Netflix’s lavish royal family drama “The Crown”, now in its fourth season, turns viewers into amateur historians. (Who of us didn’t rush to Google in the middle of an episode looking for factoids about the Falklands War and Conservative Party struggles?) The acclaimed series takes great liberties with the historical record – but NBC News is here to help you to help separate fact from fiction. Be warned though: spoilers ahead.
Season four of “The Crown” revolves, in part, about the irritable relationship between Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) who served from 1979-1990. “The Crown” plays the differences between the two made up of women highlighting their contrasting styles and alleged differences of opinion on contentious issues of public policy.
But was the real relationship between the private monarch and the arch-conservative leader really that inconsistent? Let’s consult the experts.
Did you argue about political issues?
Three episodes from season four – “Favoriten,” “Fagan” and “48: 1” – strongly suggest Elizabeth’s opposition to Thatcher’s harsh government spending cuts and refusal to impose economic sanctions on the South African apartheid regime. The show shows the Queen politely but firmly confronting the Prime Minister with these questions in private matters and with the “audience” at Buckingham Palace.
In an interview with NBC News, a historian who has authored several biographies of members of the British royal family said it was highly unlikely that Elizabeth challenged “the Iron Lady” directly on any of the Prime Minister’s policy decisions, many of which remain profound to this day divisive.
“The truth is, the Queen has always been conscientious in this audience. She didn’t advise or give her opinion. It’s the last thing she would have done,” said Sally Bedell Smith, author of Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of One modern monarchs. “
“She was raised never to meddle in party politics. It would not mean that she preferred one position or politician to another, even in her conversations with her advisors and friends,” added Smith.
Clive Irving, author of “The Last Queen: Elizabeth II. Seventy Years Struggle to Save the House of Windsor,” agreed that the Queen was not open to verbal skirmishes with prime ministers, saying, “She disliked friction of any kind and advocated consensus . “
Irving, a veteran journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Sunday Times in London, said most of the information about the Queen’s views of her Prime Ministers was “largely hearsay” as little of her private attitudes have been recorded for posterity.
Smith and Irving both observed that Peter Morgan, the creator and lead author of “The Crown,” seemed to base his account of their relationship on a 1986 article in the Sunday Times It set out an alleged rift between the two leaders over political disagreement – a report that Buckingham Palace strongly denied at the time.
“The Crown” shows how this article supposedly came about: Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell), the Queen’s press secretary, tells a reporter that Thatcher’s aggressive austerity and inaction against apartheid upset the Queen. In fact, historians say, Shea’s comments have likely been taken out of context – and perhaps tinted by his own leftist views.
Even so, Elizabeth has been credited with using her influence to pressurize the South African government for its institutionalized racial segregation. For example, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has described her as a “behind the scenes force” helping to end South African apartheid.
“In the case of South Africa, did she work behind the scenes to encourage Nelson Mandela? Yes,” said Smith. “But she did it with her gentle strength. She was never in a confrontational situation with Margaret Thatcher.”
For her part, Thatcher seemed to downplay any tension in the relationship.
“Although the press could not resist the temptation to propose disputes between the Palace and Downing Street, I have always found the Queen’s attitude towards the work of government absolutely correct,” Thatcher wrote in her autobiography. “Of course, stories of ‘two powerful women’ clashes were just too good not to be made up.”
“Chalk and Cheese”
Season four also strongly suggests that Elizabeth and Thatcher lacked natural chemistry, which was very different in terms of personal temperament and worldly interests.
In the second episode, “The Balmoral Test,” Thatcher is portrayed as a humorless workaholic with little patience for socializing. She is focused on reshaping the UK in her own image. In contrast, Elizabeth is portrayed as the consummate woman outdoors who does not fully understand the Prime Minister’s rigid ways.
“It’s fair to say they were spirited, what the British would call chalk and cheese,” said Smith, using a two-person phrase that is superficially similar but different in content. But her one-on-one dynamic was hearty for failure, devoid of the subtextual power maneuvers or the awkwardness that “The Crown” implies, she said.
“They had tremendous respect for one another. Thatcher was always respectful of the queen. She was raised with tremendous awe of the monarchy,” said Smith, adding that a young Thatcher wrote an admiring essay when the queen took the throne in the early 1950s mounted.
Carolyn Harris, a royal historian and author of Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenthood, pointed out that the Queen, who rarely attends funerals, attended Thatcher’s funeral in 2013. (The monarch had not attended the funeral of any of her prime ministers since that of Winston Churchill in 1965, she added.)
For his part, Morgan has said in interviews that he was impressed by the six-month age difference between the two women, adding that they were generational colleagues bound by their sense of duty and strong Christian faith.
“They are both war generation girls who turn off the lights when they leave a room.” Morgan told Vanity Fair in an interview published in September. “But then they had so different ideas about how to run the country.”