The Crown production secrets: How the show’s creators make it historically accurate
They’ve admitted they have to make some things up for the sake of drama
Every episode of The Crown is accompanied by a frenzy of Googling. Did the Queen really say that? Did her and Thatcher really not get on? Is Andrew really her favourite? As a show that draws on real things happening to real people, you’d expect The Crown to be accurate. But is The Crown accurate?
It attracts ire from some over its portrayals of the royals and small inaccuracies. One source even called it “trolling with a Hollywood budget.” However, interviews with the show’s creators reveal a painstaking process to make the show live up to the history – even if sacrifices have to be made.
There are hordes of articles fact-checking individual moments. But how do the show’s producers get there? And how much accuracy are they willing to sacrifice for the sake of good drama? Here are the production secrets of The Crown.
The research team produces 500 documents for every series
“The offices of The Crown are almost a newsroom. There are eight to ten researchers at this double bank of computers, with books, a library, everything, and they are working every day, preparing the raw material,” Robert Lacey, a historical consultant on the show, told Town and Country mag.
That raw material consists of a whole host of things. The team will look at original interviews they’ve done with people who were there, press clippings, a library of close to 1,000 books, video archives. Given how well publicised the royals’ movements are, it’s easy enough to figure out who was doing what, and when. They also “religiously” reads newspapers, but had to learn to be more sceptical of tabloids as the series moved into the 1980s.
For the first season, researchers made a “master timeline” and produced a 75 page document outlining what happened during the time period. Then, they went found more detail on whatever showrunner Peter Morgan found interesting about that. In total, Sulzberger estimates the team produces 500 documents for every series.
“There are a dozen books we read every season that everyone attempts to memorize. We visit the British Library or watch documentaries and see who is alive who may be interesting to talk to,” Annie Sulzberger, The Crown’s head of research told Variety.
The aim is to collect all the possible information, to give Morgan the biggest amount of factual material to draw on. Morgan ultimately makes the choice on what to include.
“There may not be a definitive truth, but our job is to pull from both sides and understand those involved,” Oona O’Beirn, a producer on the show, told Vogue.
“If something doesn’t move the plot along, or reveal character, or tell us something relevant about Britain at the time, it doesn’t have a place,” says Sulzberger.
Are the royals involved?
One of the big questions is whether the royals have any say on how they’re portrayed in the show. Rumours swirl that material is sent to the palace, for any offending scenes or dialogue to be given the royal veto and make sure The Crown is accurate. However, the extent of the royals’ actual involvement is slightly less cloak and dagger.
Morgan told The Guardian he said he meets with “people who are very high-ranking and very active within the organisation” to give them the lowdown on what’s coming up. “Respectfully, I tell them what I have in mind, and they brace themselves slightly”.
Of course, we don’t actually know who these sources are – but the palace has denied any direct or official involvement in the series.
“The royal household has never agreed to vet or approve content, has not asked to know what topics will be included, and would never express a view as to the programme’s accuracy,” wrote Donal McCabe, the Queen’s communications secretary, in a letter to the Guardian.
The producers obsess over small details to make sure The Crown is accurate
It’s not just the broad strokes of history that The Crown captures – it’s the minutiae of royal life, the glamour of the palace, and the feel of the historical period. “If there’s background noise needed and it’s a scene in Cabinet meetings, we want to know the agenda for the meeting, who said what. We want everything to be accurate,” Sulzberger told Variety.
This comes out in an obsession with getting small details right to give it an authentic feel. In scenes with Charles’ professor at Aberystwyth, the actor is wearing the real Tedi Millward’s ties, which were given to the show by his daughter. Jackie Kennedy’s comments about the palace in season two are real and come from a memoir by Cecil Beaton. And the producers even went to lengths to make sure Margaret and Elizabeth called their father – “papa” – by the right pet name.
These small details are a result of the painstaking research the producers carry out. “For example, we know Winston Churchill would take a bath while his secretary read to him from the papers, as we depict in the show, because we saw it in a documentary about women who worked for him,” Sulzberger told Time.
And yet, while there’s a crazy attention to detail to make sure The Crown is accurate, some sacrifices get made along the way.
‘I have to join the dots’
The elephant in the room is that plenty of things aren’t recorded. Nobody knows what Philip says to the Queen before bed. Only two people know what was said in Thatcher and the Queen’s private briefings – one of them’s dead, and the other’s hardly likely to spill the beans. For many of the intimate conversations portrayed in The Crown, there’s simply no record. Getting it bang on is impossible. Here, the showrunners’ aim is to plausibly recreate the truth.
“Everybody knows where they were and when – there’s no mystery about it at all,” Morgan said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “But I have to join the dots. And that’s where the act of imagination comes in.
“I can’t say with any degree of certainty that is what happened, but I wouldn’t have done it unless I think there is a pretty good reason for it.”
Take the Mountbatten letter as an example. There’s no evidence of such a letter existing, but Morgan believes it reflects what Mountbatten thought. “I think everything that’s in that letter which Mountbatten writes to Charles is what I really believe, based on everything I’ve read and people I’ve spoken to, that represents his view,” Morgan told the official Crown podcast.
It’s used as a dramatic device to show what the producers believe is something close to the truth: “We will never know if it was put into a letter, and we will never know if Charles got that letter before or after Mountbatten’s death, but in this particular drama, this is how I decided to deal with it.”
Beyond joining the dots and filling in the blanks, there are fudged details – the cabinet wouldn’t have been meeting when news of Mountbatten’s death came in, and Diana’s visit to Balmoral was a year after Thatcher’s, rather than one car after the other.
Still, Morgan insists any deviations are done to make it work as a show, and that the audience “understands a lot of it is conjecture.” Speaking to the New York Times, he continued: “Sometimes there are unavoidable accuracy blips — an event might not have taken place where, or even when, I imagined it did. But I’m absolutely fastidious about there being an underlying truth.”
The Crown season four is available on Netflix now. For all the latest Netflix news, drops and memes like The Holy Church of Netflix on Facebook.