The five most controversial moments from The Crown so far

Royal insiders have branded a storyline in the latest season as ‘cruel rubbish’

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II
Olivia Colman played the late Queen in Seasons 3 and 4 of The Crown
(Image credit: Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix)

Hit Netflix show The Crown will court more controversy in its latest season by showing Prince Philip pursuing an affair in episodes set to air just weeks after the Queen’s funeral.

The Sun reported that Season 5 will portray Prince Philip engaging with “high society beauty” Penny Knatchbull, now the Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who was 30 years his junior. The prince will reportedly be shown in “intimate scenes” with Knatchbull, such as “touching hands as he divulges details of his marriage”, said the paper.

The Queen’s former press secretary Dickie Arbiter, who served the late monarch from 1988 to 2000, has branded Netflix’s decision to air such scenes so soon after the Queen’s death as “distasteful” and “cruel rubbish”.

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“The truth is that Penny was a long-time friend of the whole family. Netflix are not interested in people’s feelings,” he said.

And the show is likely to cause further upset to the royal family by dedicating an entire episode to re-enacting Princess Diana’s controversial tell-all Panorama interview with BBC journalist Martin Bashir in 1995. Netflix executives reportedly splashed “millions” on making the episode, said the Daily Mirror.

The show has been unafraid of causing controversy throughout its run, with Princess Anne once saying that it was “quite a dangerous thing to do” to create a series based on people who are still alive. Here are some of its most controversial moments.

Princess Margaret’s forbidden marriage

Much of the drama of the first season involved Princess Margaret and her relationship with Peter Townsend, a former RAF group captain and Second World War flying ace. In the series the princess is shown to be given an “impossible choice” after their covert relationship is made public – either marry Townsend and give up her royal title or forget the marriage and keep her position in the royal family, said Hello! magazine.

It is thought that the Queen, as head of the Church of England, was unable to give her consent to the marriage as Townsend had been divorced.

However, documents released in 2004 show that the princess was given “categorical assurance” by Downing Street that she could keep her HRH title and a civil list income of £15,000 a year if she went ahead with the marriage, reported The Guardian. In the end, Princess Margaret called off the relationship in 1955.

The Queen’s secret cousins

Season 4 of the series revealed that the Queen and Princess Margaret had secret cousins who were hidden away in psychiatric institutions for most of their lives.

Rather than simply being the stuff of TV drama, the Queen and her sister did indeed have cousins who were hidden away; Katherine Bowes-Lyon and her sister Nerissa were the daughters of John Bowes-Lyon, the brother of the Queen Mother, and his wife Fenella – making them first cousins to the Queen.

Both sisters were born with “severe learning difficulties”, and following the death of their father, they were admitted to Royal Earlswood Hospital in Redhill, Surrey, in 1941, said The Independent.

The episode revealed that – as in real life – the sisters had been wrongly listed in the 1963 edition of Burke’s Peerage as having died in 1940. But the sisters lived for decades longer: Katherine died aged 87 in 2014, while her sister Nerissa died aged 66 in 1986.

While “many members” of the royal family knew about the sisters, “the majority believed they had died, including Queen Elizabeth II”, said the paper.

Lord Mountbatten’s foiled coup

Season 3 saw Prince Philip’s uncle, Louis Mountbatten, make a grab for power by participating in a plot to overthrow the government in 1968.

The episode showed Mountbatten, played by Charles Dance, as “among a collection of establishment figures” who fear the country is being “run into the ground” by Harold Wilson’s Labour government but is subsequently talked out of the power grab “when an enraged Queen gets wind of the plot”, said The Sun.

The paper adds that in reality, it is believed that Mountbatten was approached to lead a real coup against the government of the day, “but said it would have been ‘treachery’”, according to the paper.

The Soviet spy at Buckingham Palace

Season 3 portrayed Prince Philip being blackmailed in 1964 by the Queen’s art curator, Sir Anthony Blunt, who had just been uncovered as a Russian spy.

Blunt, played by Tobias Menzies, threatened the prince with sketches of him, which he says were made by Stephen Ward, who at the time was at the centre of the 1963 Profumo affair.

This fictionalised version of events is also based partly in fact. Blunt was discovered as a spy in 1964, but was allowed to continue as the Queen’s art historian until his retirement in 1972 to contain the scandal.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher “outed him in a speech to the House of Commons”, after which Blunt would hold a single press conference before doing his best to “fade into the background”, said Town and Country magazine.

Charles and Diana’s relationship

Season 4 was perhaps the series’ most controversial yet, and dealt with the life of the royal family between 1979 and 1990, including, most notably, the fractious relationship between the then Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Friends of Charles were particularly outraged over how the former Prince of Wales was portrayed, accusing producers of the drama of “trolling on a Hollywood budget” according to the Mail on Sunday at the time of the season’s release in 2020.

Prince William was also reportedly unhappy with how his parents’ relationship was portrayed in the series, with sources telling the Daily Express that he was “none too pleased with it. He feels that both his parents are being exploited and being presented in a false, simplistic way to make money.”

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