As the world braces itself for the fourth season of The Crown, there is one person who we can safely assume isn’t looking forward to it as much as the rest of us. Prince Charles.
Covering the years from Lord Mountbatten’s assassination in 1979 to Margaret Thatcher’s fall in 1990, the series makes for wonderful, juicy, gossipy drama.
The future King comes across as a self-pitying, self-obsessed – and Camilla Parker Bowles-obsessed – figure. He is portrayed as ruthlessly dismissive of Diana right from the beginning of their 1981 marriage, with only a brief honeymoon period on a royal tour of Australia in 1983.
As this new season begins, Prince Charles has wisely said nothing about it. Instead this week, he wrote the cover story in the new issue of Country Life. In it, he talked movingly about the decline of wild salmon, the plummeting price of wool and “threatened red squirrels collecting their hazelnuts”.
His other outing this week, at Dumfries House, was to promote his new eco-friendly clothing collection, The Modern Artisan, where cutting-edge technology meets ancient skills like ruching and hand-smocking. These aren’t new passions. His love for the environment and British craft has always been deeply felt. He’s been mocked for his eco-credentials and talking to his plants, but now plenty of his critics admit he may have been ahead of his time.
Of course, it’s another passion that gets the airtime in The Crown – his affair with Camilla. We see him ringing her day in, day out during his first marriage, causing huge distress to his young wife. As Diana struggles, we watch Charles and Camilla acting as an unofficial couple in 1980s Gloucestershire, regaling a house party of drunken, appreciative friends with blue jokes.
The only time the Prince is shown celebrating his love of nature is when he builds a walled garden and a sundial garden at Highgrove – and even then the Queen, as played by Olivia Colman, dismisses it all as a rich trustafarian’s self-indulgent plaything.
The Queen (Olivia Colman) and Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) in The Crown season four
Of course, Charles has his undoubted faults and these are laid out in full view in the new season of The Crown; particularly the need for praise and affirmation that Princess Diana never gave him and Camilla supplies in spades. I was once told by one of Charles’s advisers, now long dead, that, when he politely disagreed with him over an architectural matter, the Prince moaned: “I don’t see the point of having advisers who disagree with me.”
Few too would dispute the Prince’s marriage to Diana was anything other than an unmitigated disaster, and The Crown captures every gory detail. Diana was just 19 when they got engaged. The 13-year age difference was made worse by their different characters – she in love with the young and the present; he with the old and the past. As Princess Anne puts it in the drama, “the age gep” was in fact an “age chesm”.
Any decent writer, like The Crown’s Peter Morgan, has to cherry-pick the tragedies and the stars of the show. And, in real life, Princess Diana shone brighter than any Royal since the Queen dazzled at her 1953 Coronation. Justifiably then, all eyes in The Crown will be on Diana, just as they were during her marriage to Charles, which caused him such pain at his marginalisation.
Emma Corrin and Josh O’Connor as Princess Diana and Prince Charles in The Crown
Josh O’Connor does a brilliant impression of the Prince, with his furrowed brow, magnified self-deprecation and manic twiddling of his signet ring. But it is Diana who steals the show, in the shape of the actress playing her, Emma Corrin. With her heart-shaped face and ability to imitate Diana’s accent and heart-melting way of looking upwards from under those fluttering, Kohl-drenched eyelids, Corrin captivates from her first appearance.
Her clothes, too, are perfect; the unflashy V-neck jerseys and the pussy bows of the shy, pre-engagement Lady Di. Then come the Grand Sloane Outfit on her engagement interview, THAT wedding dress and the triumphant ballgowns and slinky black numbers of her 1980s pomp.
The latest season is essentially a portrait of a terrible marriage. Would any ill-matched and badly thought-out starter marriage – Royal or non-Royal – which subsequently falls apart stand up to scrutiny?
The more nuanced view of Charles – a shy, awkward man misunderstood by his parents – we saw in earlier seasons of The Crown has all but disappeared. Instead, we have a retelling of a specific, short time in his life, which seems far removed from the man who turns 72 on November 14. A grandfather of four, happily married to the Duchess of Cornwall for over 15 years, he has proved that he is more than capable of building a complementary and stable marriage.
The Prince of Wales celebrates his 72nd birthday on November 14
It’s striking that Charles was married to Diana, too, for 15 years before their divorce. But, in essence, their marriage, in the real sense of the term as a convincing union, only really lasted for three years, from their 1981 wedding to the birth of Prince Harry in 1984.
The Duchess of Cornwall is now 73 and, together, they have managed to create a solid, mutually devoted partnership against the odds. They are dedicated to work projects as much as their family – Camilla by all accounts dotes on her five grandchildren.
She too has come a long way since she was pelted with bread rolls in her local supermarket for being The Other Woman. For years, the feeling was that she could never marry the Prince, even once they were both divorced. There are still lingering feelings that she shouldn’t be Queen – though that opinion is in decline, too.
She has had a successful lockdown, highlighting the problems of loneliness and domestic violence during the pandemic. She’s also adept at not taking things too seriously. On the few brief occasions I’ve met her, she has an utterly ungrand, unpompous, conspiratorial, jokey manner – a side to her the public is seeing more and more.
In his seventies, the Prince, too, remains unrelenting in his commitment to those causes closest to him. The Prince’s Trust, the charity for vulnerable young people, which he founded in 1976, is arguably more needed than ever. The organic farming dream he began in Highgrove is now much emulated. In The Crown, Highgrove is simply damned by Diana because it’s so close to Camilla’s Gloucestershire home.
Of course, this was a chapter of Charles’s personal life that didn’t show him at his best – a fairytale-turned-nightmare that certainly makes for good drama. But how harrowing it must be for William and Harry to see the disastrous collapse of their parents’ marriage played out in 10 hour-long episodes for the country and the world to gorge on as entertainment. Just as they are trying to forge their own paths in life, the dark clouds of their childhood loom into view once more.
Much reconciliation has gone on since then between father and sons. At the Duke of Sussex’s wedding, Prince Charles offered to escort Meghan Markle down the aisle after her father pulled out of attending the wedding, for which Harry said he was “very grateful”. And he has been gradually settling Prince William into his future role as Duke of Cornwall, following in his father’s footsteps.
As the closing episodes of The Crown season four show Charles and Diana in meltdown, we all know what happens next. But we also need to remember the story doesn’t end there.
How England Made the English by Harry Mount is available from Telegraph Books. Buy now for £9.99 or call 0844 851 1514
Series four of The Crown is available on Netflix from November 15