herself. Enabling us to see the person behind the Iron Lady image, that helmet of hair and idiosyncratic vocal delivery, is also down to Peter Morgan’s writing and the situations that he puts her in.
One of the most entertaining episodes of the season sees the newly minted Prime Minister invited to Balmoral and thrown into the lion’s den of a judgemental Royal Family with a series of tests laid out before her and her husband Dennis (an excellent Stephen Boxer), setting them up for failure and ridicule by the Windsors. Thatcher makes the shocking faux pas of arriving for the weekend without having packed any outdoor shoes—even setting out for a tour of the grounds with Her Majesty in heels—and the Thatchers dress in the evening attire of black tie embarrassingly early in the day, much to the amusement of the juvenile Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies). By the time it comes to a night of drinking games (the challenging ibbdle dibble), it’s easy to sympathise with Thatcher’s frustration that she could be getting on with some important governmental work, and one can’t blame her for leaving early.
It’s an episode that’s mirrored later in the season when Prince Charles, who’s been forced to find a suitable wife invites the teenage Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) up to Balmoral, who unlike Mrs Thatcher proves to be a hit with the Family. In contrast to Thatcher, Diana was of course a much-loved gay icon, likely up there with Judy Garland for many queer folks, and pals with gay royalty such as Elton, George Michael and Freddie Mercury. (Actually, I had hoped that we might get a recreation of the night that Diana apparently partied with comedian Kenny Everett and Mercury at London’s gay pub the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, but sadly that’s not included). Corrin is a delight as Diana, getting the cadence of her voice and her physicality just right—as Josh O’Connor continues to do with his portrayal of Charles—without it ever feeling like a caricature. Corrin’s Diana has the biggest character arc of the season, going from a quirky young girl dressed as a tree, whom Charles first encounters at Althorp House while briefly dating Diana’s sister Lady Sarah, to the complex, rather tortured world famous Princess of Wales, embroiled in a disastrous marriage, and Corrin convinces throughout. With viewers knowing full well how it all ends Morgan doesn’t need to foreshadow much as we quickly see Diana become increasingly isolated; locked up in Buckingham Palace even before the wedding, the Queen won’t take her calls and neither will her husband-to-be. Several episodes, which each come with a warning at the beginning, depict Diana’s struggle with bulimia, but we do get to see her having some fun too, as she roller-skates around an empty wing of the palace. As the years go on and almost the entire Family becomes envious of Diana’s favourable press coverage and popularity with the public, we see her take a solo trip to New York where she embraces HIV positive children at a Harlem hospital at a time when there was still much stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and ignorance regarding the transmission of the virus. We also get to relive some 80s fashion moments, which although not exact replicas (the below is costume designer Amy Roberts’ take on the David and Elizabeth Emanuel wedding dress), do give us the essence of Diana the style icon and nod to some of her most memorable outfits.
Much of this season will be in living memory of The Crown’s audience; the Falklands War, the IRA’s assassination of Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), and the fairy tale romance that played out across the front pages of the international media. Although it is fun and rather poignant to see some public moments recreated for the series, like a newly engaged Prince Charles responding to a journalist’s question about wether he was in love with Diana by scoffing “Whatever loves means”, or a teary-eyed defeated Thatcher leaving Downing street for the last time, the most captivating sequences tend to be the imagined ones inspired by fact. One can’t help but think about those notorious leaked telephone recordings that led to Camillagate and Squidygate as we see frequent calls between Charles and Camilla (a wonderful Emerald Fennell), and there’s a suitably uncomfortable private lunch between Camilla and Diana.
Many of the highlights of the season are the weekly meetings between the Prime Minister and monarch, a scenario which Morgan has proved to be particularly adept at crafting as a writer, which become progressively more fraught. A particularly strained period is examined with the Queen deeply frustrated by Thatcher’s refusal to support sanctions against apartheid era South Africa, offending Elizabeth II’s sense of commitment to a unified Commonwealth of which she is the head. While Thatcher’s plea to suspend parliament in order to save her political career echoes some of the controversial measures taken by Britain’s current Prime Minister to salvage his Brexit strategy. Olivia Coleman in her last of two seasons portraying the stoic Queen continues to be exceptional, bringing nuance and plenty of humour to the role, and it’s a joy to witness her and Anderson spar in these increasingly awkward encounters.
Perhaps my favourite sequence in the season is another where the dialogue is entirely imagined by Morgan, when one of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects, Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) breaks into Buckingham Palace for a royal audience; twice (she wasn’t in the first time). On the first occasion he even helps himself to a bottle of wine in the gift room to pluck up some Dutch courage before hoping to speak to the Queen. Refreshing Morgan takes us away from the Royal Palaces and allows us to spend some time with the sympathetically portrayed “commoner” Fagan on a council estate, in an unemployment office and on a London bus. The scenes of Brooke as Fagan wandering around the palace in the early hours of the morning are tense and when he finally encounters the monarch it’s a gripping, uneasy and moving scene. Morgan also partly uses Fagan to illustrate the impact that Thatcher was having on the country in terms of unemployment and fostering an uncaring culture of individualism.
One of the crowning achievements (sorry!) of the series continues to be the exceptional hair and makeup, production and costume design, which all help create a sense of authenticity without distracting – though I did find myself staring in admiration at the recreation of the various ‘dos, particularly Maggie’s and Her Majesty’s. Something that helps to elevate this 80s-set season of The Crown above a Royal version of say Dallas or Dynasty, aside from the fine performances, unhurried pace and cinematic visuals, is the way that Morgan finds the humanity and recognisable familial dynamics in the relationships. Diana’s natural attachment to an infant Prince William she’s being asked to separate from to tour Australia for instance, or when the Queen embarks on series of individual meetings with her children after being surprised to hear Thatcher refer so openly to her missing son Mark as her favourite child. This endeavour amuses Philip who already knows whom she favours, and the result of her survey (*spoiler alert*) particularly resonates given that Prince Andrew is no longer taking part in any public duties following the fallout of his association with Jeffrey Epstein.
Although it’s a stretch to believe that Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) would not have had a more finely attuned gaydar, it’s nevertheless fun to hear the Queen use the phrase ‘friend of Dorothy’ to inform her sister that a friend about to enter the priesthood whom she’s had her eye on romantically is unlikely to reciprocate. Carter gives us a more mature and melancholy Margaret, unanchored and frustrated by her decreased public role. As with season three, Carter makes the most of every scene, another example of the inspired casting throughout the series by Nina Gold and Robert Sterne.
It all adds up to a thoroughly entertaining, right royal binge. Though you might want eke out those ten episodes as you’ll have to wait until 2022 for the fifth season of the series with Coleman passing on the crown jewels to Oscar-nominated national treasure Imelda Staunton.
By James Kleinmann
Seasons 1 – 3 are available on Netflix now. The Crown season 4 launches globally on Netflix on Sunday November 15th 2020.