Almost all of the coverage about season four of The Crown has been focused on the introduction of Princess Diana and Prince Charles and how their marriage was doomed, and the ways in which the British royal family failed their youngest and most popular member at the time. Over the last couple of weeks since Netflix released the new season, we’ve heard about how insulted the Queen, Prince Charles, and the royal households are about the narrative, with one after the other royal expert stepping forward to dispute the accuracy in showrunner Peter Morgan’s storytelling.
But maybe, in a significant way, everyone’s fixation on Diana and that part of the story are to the Queen’s advantage. Because not very many people seem to be paying attention to what’s probably the key episode of season four: episode eight, “48:1”.
Just a bit of television writing inside baseball before we get into it. Now that ten episode seasons are more and more common, it’s not a mandated rule but it’s also not unusual for writers to plot out the development of the storylines so that episode eight is the one that holds it all and threads it all together. A good example of this is The Morning Show. Episode eight of season one of The Morning Show is the best episode of the season and it’s the one that’s basically the heart and the soul of the story. And in season four of The Crown, Peter Morgan has (sneakily perhaps) set up episode eight as the big blow. He’s not an inexperienced writer so my read on it is that this is deliberate. This is the most important episode of season four. So we should talk more about why.
Episode eight, “48:1”, is about the Commonwealth’s position on apartheid in South Africa. The Queen, along with almost every other member nation of the Commonwealth, was in favour of imposing sanctions of South Africa in an effort to compel the country to abolish what we all know was legalised and institutionalised racism and racial inequality. Hundreds of thousands of Black South Africans, if not more, had been oppressed for decades, if not more. And while the world was appallingly late to denounce it, finally in the 80s white South Africa was facing international pressure to stop being racist assholes.
On The Crown, we see that the Queen was in support of the sanctions but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the one holdout who refused to sign the document and the episode is about the Queen and Thatcher’s battle over the issue and Her Majesty’s subsequent decision to have her press officer secretly leak (over his objections) to The Sunday Times her disappointment over Thatcher’s response to the situation. Which ended up being a huge story because the way Peter Morgan tells it, it blew up in her face and she was widely criticised for interfering and for getting embroiled in a political matter.
Here’s the thing though: Her Majesty’s position on apartheid was right; and Margaret Thatcher’s obstinate cockblocking of the sanctions (it is implied on the show that she did it because her “favourite” son did business in South Africa) is one of the many stains on her legacy. To bludgeon the point home, Peter Morgan adds a note at the end of the episode about Nelson Mandela’s response to the sanctions and whether or not they helped to end apartheid. Obviously Mandela 100% believed that the sanctions were necessary. So on this issue, Margaret Thatcher was on the wrong side of history.
But the lesson here isn’t about Thatcher, it’s about the Queen. And there are a few of them. Let’s start with the gossipy parts. Buckingham Palace has naturally never admitted that the Queen instructed her communications team to leak her feelings to The Sunday Times but underground this has been the (very loud) whisper among media and royal circles – and Peter Morgan just blew that wide open. In doing so, it exposes royal practice that exists to this day.
Courtiers leak to the media ALL THE TIME. A lot of the time it’s about petty ass sh-t, one family member backstabbing the other, one household throwing another under the bus. On this occasion though it was over some MAJOR sh-t, it couldn’t be any more major than civil rights and going up against the Prime Minister. If you can do it one time, you’ll do it again. And again, and again, and again.
And you’ll note the publication: The Sunday Times. The same Sunday Times that in recent years, especially the last two years, has been getting super exclusive scoops about the British royals and their tensions and conflicts, particularly where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are concerned. Most recently, it was The Sunday Times that broke the story that Prince Harry’s request to have a wreath placed at the Cenotaph during Remembrance Services was denied by Buckingham Palace. As I said in my post about that situation two weeks ago, it was a pretty sh-tty thing to do, to cruelly let the world know, when no one was f-cking asking!, that Prince Harry had made the request and that he was rejected. What purpose would there have been to leak that piece of information other than to humiliate him? This is what this family does.
They pretend they’re above the drama in the media. They claim to not engage in those kinds of shenanigans. But Peter Morgan is putting them on blast in The Crown for using the press to promote their messages. And you’ll note, in all the objections we’ve heard from royal insiders and defenders over the last two weeks about the “fiction” in The Crown, the royals have been relatively quiet on this story. Not only because that episode actually makes the Queen look good – the Prime Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney has described her as the “behind-the-scenes force” in ending apartheid – but because, well, when they scream up and down criticising Harry and Meghan for violating the royal rule of not getting political, this is one of the most neon-blinking-sign examples of the monarch getting political… if that’s what you want to call it. Which is not what I would call it.
Apartheid wasn’t a political issue. It was a moral issue. Yes, to address it required political maneuvering and diplomacy but the issue itself was not political. It was humanitarian. Black people in South Africa should not have been legally declared inferior and segregated and ineligible to access the resources of the country and the Queen was totally justified in being openly against it. The problem, however, is that that wasn’t her takeaway. And this is what’s so disappointing.
She stood up for Black South Africans 30 years ago and instead of being proud of the scar she bears from fighting against injustice, instead it has made her and her courtiers and the royal institution more fearful. To the point where now, in 2020, when we still have to insist that Black Lives Matter, she and her family, with the exception of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, have remained silent on the matter. A matter that is NOT political.
This, I think, is Peter Morgan’s thesis for season four of The Crown and how the royals’ story from decades ago still resonates today: that while the Queen insists that her life goals are to serve and to observe duty, and uphold the Constitution, that rigid adherence has stripped the British royals of their humanity; that the Queen is increasingly out of touch. The dramatisation of this particular episode nails it: the British royals are not adaptable. They consistently fail to see the ways they can change. The Queen was right about apartheid but unfortunately the lesson she learned from that moment was NOT that she did the right thing; it was to avoid doing the same thing, the right thing, in the future.