The opening scene of season six of “The Crown” sees a man walking his dog under the light of the Eiffel Tower. It’s 1997 and a Mercedes car speeds past and ends in a horrendous crash in a Paris tunnel. The man’s dog is being recalcitrant and refusing to take its evening wee.
When “The Crown” debuted in 2016, the quality of the story lines, acting and impressive production standards were so striking that millions of viewers discovered the addiction of bingeing a television program; episodes would be viewed on a loop and toilet breaks would be delayed.
Unlike the dog in the first episode of season six, however, I suspect I won’t be alone in being one of the viewers who found it quite easy to hop up and make cups of tea and trips to the loo throughout the four episodes of “The Crown’s” final season.
All about Diana
Season six breaks away from “The Crown’s” formula of royal story lines that depict key moments in the monarchy’s private and public life. Previous seasons followed the same line of representing some aspect of the Windsor’s private upheavals, set alongside the queen’s interactions with her prime minister of the day. Story lines covered decades rather than short time spans; the narrative arc was expansive.
The focus this time round is on Diana’s (Elizabeth Debicki) last summer, a frenzied rush around the south of France and through the streets of Paris with her new paramour, Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla).
The figure of the queen (Imelda Staunton) makes far fewer appearances than in the first five seasons, and by the time we come to 1997, Elizabeth II has all but shrunk into the mist and rain of the Scottish Highlands, outshone by the former daughter-in-law who is living out her last days in the glare of the Mediterranean sun and strobing flashbulbs of the paparazzi press packs.
Prime Minister Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) makes a brief appearance, imploring his sovereign to give her former daughter-in-law a royal role on the international stage.
And then it’s back to Diana and Dodi.
Occasionally, there are glimpses of Charles and Camilla’s life. Charles (Dominic West) holds a 50th birthday party for Camilla (Olivia Williams) that the queen refuses to attend. Charles and the queen stage an awkward conversation about the queen’s formal acceptance of Camilla as the most important woman in his life.
Princes William (Rufus Kampa) and Harry (Fflyn Edwards) are the pawns in their parents’ post-divorce jostling for media attention.
Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) appears as the only royal to have met some acceptance of her royal lot in life, and Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) appears on the sidelines, merely bewildered by the travelling media circus that is Diana’s post-royal life.
And then it’s back to Diana and Dodi.
A pale comparison
The switch from public/private Windsor story lines to a focus on Diana makes for far less arresting viewing than previous seasons. The irony is that it is screenwriter – and the show’s creator – Peter Morgan himself who has jeopardized this period of “The Crown” by already having done it better in “The Queen” (2006) directed by Stephen Frears.
“The Queen,” starring Helen Mirren as the queen, is set during the week following Diana’s death in Paris and charts the royal family’s faltering navigation of the Windsor “brand” through the seismic shift in public perceptions of the royals during that week.
Morgan’s screenplay was made especially effective by having Diana not appear as a fully fleshed character in the film; instead, she is a pixelated, mediated figure glimpsed on television screens and through the zoom lens of a thousand cameras.
In “The Queen,” Diana is literally a visual representation: an image so large in the public imagination that her likeness eclipses both the figure of the sovereign and the royal institution itself.
Having already produced in “The Queen” an original and complex portrayal of how Diana was instrumental in changing the royal house forever, Morgan had backed himself into a corner. Here there seems apparently little option than to tell the story again in the form of an overly detailed, unimaginative soap opera.
Worse, he chooses to tell the story this time around by having Diana appear as a ghost who has conversations with both Charles and the queen about how much they can learn from her legacy.
All the actors do their best (Debicki does the heavy lifting) and the costumes are spot on. You just know that the biscuits and tea that the actors are drinking are the real thing, and it’s only the scotch whiskies the characters slug back on luxury yachts and at Balmoral that are substituted by iced tea.
It was, however, by the stage of Diana’s first ghost appearance in the final episode, Aftermath, that my cups of tea had turned into vodka martinis and the trips to the loo were becoming more frequent – even when I didn’t need to go.
The Crown season six, part one, is on Netflix now.