In a speech celebrating her 40 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II described the year 1992 as the “annus horribilis” for the British Royal family. “Annus Horribilis” is the name of the fourth episode of the fifth season of The Crown, which premiered on Netflix on Wednesday, November 9. But it could well be the title of the entire decade of the 1990s for the British royalty. In 1992, Princess Anne divorced Mark Phillips, Prince Andrew separated from Sarah Ferguson and Charles and Diana of Wales announced their separation. A serious fire ravaged Windsor Castle, and polls demonstrated a significant dip in the popularity of the monarchy. That all preceded the 1993 scandal known as “tampongate,” sparked by the publication of a graphic private conversation between the then-Prince of Wales and Camila Parker-Bowles, and Diana of Wales’ 1995 interview with the BBC. (The season’s fifth and eighth episodes, respectively, explore the incidents.) The horrible decade didn’t end there: two years later, Diana of Wales died in a car accident, a disaster that will appear in the sixth and last season of The Crown.
To portray those difficult years of Elizabeth II’s reign, the series, written by screenwriter Peter Morgan, brings on a new cast to suit the characters’ ages. Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce, Dominic West, Elizabeth Debicki, Lesley Manville and Olivia Williams now play Elizabeth II, Philip of Edinburgh, Charles of England, Diana of Wales, Princess Margaret and Camila Parker-Bowles, respectively. The actors take over characters that have already had one or two previous incarnations in the show, in order to portray an era that is still fresh in many viewers’ minds.
That was one of the great challenges for Dominic West in playing Prince Charles: “the difficulty of finding the balance between making the character your own and making him recognizable as someone who everyone knows how he looks and speaks. Everyone told me that it wasn’t an imitation, but to a certain extent, you have to do something recognizable,” says the actor in an interview over video. “We aren’t impersonators,” Lesley Manville agrees. “My work isn’t to replicate what Helena Bonham Carter or Vanessa Kirby did. You take what they did and absorb it and then the rest depends on you,” she says, referring to the actresses who previously played the rebellious princess Margaret on The Crown.
As the series approaches the present-day, voices have pointed out the problems of fictionalizing the royal family’s life. Netflix has already included several reminders that the show, lest we forget, is a work of fiction. Re-imagining well-known people and incidents also allows actors to discover other facets of their characters. For example, Imelda Staunton highlights the importance of the queen’s faith and the strength that it gave her. “I think it gave her some stability. Even though she was a shy person, that faith that she had gave her the confidence to do the work that she had to do and make the speeches that she made.” For Jonathan Pryce, who plays Philip of Edinburgh, the entire series is a journey into his past. “I was six years old when Elizabeth became queen, and I remember watching the coronation on the only television on my street, lying on my stomach playing with a toy cannon and shooting matches at the coronation. Perhaps that was the beginning of my republicanism,” recalls the actor who played Pope Francis in the film The Two Popes.
It would be easy to see Charles and Camila as the bad guys in the story, especially in this season, when their relationship becomes public. But the script approaches both their characters and their relationship from a sympathetic point of view. “I don’t think Charles was the bad guy in the story. That’s a role that the press assigned him at the time,” reflects Dominic West, who is also the ambassador of The Prince’s Trust, a youth charity co-founded by Prince Charles in 1976.
“Even in their most intimate moments, they are sharing a joke and laughing. Humor can help you survive almost any situation,” says Olivia Williams, who plays Camila in this new season. “Their relationship blew up in front of the whole world with that tape, the call transcript, showing their relationship at its most intimate,” Dominic West continues. “The important thing is what the press did with it. You can see the conversation as something funny, humorous, but then the press prints it in black and white. We know now that you can’t tell a joke in an interview, because when it is printed, it is no longer funny,” adds Olivia Williams.
In this season, Charles also faces the burden of being an heir, as he grows anxious to relieve his mother. “I think he is a product of the impatience to have influence in the world while he is still in the prime of his life and the frustration that he would end up growing old before being king. I actually think he has been able to do a lot more things as Prince of Wales than as king. But Peter Morgan wanted to explore that frustration of a man in the prime of life who hasn’t yet fulfilled his destiny,” West says.
The Crown has already received abundant attention – and deservedly so, judging by the 21 Emmy Awards it has already accumulated – in past seasons. The recent death of its protagonist will bring even more attention to the production that is now filming its sixth and last season, which will take the story to the beginning of the 21st century. “The first few seasons have become very popular since the queen’s death because people want to connect with her and her story again, but it’s not going to influence the show we do because it was written before,” says Lesley Manville. “I also don’t know if we would have done anything differently. The beauty of The Crown is that it is done with such integrity and honesty,” adds Jonathan Pryce.
“It is very strange to look at things that we filmed a year ago and see that their meaning has been completely transformed. The script is the same and the scenes haven’t changed, and yet the meaning and importance has changed,” notes Olivia Williams. “A lot of season five is about Charles being asked ‘do you think you will be king?’ or talking to his mother about when she will leave him. And now, inevitably, he is, and he has been instantly accepted as the new monarch,” says Dominic West. “Unlike previous seasons, a lot of people have lived through the events of this season, and everyone has memories and opinions about it. I think it will generate heated debates.”