The Crown is like an audiovisual Rorschach test: whatever your political leanings, you’ll probably find something in it that reflects your worldview.
If you’re a committed Royalist, you’ll enjoy it as the story of a group of flawed but ultimately honourable people, good eggs and decent sorts doing their best to fulfil their duties under challenging circumstances. If you’re a republican, you might appreciate it as a critique of the monarchy’s rigid authoritarianism and social backwardness. Or you might just enjoy, as I do, watching characters you hate suffer in glamorous locations around the world.
The show’s depiction of Margaret Thatcher looks set to be just as polarising. The announcement that Gillian Anderson would be joining the cast in the role of the UK’s first female Prime Minister prompted some distress among her most vocal fans, many of whom are queer and left-wing. The fact that Anderson was playing one of the left’s greatest folk demons felt like a betrayal, and lots of people were worried that they might even end up inadvertently attracted to Thatcher – which, even for the most sexually progressive, was a kink too far.
For the sake of transparency: I do not like Margaret Thatcher. So the question I’m posing in this article, “How well does The Crown portray Thatcher?” translates to, “To what extent does The Crown accurately depict her as a historic villain who changed Britain irrevocably for the worse?”
It turns out it’s not quite as sympathetic a portrayal as Anderson’s horny left-wing fans had feared, succeeding in some places and failing in others. Let’s take a closer look.
This – the most superficial aspect – is mostly pretty good. The Crown is one of the most expensive TV shows of all time, and you can tell from the quality of the hair, make-up and wardrobe. However, as with the outrageously handsome Josh O’Connor playing Prince Charles, Gillian Anderson is simply too good-looking to play Thatcher.
She also, despite being a very good actor, is consistently, unintentionally hilarious. The whole thing feels like an extended SNL sketch, or Thatcher playing the Wicked Queen in a regional panto. She gets the voice almost right, quavering and wheezy like a broken reed instrument, but it’s all a little too much. She does manage to capture Thatcher’s essence of being an absolute fucking weirdo, though, which I suppose is the main thing.
THATCHER’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE QUEEN
One of the most unintentionally hilarious aspects of The Crown is the Queen’s tendency to criticise right-wingers, whether that’s union-busting politicians or her own snobbish family members. Olivia Colman, who has portrayed Elizabeth since Season 3, has said, “I think the Queen is a leftie,” which… I find hard to believe. It’s not surprising, then, that the Queen is portrayed here as a kind of bleeding heart foil to Thatcher’s right-wing extremist.
When the series was released yesterday, lots of people on social media were mocking the idea that it portrayed Thatcher as a “girl boss” feminist; that is, as a facile symbol of female empowerment. This is one criticism I can confidently say is unfounded: it is the Queen, not Thatcher, who is “the girl boss”.
When they first meet, the Queen tries to make small talk and finds Thatcher isn’t having any of it. “I have found woman in general tend not to be suited to high office,” she wheezes. “They become too emotional.” Not missing a beat, the Queen claps back, feminist-ly, “I don’t think you’ll have that trouble with me.”
THATCHER’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE WIDER ROYAL FAMILY
Episode two centres around a trip Thatcher takes to Balmoral, not long after becoming Prime Minister, during which all of the Royals are incredibly rude to her. It reminded me of that video of Theresa May scuttling around anxiously at an EU summit, failing to get anyone to speak to her, stretched out into an excruciating hour of telly.
If there’s one thing that could make me feel a twinge of sympathy for Margaret Thatcher – more than the Meryl Streep film where she has dementia – it’s the prospect of spending a weekend playing parlour games with the kind of posh English people who call their mother “mummy” well into adulthood. Having to be subjected to the guffaws of the aristocracy, in an enclosed space, with no escape, is something I would not wish on my worst enemy. It’s still not quite enough to forgive her for Section 28, though.
The problems at Balmoral arise largely because Thatcher cannot understand the fusty old protocols by which the Royals abide. She comes downstairs in an evening gown at 6PM (far too early), causing the whole Royal family to gasp in horror at this frightful faux-pas. Failing to pack any shoes for a week in the countryside, she arrives at a hunting expedition wearing a blue-power suit and kitten heels, like the heroine of a straight-to-Netflix rom-com about a high-strung businesswoman who relocates to the countryside. Rather than falling in love with a hunky farmer and “finding herself”, however, she just gets screamed at by Princess Margaret for sitting in the wrong chair.
I saw a few people on Twitter saying, “I can’t believe the Royals are so awful that even I, an incorrigible old leftie, feel sorry for Thatcher,” to which I would say: Netflix are playing you. You sympathise with her because they want you to – they’re telling a specific story, not offering a window into reality. All humans have their vulnerabilities, but that doesn’t mean you owe any sympathy to a politician who damaged the country in ways it’s yet to recover from.
THATCHER’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE REST OF SOCIETY
The Crown sets up a conflict between Thatcher – provincial and lower-middle class – and the aristocracy. This is a narrative Thatcher believed herself, and one that forms an important part of the mythology surrounding her. At one point, watching the Highland Games, Anderson-as-Thatcher says of the Royals, “I’m struggling to find any redeeming features to these people at all… they aren’t sophisticated or cultured or elegant or anything close to an ideal.” She then makes a solemn vow to take down the upper classes, once and for all…
Overall, there’s little in The Crown’s portrayal of Thatcher you can imagine her objecting to (lots of her fans have enthusiastically embraced it). She did see herself as an anti-establishment figure. She was a moderniser, ushering in a new era of neoliberal capitalism that was quite different to the conservatism that preceded it – a rupture we’re still suffering the effects of 40 years later. But the idea that she was an avenging angel of the lower classes is absurd. Many of these same aristocrats she’s supposedly railing against ended up considerably richer and more powerful by the end of the 1980s, as a direct result of her policies.
Not only that, but the Thatcher era saw a resurgence of cultural poshness. There was Laura Ashley and the Sloane Ranger aesthetic, Hugh Grant and the Merchant Ivory films, the 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited and the foppish young men who dressed like its characters. The idea that either Thatcher herself or Thatcherism at large was hostile to the aristocracy is ridiculous.
Thatcher’s son is depicted as a smarmy, arrogant little mummy’s boy. Finally, a bit of historical accuracy!
Obviously, The Crown Season 4 is too sympathetic to Thatcher and pushes some pretty conservative narratives about who she was, what she did and why. But it’s still hardly a glowing endorsement of the woman, and I’m not sure that being anti-Thatcher would impede you from enjoying the show.
The moral of the story: don’t look for historical accuracy in a Netflix soap opera about how we should all feel sorry for the Royal Family.