The multi-award-winning stage adaptation of Billy Elliot remains the kind of crossover hit hardly seen in the theatre world. Running for ten years in London’s West End with numerous ongoing international productions. (in a normal non-Covid world.) Its story might be fictional but it is set against the real backdrop of the 1984-85 miners strike. One of the big themes in both the book from original screenwriter Lee Hall and the music and lyrics by Elton John relates to how the central mining community is affected by and stands up against the Thatcher era of UK politics. The second act opens at the miners annual Christmas party. The miners sing a musical number using Christmas scenarios to illustrate how their industry is under threat from the Conservative government at the time. Its structure both lyrically and musically resembles any number of drunken pub sing-alongs. The title and central idea of the song are summed up best in the central chorus.
So Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher
May God’s love be with you
We all sing together in one breath
Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher
We all celebrate today
Cos it’s one day closer to your death.
Elton John even recorded his own take on the song.
Will certain audience members see this in bad taste. Yes. Is it potentially defamatory (especially given that it was written and performed whilst Thatcher we still alive.) Yes. That said it’s grounded in a core of historical context using fictional characters to spotlight the hardship real mining communities were going through at the time. What happens when a writer and creative team extend a similar principle not only towards a newly performed incarnation of Margaret Thatcher but to the extended Royal family. The majority of the people depicted are still alive and kicking. This takes us on to The Crown.
When at its best Peter Morgans royal drama is one of the best streaming shows around. The first generation with Claire Foy and Matt Smith in the title rolls was especially terrific. Beyond the very handsome and expensive production and strong performances, Morgan and his team could always find the compelling interpersonal relationship drama complementing the standard event focus viewers might see in lesser dramas of its type. The third season stumbled somewhat. The core strengths from a production point of view were still there but there was a shift in the writing and structure towards mostly event dramatization focus. The season had some highpoints (the dramatization of the Aberfan coal disaster)but was something of a disappointment overall. The recently released fourth season brings viewers to a point in the narrative where a large chunk of the audience will have been alive to experience these events. How does this affect the show?
The short answer is that it doesn’t. The presence of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana the season results in a renewed sense of focus and reformation of the shows core strengths. In several ways, this is the same show it always was. The season once again finds the proverbial sweet spot between interpersonal dramas and event dramatization very effectively. Gillian Anderson’s Thatcher is particularly Superb. Like with John Lithgow’s Churchill in season one viewers can hear a little bit of Anderson’s natural voice oh in some of her line deliveries. That said a combination of excellent costume design and real commitment in Anderson’s performance to bringing Thatches ice queen persona to life on screen. Emma Conan is solid as Diana. Morgans scripts do a good job at showcasing her transition from bubbly teenager to Peoples Princess as the years pass. There is one critical new factor that at this point has not been mentioned when assessing the season both from a dramatic and historical point of view.
The first three seasons, on the whole, went massively critical of the Royals on an interpersonal level or as an institution. All of this gets thrown out the window in the newest season. Not only have the creative team adopted a much darker tone where no member of the Windsor’s comes out of these 10 episodes looking good. From a dramatic perspective, this was an unexpected but welcome pivot Viewers could certainly argue some of the material in the season borders on defamatory but like with the song from Billy Elliot the musical this show uses a blend of reality and fiction to effectively shine a light on these events for future generations. The show has never framed itself as entirely historically accurate but has always used an undeniable skeleton of history. This is especially true fur the Diana centric side of the season. For as much as some of the material in the season maybe infantilised the relationship between Charles, Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles is one of the most well documented in Royal history. If watching the season shines a light on these events for future generations and encourages them to do their research this is only a good thing. There were no ways the creatives couldn’t drama ties at least some of this material without making Charles look awful (future King of England or otherwise.) Audiences should always be aware they’re watching a level of constructed reality when looking at a highly produced drama like this. This show was always going to get to this point in its narrative. From a purely dramatic perspective, it’s handled very effectively.
Whatever ethical debates surround the portrayal of the Royals in the Crown given the much darker more critical tone of the fourth season) his season represents a solid return to form. The narrative may be inching closer towards the present day but the show maintains strong core principles. The blend of reality and fiction backed up by the skeleton of history allows future generations to learn about the bullet points of these events in an engaging way. Regardless of the questions of reality VS fiction, this season’s insane popularity worldwide is a win for a quality drama that should be celebrated.
Season 4 rating. 8.5/10