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How The Crown never allows the facts to get in way of good drama

It stylishly recreates the early decades of the reign of the Queen, even if glaring inaccuracies have irritated some historians. But what the Netflix series tells us about today’s Britain is probably more telling, writes Frank Coughlan

The scene that launches the second season of The Crown also sets the tone for much of what follows and is very much in keeping with what had gone before. It is 1957 and on board the Royal Yacht Britannia, anchored off Lisbon, the young Queen Elizabeth is having a crisis summit with Philip about his rumoured philandering.

He has just returned from a five-month grand tour of the Commonwealth on official business but it was what he may have been up to unofficially which has the flashbulbs popping and the hounds of Fleet Street salivating.

You can cut the tension with a knife. She accuses him of constant whingeing; he complains of living in a prison. The divorce word is even tossed about, but as she is head of the Church of England, we know this could never happen.

The scene is moodily shot, richly atmospheric and thick with a sense of pending gloom, not only for the royal marriage but for the ancient institution it represents.

Compelling to watch and visually precise to the point of fussiness, The Crown is indeed history in the remaking.

Or is it?

Were there any witnesses to that encounter? Did they ever speak of it to anyone? Did that encounter even take place? Perhaps more importantly, does it really matter?

For the record, there was never any proof that Philip was unfaithful on that tour, but it is true that his private secretary and closest confidant on the royal yacht, Lieutenant Commander Mike Parker, was sued for divorce by his wife for adultery, so there was guilt by association.

In the arcane world of class and pedigree in the middle of the last century, the whiff of sulphur was enough to set society tongues wagging and newspaper editors straining at the leash.

So, as with much of The Crown, conflated events are hijacked for the sake of drama - and to brilliant effect.

Churchill's political decline, Eden's disastrous Suez adventure, Princess Margaret's ill-fated love affair with Group Captain Townsend, Edward VIII's embarrassing Nazi legacy all provide wonderful historic fodder for the imagination of writer and creator Peter Morgan.

But while historiography deals in empirical evidence, carefully and assiduously garnered facts and citations totally inflexible in their dedication to the truth, historical fiction - either on the page or screen - has a very different role.

Traditionally, academics have been sniffy about what writers get up to when they dust off the great events of history for their own ends.

Renowned 19th century Trinity historian JB Bury wrote haughtily about authors who attempt to "clothe the story of human society in a literary dress" and 100 years later Herbert Butterfield noted that "the raconteur knows only too well that if he investigates the truth of the matter, he is only likely to lose his good story".

Hollywood, in particular, is proof that Butterfield knew what he was talking about. The great events of the ages, from the Old Testament to Vietnam and beyond, have been looted and pillaged countless times in the search for box-office gold.

Historian Antony Beevor is even more cutting: "The way Hollywood deals with national identity is totally shameless and totally irresponsible. It is a grotesque distortion of history."

While a list of incongruities, lazy errors and downright lies in fictional depictions of historic events are easy to conjure up, it also tends to miss the point.

Films do sometimes pretend to be based on true stories but they seldom, if ever, pretend to be history. If an audience treats 90 minutes of escapist celluloid as a lecture, the film's producer or director can hardly be held responsible.

But even grossly inaccurate treatments of real events can teach us something. They can, for instance, help flesh-out and colour-in the raw facts that dry historical tomes offer us and help bring a period alive.

It can also help to personalise history, or what the late historical novelist Helen Dunmore called the 'inner-view'. Speaking about her Second World War novel The Siege, she noted: "What I wanted to do was focus on this small group of people and create a world which is felt, tasted and rooted."

It is something she achieves brilliantly. Dunmore brings the horrors of Leningrad vividly alive in a very intimate way through her believable fictional characters.

But it's not always how accurately an era is depicted in historical fiction or film that really counts, but instead what it tells us about the period in which the book is published or the film released.

So, back to The Crown.

Forget for a moment how accurately or otherwise it recreates the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s, but what does this show say about today?

Why would a drama series, so nostalgically shot, coloured and pitched, be so popular now?

What is it about the certainties of place, class and hierarchy that appeal today?

What is it about Britain's place in the world back then that has such a romantic pull in 2018?

Would it have anything to do with the muddle that the UK currently finds itself in, this post-Empire identity meltdown that has manifested itself in the Brexit fiasco? Could it be Peter Morgan has really created a historical narrative for his primarily British audience that soothes and consoles in a time of crisis and bewilderment?

These are the sort of questions that history students a generation from now might care to ask about the series, while not bothering too much about the liberties taken with circumstantial fact.

One thing is certain: historians, writers and the public alike still don't know how this chapter in history or fiction will end.

In the meantime, The Crown is certainly keeping us curious about what was and what might have been.

Truth be told, some of it didn't happen ...

There is a general consensus that The Crown has an assured touch when it comes to the British monarchy and political landscape it re-imagines.

It appears next to perfect too, when it comes to the look, feel, fashion and tastes of the time.

But there are obvious fabrications.

It is unlikely, for instance, that the young Queen took royal advice from the loathsome and disgraced Edward VIII, as she does in series one. There is certainly no record of it.

Nor did the Great London Smog of 1952 precipitate a constitutional crisis or create personal tension between Churchill and Elizabeth.

If Philip made a fuss about having to kneel before his Queen at her coronation a year later, which he does in series one, there is no record of it.

More tellingly, in a pivotal scene in the second series, correspondence emerges that incriminates Philip's private secretary Michael Parker in serial adultery. There was no such letter.

Last week, Parker's son Michael rubbished the plot and insisted that, if anything, his late father was a prude.

So offended is he by the storyline that he's keeping it a secret from his 94-year-old mother, who is depicted in the series as a vengeful, scorned wife.

A liberty too far by the Netflix drama that otherwise seems to have walked the wobbly tightrope leading from fact to fiction with a certain aplomb.

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