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Full of intrigue, The Crown is a drama that's fit for a king

With Diana's arrival and the Queen and Thatcher at war, the new season of Netflix's royal smash The Crown is the best yet, writes Paul Whitington


Unmissable: Emma Corrin stars as Princess Diana.

Unmissable: Emma Corrin stars as Princess Diana.

Des Willie/Netflix

Unmissable: Emma Corrin stars as Princess Diana.

In season four of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II emerges from her corner like a weary prizefighter to face her latest prime ministerial foe - a nippy middleweight decked out in royal blue. Margaret Thatcher sweeps to power in the opening episode, with radical plans to overhaul (i.e. obliterate) British society and turn its economy into a global powerhouse. She and Her Majesty did not get along, as evidenced by Palace leaks in the mid-1980s which almost caused a constitutional crisis. Their antagonism forms the spine of this latest season of the award-winning show, hitting Netflix this weekend.

Aside from the jingoistic exploits of picture-perfect villain Mrs T (wonderfully caught by Gillian Anderson), season four covers the death of Louis Mountbatten, the introduction into the royal fold of Diana Spencer, who will become an agent of chaos, her wedding to Charles, their triumphant Australian tour, the Falklands War, the continuing woes of Princess Margaret, Prince Andrew's attention-seeking union with Sarah Ferguson, and the night an intruder entered the Queen's bedroom.

With so much to cover, it would have been easy to overreach, confuse, make a hash of things, but show writer Peter Morgan has outdone himself, weaving the woes of the royals in the 1980s into a broader and more complete picture of that turbulent decade.

In seasons one and two, Morgan did a wonderful job of depicting Elizabeth (played by Claire Foy in the first two seasons) in the early years of her reign when, thrust into sovereignty at a young age, she must deal with courtiers and politicians intent on bullying her, with the help of her blunt but resourceful husband Philip (Matt Smith).

In season three, though, I felt that the show floundered somewhat, as Elizabeth's rule became mired in the cozy but dramatically boring consensuses of 1970s Britain, and Olivia Colman's skittishly equine Queen struggled to connect with the brittle stillness of Claire Foy's version. Normal service has been resumed in season four, which may just be the best series yet.

Colman's portrayal of the monarch has settled down wonderfully: she seems simultaneously human and regal, more emotionally engaged than ever in her country's plight, and also up for a fight. Which is just as well, because virtually every meeting with Thatcher risks turning into one.

HRH is initially pleased when she hears that Britain is to have its first ever female prime minister. "Just what we need," Philip mutters darkly, "two menopausal women in charge."

But Elizabeth demurs, admires Thatcher's self-made determination, and looks forward to a cordial working relationship. Then she meets her.

In a hilarious sequence, Margaret and her husband Denis are invited to Balmoral for a weekend which does not go well. Chippy in the presence of inherited wealth, Thatcher cuts an awkward figure at the Scottish castle, and turns up for the obligatory deer hunt wearing a royal blue skirt suit and high heels: the deer, the Queen politely points out, will see her a mile off; Mrs T is forced to change.

Things go downhill from there, and hostilities reach a climax over Thatcher's refusal to join a Commonwealth call for economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa which the Queen has enthusiastically backed. Then come the newspaper leaks outlining Her Majesty's displeasure, which will only intensify when Thatcher turns her baleful gaze onto Britain's mining industry.

Louis Mountbatten's death in Mullaghmore forms the centrepiece of episode one, which begins and ends with a Northern-Irish voiceover giving vent to nationalist grievances and their justification for this and other killings.

Those unacquainted with the minutiae of Northern Irish history in the 1980s may be left confused by a hasty montage of Ulster's greatest historical hits, but at least an effort has been made.

Charles Dance gives an elegant portrayal of the older Mountbatten, who before his death phones Charles from Classiebawn Castle to advise the young prince about his troubled love life.

Charles should sever ties with Camilla Parker Bowles, and find a young bride the country can fall in love with.

Enter Diana (Emma Corrin), whom Charles first meets when he's halfheartedly courting her older sister Sarah Spencer.

He's intrigued by the coy but ambitious 18-year-old, and when his family deliver an ultimatum regarding marriage and the disposal of Parker Bowles, he decides to propose to the girl. Diana thinks it's the beginning of a great adventure: it will soon become a nightmare.

