Before the advent of The Crown – the Netflix show, not the institution – Princess Margaret was widely regarded as a snobbish, spiteful creature. That image has been refurbished: to fans of the show, she is firmly established as poor Margaret, the dazzling, tragic second fiddle to the Queen, who only wanted a meaningful role.
After two seasons, I had been thinking of Margaret this way myself, while gussying up uncharacteristically warm feelings for the royals. The Queen does a good job, I thought. So what if she’s a little dull, isn’t that the bedrock of service – dependability? It’s not often one has one’s delusions dismantled in real time, but so it has been, this past fortnight, witnessing Prince Andrew’s flagrant awfulness in tandem with The Crown’s terrible third season. The experience has been like a sudden, dramatic return to reason.
There was never a subversive element to The Crown, and nor was there need for one. As we know from the small amount of documentary footage that exists of the Queen in her off-hours, the most outlandish drama one can eke from the royals lies in the depiction of them doing “ordinary” things: watching TV, smiling. This drama only works if one is willing to be charmed, a feat that the early seasons achieved.
They also adhered to the narrative put forward by the House of Windsor itself: however misguided its application, the animating principle of all royals – with the exception of Edward VIII – was duty, honour, loyalty. If the royals have a fault, the show suggests, it is that they take these principles too seriously, particularly when they come into conflict with more human considerations.
In Prince Andrew’s catastrophic TV interview, the precise, delusional nature of his language – his now infamous line, “my judgment was probably coloured by my tendency to be too honourable” – mirrored so exactly the ethos of the show, it could have served as its tag line. One can only imagine how the script, in its current form, would treat Andrew’s predicament: as the story of a prince crushed by the weight of his own nobility; the tragedy of a man whose saucy impulses had nowhere to go.
Was it always so badly written? Perhaps as long as the show was set beyond my living memory, it was easy to go along with the romance. Now it seems phoney and absurd. Harold Wilson is a caricature. The terrible episode in which the deaths at Aberfan are used as a backdrop to the drama of whether the Queen can cry or not was stupendously bad. If the third season pulls off a remarkable feat, it is to make one feel vaguely hostile towards Olivia Colman, a national treasure who, as the middle-aged Queen, has restored my faith in a basic question: why, in the TV show as in the institution itself, are vast sums of money being thrown at these inadequate people?