‘The Crown’: The History Behind Season 3 on Netflix


The third season of “The Crown,” Netflix’s opulent show about Queen Elizabeth II’s reign and family, kicks off with an episode called “Olding.” The title refers to both the queen’s reaching middle age and to a spy scandal at the heart of the British establishment, a blending of the royals’ private lives and state affairs that continues throughout the season’s other nine episodes.

Opening in 1964 and taking viewers into the ’70s, Season 3 follows Elizabeth as she leads her country and family through a series of crises. As in previous seasons, the script imagines many private conversations and scenes of which there is no historical record. But The New York Times covered the real-life events that provide the backbone to each episode.

Here’s how the history behind the fiction was covered. You can explore more in the TimesMachine archive browser. (Warning: This feature contains spoilers for all 10 episodes of Season 3.)

“Old bat” are the first words we hear from Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth, spoken as she inspects a new portrait of herself. This austere profile, betraying no emotion but designed to convey a sense of majesty, marked the queen’s transition from a young princess to a settled monarch. It mirrors the queen’s image that has been printed on British postage stamps since 1967.

Showing one’s true colors is also a central theme later in the episode, when a K.G.B. agent is discovered within the royal household. Anthony Blunt, who was in charge of the queen’s official art collection, was also a Soviet spy, and his betrayal remained a secret for years, as he continued to serve in Buckingham Palace. His identity was only publicly revealed in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, told Parliament of his actions. The queen knew about Blunt’s identity, but was advised to take no action, The Times reported. And Blunt received immunity from prosecution so as to avoid compromising counterintelligence operations.

[Read The Times’s obituary of Anthony Blunt.]

The Times followed much of Princess Margaret’s 1965 trip to America. A write-up of her dinner with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House was on the front page the next day. The article called the dinner-dance “small but unusually spectacular,” yet apparently much less outrageous than how it was depicted on “The Crown”: Margaret and the president danced, yes, while their spouses, the Earl of Snowdon and the first lady, did the fox trot; President Johnson offered the visiting couple tongue-in-cheek marital advice; and the princess left the dance at 1:35 a.m., late by White House standards, The Times reported. But there was no mention of bad-mouthing President John F. Kennedy or trading lewd limericks and kisses on lips, as the princess and president, played by Helena Bonham Carter and Clancy Brown, did in “The Crown.”

How important the dinner was for Britain, and whether the princess indeed softened the president to the idea of a loan, is unclear. A visit to the White House was on the schedule when Margaret took off from Britain, rather than being added last minute, as the show suggests. And a brief note in The Times after the visit said, “Margaret and her husband, the Earl of Snowdon, had been asked to undertake official engagements during the United States trip.”

[Read the front-page story about the White House dinner.]

The third episode is entirely devoted to the 1966 Aberfan disaster, when a heap of rain-soaked coal waste collapsed on the mountain above a small mining village in Wales, creating a landslide of slurry that sped down the slope and killed more than 140 people. We see the head of state conspicuously absent from official visits to the grief-stricken community. Her prime minister, her brother-in-law and her husband all head to Aberfan before she finally decides to go. The episode is reminiscent of Season 1’s “Act of God,” which depicted the London smog of 1952 and, through it, the plight of ordinary people far removed from the royals’s world.

Season 3 shows Prince Philip (now played by Tobias Menzies) resolved to improve the public perception of the crown via television. This leads, of course, to mishaps.

In 1969, The Times covered both of the royal television appearances shown in this episode. Philip’s remarks about “royal poverty” on “Meet the Press” in the United States did indeed draw “large headlines and grave editorials” back home. (Although, some Britons responded by sending the queen small amounts of money.)

But the BBC documentary about life inside the royal family may not have been the total fiasco this episode depicts. The film drew gasps and giggles from the press, but also fascination, according to a review in The Times. While in “The Crown,” the queen is adamant it should never be seen again “anywhere, by anyone,” in reality the film sold for record prices to networks in Australia and the United States, before disappearing from television screens after 1972.

[Read The Times’s review of “Royal Family,” from 1969.]

“A coup d’état in the United Kingdom doesn’t stand a chance,” Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) tells a mysterious assembly of men plotting to oust the country’s Labour government.

