[This story contains spoilers from season six, part one of The Crown.]
For five seasons, The Crown has been lauded by critics and viewers alike. But as the royal drama’s depiction of historical events has inched closer to audiences’ recent lived memories, the series has come under scrutiny for its portrayals of the monarchy and dramatization of particular storylines.
Last year, Netflix added a disclaimer to the description of the trailer for season five on its YouTube channel that described the series as a “fictional dramatization,” a result of criticism from Dame Judi Dench saying The Crown “seems willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism.” The clarification, according to the show’s head of research, Annie Sulzberger, is unnecessary.
“I simply think that the audience is smarter than that,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter in the conversation below. “We’ve never pitched ourselves as a documentary. We’re trying to show this country, these institutions, these people in a way that humanizes them and that gives us a little insight into our own culture. I don’t think it’s been misleading in the slightest.”
Upon the release of part one of the sixth and final season of The Crown on Nov. 14, new questions arose around the accuracy of details around the relationship between Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and Dodi Fayed (played by Khalid Abdalla) — from the romance being instigated by Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed (played by Salim Daw), to the billionaire also hiring paparazzi to photograph the young pair while they were on vacation in the French Riviera during the summer of 1997.
“They [Diana and Dodi] never managed to have time to go on the record about their relationship. So what we relied upon was not the news media at the time in 1997, but the witness testimonies in Operation Paget [the inquiry report into the allegation of conspiracy to murder Diana] and the coroner’s inquest that came out much later — 2006 and 2008 — because in those, you heard from her best friends who had just gotten off the phone with her,” explains Sulzberger.
“We were able to get into her mental state very easily, and I think with a lot of accuracy through those testimonies that were vetted by the [British] Met police as being accurate. The same is actually true for Dodi,” she adds. “There were a few people vetted by the inquiry as being honest witnesses to his behavior in those weeks. We felt those accounts gave us a really nice solid foundation.”
Being able to access such archives like the Paget papers and the CCTV footage of Dodi and Diana at The Ritz hotel in Paris before their fatal car crash, and interrogate them to find throughlines and craft a story, is an art form in and of itself, Sulzberger maintains.
“We’re quite proud of all these nuggets we’ve been able to glean from very good research. And then when we present it, it’s sort of taken as blasphemy,” she says. “I hope people understand this is much more of an art. And we do an incredibly solid investigative job.”
Suzanne Mackie told THR in a prior interview that if creator/writer Peter Morgan were ever straying too far away from the truth with his writing, the research team would reel him back in, but that there are also creative decisions to be made. Can you talk about toeing the line between fact and fiction in The Crown?
Our tactic of how we approach the show is always from a point of research first. Peter will never come to us and say, “I want a story to go this way.” We are always leading, and we have robust discussions about how comfortable we feel with deviations if we need to have them. Sometimes we want to move something into another timeline because together, thematically, it’s a really beautiful episode. And I think those tend to be rather smooth discussions. But we will always have discussions about the honesty of the character that we have set forth so it’s not just being accurate and truthful to history, but also to what we’ve established in our show.
You have to stick to the biographies you’ve built up and the character traits of the people you’ve established. So the nice thing with Peter is that it’s a very democratic process. There’s a lot of us. I’m sure Suzanne told you there are like five people on my team, I think seven on the editorial team, and then Peter and Suzanne. It’s a very robust group; very opinionated. And we really just try to work through, “Okay, if we are going to take creative license, could that be rooted in something else we’ve learned about a character?”
For example, in season three, Phillip’s Apollo 11 kind of midlife crisis episodes are based on his own writings about faith and, how do you ensure that science and faith can continue to move on hand in hand? The big questions that he’s asking around this time, to us, instill a sense that he’s clearly going through something kind of existential. Now we don’t know if he was as wrapped in the Apollo 11 mission as we show him to be. But to us, because the Apollo 11 mission kind of manifested this human ambition as an entire world — our ambition to see something outside of ourselves to get a new view and a new perspective — we felt this was the kind of person who would actually put some kind of personal importance on an event like that, and be exhilarated by the scientific advancement and what it means for faith. And, can you be a man of science and still be a man of God?
So we have really robust discussions like that, where we come to the conclusions that: Yes, we are comfortable with deviating here because we still feel it’s rooted in the character as we have come to understand it.
With Dodi and Diana’s relationship, there have been questions and criticisms about the portrayal in season six. How did you choose to frame their union in the way you did?
They never managed to have time to go on the record about their relationship. So what we relied upon was not the news media at the time in 1997, but the witness testimonies in Operation Paget and the coroner’s inquest that came out much later —2006 and 2008— because in those, you heard from her best friends who had just gotten off the phone with her. She said to one of her friends, Annabel Goldsmith, “I need marriage like a rash on the face.” A very definitive declaration of where she was in her relationship, and what she wanted to focus on.
