King Charles looks suspicious in ‘The Crown’ season 5
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Answer honestly: would you be willing to be a Tampax branded tampon, allowed only eight to ten hours of one-time physical contact with the person you love the most, if that was what it took to be with them? Would you agree to this deal, understanding the reality of a tampon’s situation: getting thrown in the trash or just “running on top of the toilet forever”, “never coming down”? Sorry, but I don’t think you love anyone that much. Do you know who does? And who had the courage of his convictions to say it loud and clear? King Charles III, who in a 1989 phone call complained it would be ‘just his luck’ to be reincarnated as a tampon next to the panties of his then mistress and now wife, Queen Consort Camilla . When records of the phone call leaked in 1993, the episode known as ‘Tampongate’ (or ‘Camillagate’, whichever you prefer) emerged as a sharp embarrassment in a decade full of royal scandals – a moment among many that the British monarchy probably didn’t want to see re-enacted on Netflix The crown.
The show’s fifth season spans from 1991 to 1997, or Charles’ controversial divorce from Princess Diana, and for weeks before its release today, palace aides and the king himself are said to have been fuming over its content potential. Members of the royal family are said to have “acted to protect the king’s reputation” and the newfound popularity he enjoyed during his difficult first days on the throne. Former prime ministers John Major (who also chaired a party mired in ‘dirt’ during this period, although conveniently for him the writers deleted all mention of these incidents from the plot) and Tony Blair hit back at misrepresentations of recent history. Dame Judi Dench has publicly pleaded for a warning to be added clarifying that The crown is “fictitious”, apparently concerning that some viewers – especially those from “overseas”, a group that includes entire countries filled with people not subject to the jurisdiction of the monarchy – may not realize that they watch an actor-directed TV drama rather than a spicy documentary. But I’m not sure Charles needs to worry. In a season that often feels like a warmed up reading of The Chronicles of DianaCharles once again benefits from a portrait of rare sympathy.
When confirming season five would cover Tampongate, Charles actor Dominic West said he and co-star Olivia Williams approached the subject with empathy — just “two middle-aged lovers being nice to each other,” he said. The Guardian, then see their intimate exchange splash on the front pages of newspapers around the world and made available for a nominal fee on special helplines. “Imagine how awful that is,” West correctly added. “It just strikes you as a horrific invasion of privacy that no one should have to go through.”
That’s what Tampongate has always been: a blatant excess of over-hungry media who, years later, would be arrested for hacking into the royal phones and publishing their findings. While the palace and some of the audience were horrified by the contents of the buffer when they exited, the actual conversation is chaste. Charles and Camilla don’t even discuss phone sex. They joke, they laugh, they indulge in their own bizarre humor and a shared melancholy of not being able to hang around all the time. What stands out, and what would have hurt Diana when she read the transcripts, is how much they adore each other. The crownPrincess Anne of , played by Claudia Harrison, consoles her brother that, although the exchange was a little “gynecological” for her taste, Charles and Camilla “seemed gloriously human and entirely in love”. She adds: “For that alone, you deserve some credit, in this particular family.”
Since the introduction of an adult Charles in season three, The crown tried to give him credit. He took a humanizing approach to the character, bringing to life a lonely childhood with preoccupied and distant parents, a miserable stint at a Scottish boarding school, a thwarted shot at true love, an arranged marriage to a teenager he doesn’t didn’t really know, and a perpetual obligation to put aside his relatively progressive views on the country and do his duty in silence. The telegraph called The crown “the best PR he ever had” even as Charles himself chafed at factual inaccuracies. During the show’s third season, the framing of his pre-investiture stint at Aberystwyth University in Wales reportedly enraged him; in the fifth season, I imagine that’s the suggestion that he once considered staging a coup based on a single public opinion poll. That’s what pissed off ex-Prime Minister Major, anyway, calling the imaginary conversation a “barrel of nonsense”. If Charles had ever toyed with his mother’s overthrow, it would indeed have been a betrayal, so you can see where he might be annoyed. The record reflects that the current king has never done more than voice his opinions (ad nauseam and sometimes directly to political leaders in letters The Guardian described as “political demands”) on how he thought the country could be run better. The crown is not the only drama to portray Charles as eager to portray himself as the modern monarchical alternative – please see 2006 The Queen to learn more about it – but few others go to such lengths to help you see his side of things.
In a season primarily focused on Elizabeth Debicki’s Princess Diana, Charles really only has one episode going for him. It starts with Tampongate and ends with a promotion for his youth charity, the Prince’s Trust, which “has helped 1million young people realize their potential and brought in almost £1.4billion in value to the society”. That’s according to the epilogue note, which plays to a shot of Charles de West joining a break-dancing circle and having fun for the crowd. In between, we see him advocating for reforms such as “ending the ban on eldest daughters inheriting the throne” and making the monarchy self-funding and focused on the environment, ideas that inspire no interest in the crispiest members of his family.
But by the time we get to the break-dancing montage (a real thing that happened in 1985; here’s some footage for posterity), the episode risks looking like a monarchist commercial, not least because of the facts, he is wrong. Take the then-Prince’s interview with Jonathan Dimbleby in 1994, one in which he admitted to cheating on Princess Diana after the marriage “broken down irretrievably.” Unlike the rambling and inconsistent framing of Camilla as a “great friend” that Charles gave, a snippet of which you can see here, Charles de West navigates confidently through the pared down version of his response. In The crown, the segment is billed as successful enough for Charles to think he can start his own court. Not so in reality. In the 90s, the adultery confession eclipsed almost everything Charles said in the segment. “In one fell swoop, he wiped out all the goodwill he had built up over 12 months,” royal biographer Brian Hoey told The New York Times. Time during a screening of the interview. The tabloids gave Diana a win, while around two-thirds of the British public (according to a poll) saw the disclosure as disqualifying Charles from future work. “He is not the first royal to be unfaithful. Far from it,” read one DailyMirror item, according to Time. “But he is the first to appear before 25 million of his subjects to confess.”
None of this is to say that Charles deserves a hatchet job, just that The crown applies a predictable glossy shine to his reputation. He largely ignores her allegedly explosive temper except in situations where rage might be warranted – damning her for Diana Panorama say it all, for example, draws punches from West. But this Charles doesn’t smother his valets, defenestrate furniture during arguments, or travel with his personal toilet seat, as his real-life counterpart would have. No one squeezes this man’s toothpaste from him, and no one gets bored on a faulty pen. This Charles is portrayed by his own fictional family as a formidably strong leader and forward thinker rather than the quibbling author of whiny complaints that some biographers have conjured up.
If Charles lost his divorce from Diana in the real world, he arguably wins it here – Debicki’s bizarre Diana tackles the princess’ (justifiable) paranoia, vanity and petulance in a portrait without doubt more true to life than West’s. Fiction can also work in favor of the monarchy, and this is undoubtedly The crownit is Biggest Tip: By guessing the feelings and motivations behind people that most audiences can never really know, it creates an impressive degree of relatability for remote multi-millionaires. It successfully positions an astonishing inherited privilege as a burden, allowing the viewer to understand how bad it must be to exist as cogs in ancient machines, always having to put their feelings, opinions and desires into play. service of an ideal. The obligation to impassivity while the press presents the members of your family as “actors in a royal soap opera”, to quote the New York Time, probably grids. But public scrutiny is part of being a public figure. If the Royal Family’s goal is continued relevance, a high-production soap opera is probably preferable to tabloid churning. I imagine Charles hopes to one day move on from his mortifying menstrual ode, but he should be grateful The crown doesn’t. It’s the most endearing he’s ever watched, break-dancing included.