In 1981, The Sunday Times of London ran a story on this conspiracy. In response, Harold Wilson, who was prime minister at the time of the plot, said he had been aware of it, and described the group behind it as a “pretty loony crew.” When approached, Lord Mountbatten (who was Prince Philip’s uncle) sent the conspirators “packing in the best quarterdeck manner,” the former prime minister said.

[Read the full report on what Wilson said about the plot.]

“He has become Britain’s newest cover boy,” a Times profile said of Prince Charles, ahead of his officially becoming the Prince of Wales in the summer of 1969. According to the piece, as in “The Crown,” the Welsh people warmed to him during his eight-week stay in Aberystwyth, where he studied Welsh history and language ahead of his speech at the formal event known as his investiture.

The writer made no mention of his tutor, the Welsh nationalist activist Tedi Millward, but said the prince spoke Welsh with a “surprisingly good accent,” as we see in the show. At the ceremony, his voice sounded warm and calm, and was “considered one of his most lovable assets by young women,” The Times said. He also did say “atmosphere,” the word Josh O’Connor’s prince wrestles with. But the references to his personal struggle for autonomy we see onscreen are a departure from the original speech.

[Read The Times’s 1969 profile of Prince Charles.]

Prince Philip and his fascination with the 1969 moon landing is at the heart of the seventh episode, which “The Crown” uses to explore the duke’s midlife crisis.

That crisis is absent from contemporary pages of The Times, but the duke’s passion for flying is not. In the same year as the moon landing, he flew himself to Canada. During his active years as a pilot, the prince spent nearly 6,000 hours in the cockpit before giving up flying in 1997, at the age of 76.

“I wanted to be an up-to-date king” said the former King Edward VIII in a BBC interview in 1970, implying that was something the royal family couldn’t handle. The program was the first time the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, the American woman for whom he abdicated the throne in 1936, had spoken to the BBC. The 75-year-old Duke, who lived in exile in Paris when the interview was broadcast, described himself as a little past the age of being “with it,” but that his doctor had prescribed him marijuana to help him cut down on his tobacco smoking.

The eighth episode of this season of “The Crown” shows the royal family observing all this publicity around the Windsors with scorn. Prince Philip is adamant the queen should not visit the former monarch. But, according to The Times, the queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles did call at his house in Paris shortly before his death in 1972. The Times carried two front page obituaries for the Duke of Windsor: A quick take from news wires on the day of his death, and a longer version the day after.

[Read The Times’s review of the 1970 BBC interview with the Windsors.]

This episode depicts twin quarrels: a romantic struggle inside the palace and a battle for wages in the streets. The Times provided no details of Camilla Shand’s appearance in the life of the royal family. Nor did it cover her relationship with Prince Charles and marriage to Andrew Parker-Bowles, as arranged by the queen mother in “The Crown.”

The nationwide blackouts caused by striking coal miners did, however, make it into the paper, with ample details of the strange atmosphere. It was “just like World War II,” one shopper told The Times in 1972. “The dark streets and the people being friendly again, I tell you, I accept it very well.” The paper also noted that Britons endured the discomfort without much complaint, just as we see the onscreen royal family stoically using candles to light Buckingham Palace.

Most of this season’s final episode is devoted to Princess Margaret’s ongoing search for happiness, and the accompanying feverish press interest in her personal life. When she and her husband announced their separation in 1976, The Times put it on the front page.

The cause of the split, the report said, was the highly publicized “friendship” between the princess and Roddy Llewellyn, who “went to Eton and sometimes wears a silver earring,” and shares a farmhouse “on a commune basis” with seven others, The Times said.

A photograph of the two in Mustique, in the West Indies, was the final straw for Lord Snowdon, The Times reported. As depicted in the show, Margaret and Tony (played by Ben Daniels) were reported to already lead virtually separate lives. The Times article also listed three of Lord Snowdon’s “women friends.”

The season finale shows Margaret attempting suicide after a row with Lord Snowdon over Roddy Llewellyn. The attempt was not mentioned by The Times, but speculated about in the British media.

[Read the front-page story about Princess Margaret’s separation.]



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