She wanted to do more work and less of the kind of potential frivolity that you would call that kind of summer. More time with her sons and less time away from them. We were able to get into her mental state very easily, and I think with a lot of accuracy through those testimonies that were vetted by the Met police as being accurate. And the same is actually true for Dodi. There were a few people vetted by the inquiry as being honest witnesses to his behavior in those weeks. We felt those accounts gave us a really nice solid foundation.
And then from there, it’s about, as we do with a lot of these pairings, understanding, what are their similarities, what are their differences? Before the proposal, they both talk a little bit of feeling neglected as children. That genuinely comes from their own shared experience. His neglect was very different. He was literally forced to cut off contact with his mother’s side of the family at one point, and he was dropped off at an uncle’s house for his father to go make his fortune abroad. So, he was literally neglected. I think that’s at the age of 6.
Diana’s mother was driven out of the house. And she was forced to live with a stepmother who did not like her, and she did not like her stepmother. And she spent a lot of her time trying to please her father for attention and love. Even going to the point, I think, where she would say, part of my reason for marrying Charles was certainly my father would have approved of this. So a lot of our research came down to that — understanding their backgrounds, what have they said about their childhoods?
Luckily, Diana has gone on the record with Andrew Morton in the book they wrote together, so we understand a lot of that. And trying to create that tenderness that we can see between them in the CCTV footage and things like that, where you see there’s a comfort and an intimacy between them that helped lead us in the direction of, how does this relationship feel from the inside?
Photographer Mario Brenna has disputed the depiction that Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed, asks him to take the photo of Dodi and Diana on the yacht while vacationing. What did the research show on your end?
So yes, I know he’s disputed that. There are really kind of three theories. Mario said before that he spontaneously came upon them in the middle of the Mediterranean. That, to us, felt a little coincidental. And his story has also changed slightly with how he sold the photographs in his relationship with Jason Frazier.
Jason Frazier was the sort of middleman photographer who, according to Jason — and Jason was a paid consultant on the Naomi Watson film — he hired Mario himself, sent him out there on Diana’s request and Diana got him the coordinates. So again, this goes against Mario’s own story. So that’s another version.
The version we felt was the most credible — that had been published by historians that we trusted, and by investigative journalists as well, and was repeated by the bodyguards more frequently who were there on the Jonikal [yacht] — was simply that Al-Fayed used his media connections to promote the relationship. We know he hired Max Clifford early into the relationship to focus on Dodi and Diana and press coverage. And that through Max Clifford the coordinates were given to a paparazzi. Max Clifford himself has admitted to us that he would often give out the coordinates of the Jonikal to the paparazzi. So when it came to doing legal notes, you can imagine that our outside counsel was less impressed by the Brenna version and more impressed by the one that was substantiated by multiple sources. So we went with the one that perhaps felt the most credible.
As a result of Judi Dench’s criticisms of the series last year, Netflix added a fictional dramatization disclaimer to The Crown. Did you feel that that was warranted?
I think the way that I respond to that is, if that’s going to happen to our show, then the recent five-part series on Boris Johnson should’ve had that. The recent piece about Brexit should have that. Every movie about Margaret Thatcher should have that. It would mean that we cannot tell a contemporary story that helps us reflect on our society in any way whatsoever, without any artistic creativity involved, without that disclaimer.
I believe Judi Dench has participated in many projects that would fall into that category as well. And, where do you stop? Do you say that, actually, if it’s in the 19th century, it’s far enough away from us that you don’t need this? Or the 1980s? All of a sudden, it becomes: We have to individualize how we watch programs. I just don’t think that’s necessary. I also simply think that the audience is smarter than that. We’ve never pitched ourselves as a documentary. We’re trying to show this country, these institutions, these people in a way that humanizes them and that gives us a little insight into our own culture. I don’t think it’s been misleading in the slightest.
When it came to this final season in particular, was it harder or easier to piece together stories that exist in recent history?
I say this a lot, you have more access to information and that’s great, but that information needs to be vetted much more carefully. You have to really understand what the source material is, what the relationships are between the source and the author. You need to understand a whole new level of dynamics between the members of the royal family and the media, or Al-Fayed, for example, and the media, before you can present anything really as a viable story option.
What you’re finally butting up against is collective memory. If you were alive when Diana died, you might remember it a certain way because you were overwhelmed with emotion. It doesn’t mean it actually happened that way. And because our team is here to literally investigate every nook and cranny of available material, we’re taking stuff from 2008 that informs 1997. Ninety-nine percent of the public will not have gone online to read the coroner’s inquest report to find out what the true story was, rather than the story spun by various members to the media.
So it’s funny because we’re quite proud of all these nuggets we’ve been able to glean from very good research. And then when we present it, it’s sort of taken as blasphemy. And you’re like, “No, no, no, no — this is all meant to greater inform our understanding of events and the individuals.” So I hope people understand this is much more of an art. And we do an incredibly solid investigative job. But we then want to make you feel things, and we want to present things to you in a way that informs character and humanizes everybody. That’s done with very good intention.
Have you received any direct feedback from the royal family about any seasons of the series?
We have, but I don’t feel like it’s my right to pass on that feedback.