When you turn on your television tonight, imagine seeing the news acted rather than read. Someone looking like Boris Johnson furiously screaming at his fiancee, Carrie Symonds; Dominic Cummings vomiting into a can; and the Queen told to piss off. Afterwards the BBC flashes up a statement saying all this was “based on true events”, and hoping we enjoyed it.
The royal family series The Crown has garnered plaudits for its acting and brickbats for its inaccuracies, almost all of them derogatory towards living or recently dead individuals. The new series, on Netflix, appears to have upped the fabrication and the offence. The scriptwriter, Peter Morgan, admits: “Sometimes you have to forsake accuracy, but you must never forsake truth.”
This sounds like a dangerous distinction. Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006) was uncomplimentary but a plausible recreation of events around the death of Diana. Olivia Colman’s sour-faced parody of the monarch on Netflix left us guessing which parts were true and which false. It was fake history. The words and actions of living individuals were made up to suit a plot that could have been scripted by Diana’s biggest supporters.
The historian Hugo Vickers has already detailed eight complete fabrications in the new series, all caricaturing the royal family in the worst possible light. They are:
1. Lord Mountbatten wrote a letter to Prince Charles the day before his death.
2. The royal family laid protocol traps to humiliate Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Balmoral.
3. Princess Margaret ridiculed Princess Diana for not being able to curtsey.
4. Prince Charles called Camilla Parker Bowles every day in the early years of his marriage.
5. Princess Diana threw a tantrum on a visit to Australia and forced the plans to be changed.
6. Princess Margaret visited two of the Queen’s cousins, who had been placed in a “state lunatic asylum” to avoid embarrassing the monarchy.
7. The Queen was responsible for leaking her view of Thatcher as “uncaring”.
8. The Queen was repeatedly shown wrongly dressed for Trooping the Colour.
These are on a par with the “revelations” in an earlier series, one implicating Prince Philip in the Profumo affair and another hinting at infidelity. The intention was clearly to give a shudder of shock to viewers lulled into assuming it was all true.
The royal family can look after themselves, and usually do. I am less sure of history, and especially contemporary history. The validity of “true story” docu-dramas can only lie in their veracity. We have to believe they are true, or why are we wasting our time?
False history is reality hijacked as propaganda. As Morgan implies, his film may not be accurate, but his purpose is to share a deeper truth with his audience: that the royal family were beastly to Diana, and out to get her. Will we next be told they really killed her? Will we have another Oliver Stone falsifying the circumstances around the killing of President Kennedy in JFK?
We all know Shakespeare took liberties with history. There are still writers who struggle to correct his spin, as Richard III knows to his cost. Most historical novelists go to great lengths to verify their version of events, as Hilary Mantel does. So did Tolstoy, in War and Peace. We accept that distant history has time to set its house in order.
That is why modern history must be different. It is too close to what should be sacred ground – bearing witness to passing events. There cannot be one truth for historians, and journalists, their apprentice draftsmen, and another truth called artistic licence.
When millions of viewers are told that both Diana and Thatcher were humiliated by the royal family at Balmoral, we should not have to rely on someone like Vickers to reply that this was utterly untrue. The correction will pass millions of viewers by.
The fib is far more fun. Yet it was curiously unnecessary, since there were plenty of occasions, as in Mirren’s interpretation, when royalty can be shown behaving badly. Morgan could have made his point truthfully.
Laws of privacy, defamation and slander have been built up over years to protect individuals against ever more surveillance and intrusion into personal lives. Most people support them, and increasing numbers use them. The Crown has taken its liberties by relying on royalty’s well-known – and sensible – reluctance to resort to the courts. This is artistic licence at its most cowardly as well as casual.
Fake history is fake news entrenched. To the legions of global cyber-warriors, fakery is legitimate hacking. To the trollers and spinners of lies, to leftwing conspiracy theorists and rightwing vaccine deniers, it is retaliation against power.
To documentary makers for whom ordinary facts are not colourful enough, not sufficiently damning, fake history carries the magic trump card: artistic licence.
Come the great new dawn of social media regulation, someone will build a structure of monitoring and mediating access to the world’s screens. Heaven forbid the equivalent of a board of film censors, but some regulation there must be. All we need is a simple icon in the top corner of the screen. It should read: F for fiction.