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'The Crown' is back — and more controversial than ever before


"The Crown" is back on Netflix for a fifth season this week. And while the series can boast 21 Emmys, not everyone is a fan. A dramatized tale of the royal family returning just months after the actual death of Queen Elizabeth brings a new dimension to familiar complaints about historical accuracy. Linda Holmes, one of the hosts of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, is here to talk about it. Hi, Linda.


NADWORNY: OK, so every season, there are complaints about the accuracy of "The Crown," which Netflix has always said is fictionalized. What's that controversy look like right now?

HOLMES: Well, I think the death of Queen Elizabeth, whose life is essentially the frame of the show, has made some people feel like these questions are more sensitive. But the bigger issue may be that King Charles has just become king. And so for people who have a reverence for the monarchy, it's uncomfortable that this season, which covers his very public breakup with Diana, is not flattering. We're going to hear a little bit of that fight. This is Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki, who are now playing Charles and Diana.


ELIZABETH DEBICKI: (As Princess Diana) This is our holiday. It's a rare opportunity for us to be together with the boys as a family. And I know you struggle with that sort of thing, which is why I agreed to you bringing your friends along to entertain you. And I even agreed to do the photocall today, requested by your people so the lie could be paraded to the world's media about what an adoring husband you are, on one condition.

DOMINIC WEST: (As Prince Charles) What's that?

DEBICKI: (As Princess Diana) That you actually are one.

NADWORNY: So is it Buckingham Palace itself that objects to "The Crown," or where are these objectives coming from?

HOLMES: Well, it's not from the palace directly. The palace makes a policy of not officially commenting on all this. So it's hard to say how they're actually responding. Publicly, it's been other people objecting. This time around, former Prime Minister John Major is one, as well as the actress Judi Dench. She wrote a letter to The Times of London arguing that people might think everything they saw in the series was true when it isn't.

NADWORNY: What does somebody like Judi Dench want to happen, given that "The Crown" is already a really popular TV show and it's airing?

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, the argument has been that it should carry a disclaimer at the beginning of every episode saying that it's fictional. That's what she argued for in her letter. Netflix has declined to do that for the series, although they added a note for the trailer. Honestly, it is hard for me to imagine that doing that would make a big difference. I think it's more a gesture. It's a desire to have Netflix and Peter Morgan, who's the creator of the show, in some way acknowledge all these concerns as legitimate and almost kind of apologize a little bit maybe.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Are there specific elements of the show that people object to? Or is it just this general portrayal?

HOLMES: Well, it's both. I think the biggest dust-up over a scene this season is that in the first episode, Charles is seen meeting with John Major, who was then the prime minister, and trying to nudge him toward nudging Elizabeth toward stepping down. So in other words, it shows Charles sort of maneuvering to accelerate his own rise to become king. This is West again with Jonny Lee Miller playing John Major.


WEST: (As Prince Charles) You're coming to Balmoral, to the Ghillies Ball.

JONNY LEE MILLER: (As John Major) Yes, very much looking forward to it.

WEST: (As Prince Charles) Well, then you'll have an opportunity to judge for yourself whether this institution that we all care about so deeply is in safe hands.

HOLMES: So it's kind of wryly funny to me in retrospect because he wasn't king for another, like, 30 years after this. So...

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

HOLMES: If he had tried that, it certainly did not work. But Major has said this meeting never happened, never would have happened. It's totally fictional. He said inventing it for the show was malicious, actually.

NADWORNY: So as host of Pop Culture Happy Hour, you've watched a lot of dramatized stories. Do you think it's a fair complaint that the series is unfair to the royal family?

HOLMES: You know, I am always surprised that anybody complains about this show on their behalf because I think of the series as hugely sympathetic to them. I think to a lot of people, including a lot of British people, it's too sympathetic to them. That's the flipside of some of the distaste for it. You know, when John Major was talking about this season and that meeting that he objected to them making up, he said, among other things, that the show puts the words into the mouths of those still living and in no position to defend themselves. And in context, I took that to be about King Charles. And it's pretty wild - right? - because you would think as the king, you could defend yourself. But that view of the monarchy as unable to change through no fault of anyone in it is, in a lot of ways, a very royalist view.

NADWORNY: The fifth season of "The Crown" is on Netflix this week. NPR's Linda Holmes, thanks so much for being here.

HOLMES: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOGWAI'S "HUNGRY FACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.