Group Gordon’s Carla Pisarro looks at The Crown to assess the role of truth, fiction, and PR in shaping the public perception of popular figures.
As record numbers have turn to streaming services to ride out the pandemic, The Crown’s fourth season – the first to include Princess Diana – has been a blockbuster.
One recent episode shined a spotlight on PR – specifically, the behind-the-scenes work of Michael Shea, the Queen’s press secretary from 1978-1987.
In the show’s depiction, the Queen’s team, in order to publicly register her Highness’s discontent with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to support sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa by leaking her feelings to the media on background. The resulting Sunday Times story, which cited high-level palace aides without attribution, sparked a PR firestorm and even talk of a constitutional crisis.
While the Sunday Times story was real, The Crown has faced backlash for playing fast and loose with recent history. On the show, the Palace immediately fired Shea as a scapegoat in an attempt to distance itself from the story. In reality, Shea remained in his PR position for a year, until he left the Palace for another public affairs job. The editor of the Sunday Times at the time, Andrew Neil, said the sequence of events on The Crown wasn’t how it really happened. Princess Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, commented, “The worry for me is that people see a program like that and they forget that it is fiction. They assume, especially foreigners… they have taken a history lesson. Well, they haven’t.”
The Crown presents an intriguing case study – not just in historical fiction, which always takes liberties with the truth, but also in PR in how popular culture narratives of real events impact the public perceptions of the real people they involve. Prince Charles and Camilla, who come across particularly badly in The Crown’s recent season, turned off comments on their social media posts after Diana fans rallied to denounce them.
Some acclaimed narratives have been accused of being too favorable towards their real-life subjects. The People v. O.J. Simpson prompted criticism from the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, for painting O.J. and his legal team too sympathetically. A Beautiful Mind, a critical and commercial hit in 2001, was accused of ignoring the anti-Semitism and complicated family history of protagonist John Forbes Nash.
Comedic portrayals of real figures can be just as indelible as dramatic ones. When we think back now of Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential candidacy, we remember Tina Fey’s SNL version just as readily as we recall Palin herself.
To be sure, it’s a rarefied problem to have – but how can figures who find themselves the subject of dominant narratives respond? And what responsibility do creators and viewers have?
For figures like Charles and Camilla – whose positions require they remain in the public eye – their best PR bet is to keep showing their commitment to the British public and their causes, without nitpicking the particulars of past events.
Having a sense of humor can help, too, especially for public figures seeking higher office with its guaranteed notoriety. Palin remarked after Fey’s first SNL impersonation that Fey had gotten her physical appearance “spot on.” That good humor contrasted sharply with her critical reaction to the HBO movie Game Change, when she released her own trailer.
And while it’s unrealistic to expect creatives to hew exactly to what happened in real life, they’re not without responsibility. The UK’s culture minister has called for Netflix to include a disclaimer before episodes of The Crown making clear that it’s a work of fiction. Netflix has so far declined, incurring justified accusations of trying to have it both ways, trading on the popular fascination with the royal family while claiming people aren’t looking to the show for verisimilitude.
Viewers too should train a critical lens on the historical fiction we read and watch. The controversy over The Crown’s latest season reminds me of Shakespeare In Love, which came out at the same time my high school English class was reading Romeo and Juliet. Our teacher grew concerned when several students turned in papers recounting the events of Shakespeare in Love as if they’d really happened. The makers of that movie were safe from pushback from the real Shakespeare. But we should all remember that truth is usually stranger and messier than fiction – and that we should check multiple sources for facts along with enjoying our much-needed entertainment.