I was always rather dubious about Diana, who courted the cameras while claiming to be a victim, but here it's impossible not to sympathise with a silly girl who is ignored by everyone once she enters the royal fold, and effectively abandoned by her own family. Emma Corrin is superb as the young Diana, catching that odd mix of coyness and neediness, that apologetic voice you had to strain to hear.

I had not realised the extent of Diana's unhappiness, and her battle with bulimia is harrowingly portrayed.

In one heartbreaking scene, she visits the Queen after trying for months to secure an audience, and explains how lonely she is, how Charles is ignoring her and still sneaking off to visit his beloved Camilla.

In desperation, Diana hugs the Queen, who stands there, arms hanging limply, neither accepting nor rejecting the embrace, not knowing quite what to do.

Diana will come into her own during a triumphant tour of Australia, where even royal-sceptic republicans warm to her, and the public mob her during walkabouts.

Charles is furious, his thunder has been stolen, and while Buckingham Palace is impressed by their new royal star, they soon realise they will not be able to control her. Diana's fame will become a juggernaut.

The dramatic pacing of this season is very intelligent, as is its decision to leap beyond the palace walls from time to time to illustrate the straitened circumstances of those at the wrong end of Mrs Thatcher's laissez-faire capitalist experiments.

Though she and her fellow traveller Ronald Reagan assure everyone that open markets and light touch regulation will lift all boats, they don't.

Sinking rapidly is one Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke), a council-flat dwelling Londoner who's joined the ever-lengthening dole queues after his wife left him, taking their four children.

Blocked at every turn by an indifferent, monolithic state, Fagan decides to go straight to the top and, on July 9, 1982, breaks with astonishing ease into Buckingham Palace, finds the Queen's bedroom and settles down to have a chat.

Though initially alarmed of course, Elizabeth soon senses Fagan is harmless, and listens with interest as he describes the deteriorating conditions of Britain's poor and rails against the massive cost of the pointless and unnecessary Falklands expedition.

When he's being escorted away, the Queen allows him to take her hand.

In another episode, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), pushed further from the royal centre by an uppity Prince Edward's coming-of-age, discovers that two close cousins in her maternal line had been hidden away in institutions because of their learning difficulties.

When she confronts the Queen Mother, a depressing rationalisation involving the purity of royal bloodlines ensues.

There's not enough Margaret for my liking, but Bonham Carter is again excellent as the aging and increasingly marginalised royal, whose health - and high spirits - are beginning to fail.

But she alone sees the writing on the wall when Charles decides to wed Diana, and warns her family that the pair will become a danger to shipping.

Erin Doherty is very well cast as Anne, the Queen's most dependable and sensible child who is constantly overlooked in favour of her brothers, and now feels occluded by the arrival of Diana.

The Queen, meanwhile, begins to question her favouritism towards the feckless Andrew when Thatcher's adored idiot son Mark gets lost during a rally in the Algerian deserts.

Critical praise for Josh O'Connor's portrayal of a dreamy and self-pitying Charles is entirely justified.

And while one might feel sympathy for the fact that he was forbidden to marry his true love Camilla and pressurised into wedding Diana, his subsequent indifference to her misery is not impressive.

The dominant performances, though, are Olivia Colman's dignified but empathic and principled monarch, and Gillian Anderson's remorseless, driven Thatcher.

Anderson wonderfully incarnates the Tory firebrand, her head inclined sideways, her tone hectoring, sounding always as though she's patiently explaining complex ideas to idiots.

I've always found the idea of hereditary monarchy absurd, Britain's royal soap opera a conveniently distracting sideshow. But in this and The Crown's earlier seasons, one is reminded that Elizabeth is also a human, who might have wanted a quieter life and had responsibility thrust upon her.

Her life has been a long parade of work and duty, and while we might think of being waited on hand and foot in a giant palace as paradise, the royals themselves may not.

At one point, Colman's Elizabeth says that Buckingham Palace "feels like a prison".

It certainly would in 1997, when the royal silence after Diana's death saw the palace besieged by an extraordinary public outburst. And that's what awaits the poor old Queen in season five.

Season four of The Crown is released on Netflix on Saturday

Belfast Telegraph