The Queen’s former press secretary has spoken about his disappointment at the “distasteful” and “totally unfounded” storylines in the new episodes. But is this season actually that controversial? We investigate.
This story does contain some mild spoilers for The Crown season three, which does not premiere until 17 November. If you would like to remain unspoiled for season three, please stop reading now.
It wouldn’t be The Crown without a whiff of controversy.
Netflix’s lavish, reportedly $150 million-a-season drama returns for its third season on Sunday. Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter are heading up the cast as the Queen and Princess Margaret respectively, steering the ship of the royal family through a decade of turmoil that begins with the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government and ends with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Shaken in, like a well-mixed martini, are storylines including Prince Charles meeting Camilla Parker Bowles, Princess Anne’s coming of age and Prince Philip’s fascination with the Moon landing.
The royal family have always been cagey about whether or not they sit down together at Buckingham Palace and stream the Netflix series en famille. Prince William told Colman that he and Kate don’t watch it, thank you very much. Edward and Sophie Wessex love the series, though, and have even been known to drive to Windsor of an evening to watch The Crown. (One was quite amused, by all reports.) Also a fan? Zara and Mike Tindall and Princess Eugenie, who said she is “proud” to watch The Crown.
Not proud, though, is Dickie Arbiter, former press secretary to the Queen, who told the Sunday Times that he believes season three of The Crown to be “very distasteful”.
Arbiter was referring specifically to an episode in the new series – set to stream on Netflix Sunday 17 November – in which the Queen and her horse racing manager Lord Porchester, or “Porchie”, as she calls him, head to France and the US on a scouting trip. According to the Sunday Times, the episode indicated that the Queen had an affair with Porchie, which Arbiter called “totally unfounded”.
“The Queen is the last person in the world to have ever considered looking at another man,” he said. “Not only is this muckracking – this is gossip that’s been washing around for decades. It’s got absolutely no substance.”
He continued: “The Crown is fiction. No one knows any conversation between members of the royal family, but people will tell the story they want to and sensationalise it.
But how scandalous is season three of The Crown? We’ve seen the new episodes so we decided to do a little fact checking, and the results might surprise you.
Does The Crown show the Queen having an affair?
We’re not sure if Arbiter has seen the new episodes of The Crown yet but we have, and if you ask us the episode that he takes particular umbrage with – number five of the series – does not depict the Queen having an affair.
Yes, the Queen does go with her racing manager Porchie on a tour of the French and US racing facilities, and yes Prince Philip does seem particularly interested in the Queen’s trip on her return, but the point of this episode is not to fan the flames of scandal, but rather to give a window into the Queen’s sadness at what she calls her “unlived life”.
In this episode, Elizabeth ruminates on what her life might have been like had she not been Queen. Sure, Porchie’s there, and the two are certainly old friends. But it’s not that she’s dreaming of a life with Porchie per se. Elizabeth is dreaming of a life, period, one that doesn’t revolve around royal bureaucracy and state dinners and opening hospital wings.
According to the Sunday Times, Prince Philip’s reaction to the Queen when she returns from the trip also implies an affair, but that seems like a misread of the episode. Philip’s response – “I’ve heard you have appointed him your racing manager, which means he’ll be around all the time,” Philip whines – is not so much accusatory as it is jealous. But unfounded jealousy, and the sheepish way that Philip delivers the line proves it. He’s stirring the pot to soothe his own fragile ego. And he knows it.
How scandalous is season three of The Crown, really?
Here’s the thing – season three of The Crown isn’t actually that scandalous. Remember season two? There were threesomes – actual threesomes! – and sex scenes galore. Storylines included Princess Margaret’s budding relationship with Tony Armstrong-Jones, Prince Philip’s alleged involvement in the Profumo Affair and the secret Nazism ties within the royal family.
Season three has a few pearl-clutching moments, sure. The series delves into the breakdown of Princess Margaret and Tony’s marriage, and documents Margaret’s affair with Roddy Llewellyn. We see Prince Charles fall for Camilla Parker Bowles and – this might be the most scandalous thing in the whole season – we see Princess Anne falls for Andrew Parker Bowles, making for a sort of complicated, messy royal family love rhombus.
But most of this is only hinted at. Season three trades in innuendo and euphemisms and wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes. There isn’t a single sex scene in the entire series and only a few kisses. The sexiest thing in the whole season is when Prince Charles watches as Camilla reclines in a claw foot tub, tumbler of gin in hand.
That’s fine – in fact, we almost prefer it that way. In our review of season three, we praised the new episodes for returning to the calm and collected mood of the first season. The Crown, soapy and lathered-up though it may be, is best when it’s a prestige drama, starring a gaggle of Britain’s finest thespians attempting to out-posh each other over the family china. Season three is well-scripted and smartly-plotted and, largely, about real, lived history as seen through the prism of the royal family.
This must be the reason why the plotlines have sidestepped some of the time period’s most tabloidy storylines in favour of political drama and historical events. Instead of covering Princess Anne’s kidnapping, for example, the series looks at the Aberfan tragedy in Wales, or the filming of a calamitous BBC docuseries inside Buckingham Palace in 1969. Whole episodes investigate the machinations of the Wilson’s Labour cabinet. Scandalous stuff, that!
As we noted in our review, there’s a real ‘keep calm and carry on’ energy to the season. It’s a welcome reprieve, after the scandalous swings and roundabouts of season two (and those coming in season four with the introduction of Princess Diana), to have a series that is mostly smooth-sailing. There’s plenty of dramatic tension, don’t get us wrong. But it’s internal, and largely confined to within the family.
That seems to be the point of this season: calmness, consistency and continual forward motion. In times of tragedy and turmoil, the crown must prevail. Especially, in those times, the show suggests.
“That’s the thing about the monarchy,” Princess Margaret tells her sister, at one point in the series. “We paper over the cracks. And if what we do is loud and grand and confident enough, no one will notice that all around us it’s fallen apart. That’s the point of us.”
The Crown season three streams on Netflix from 17 November.