‘The Crown’ and the Appeal of a Royal TV Interview

LONDON — Part way through the latest season of “The Crown,” a young Prince William (Senan West) helps his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton), set up a new television at Windsor Castle, because she doesn’t understand the channel-changing mechanism. William’s great-grandmother, the Queen Mother (Marcia Warren), turns to him and says, “It’s so sad to see her struggle to understand a medium with which she is inextricably linked.”

This heavy-handed dialogue is characteristic of the Netflix show’s fifth season, which was released last week, but the sentiment feels true. Millions of people in Britain bought their first television in 1953, expressly to watch Elizabeth II’s coronation live. The broadcast was generally considered a huge success, allowing the nation’s rulers to appear in the living rooms of ordinary people, and their subjects to feel more connected with them.

Since then, the royal family’s experiences of television appearances and sitting for interviews have been fraught, with some figures like Diana gaining popularity through the medium, and others — like Charles and Andrew — sitting for interviews that have only damaged their public image. But again and again the allure of television as a tool to reshape a public image has proved too tantalizing for members of the royal family to ignore.

The royals have long had to tread a narrow line when it comes to public exposure. “They have to be visible to remain in the public imagination, or they’re just rich people locked in a palace,” said Laura Clancy, a lecturer in media at Lancaster University, in a phone interview. “But they also need to be invisible, because if you’re too visible, people start asking questions.”

Queen Elizabeth II never sat down for an interview with a TV journalist, but in 1968, she and her family were persuaded to allow a BBC crew to follow them around for over a year, to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about their day-to-day lives (we see this TV event in Season 3 of “The Crown”).

Although the documentary — simply titled “Royal Family” — was well-received and viewed by tens of millions of people, the British press has reported that the queen came to feel that too much access had been granted, and she feared that the appearance of ordinariness achieved by “Royal Family” wouldn’t lead the crown to continued power and popularity with the public.

The documentary “launched a sort of perennial debate about loss of mystique and deference” when the royal family takes to the screen, according to Neil Blain, a professor of communications, media and culture at the University of Stirling, via email. “Royal Family” has now all but vanished: You can’t find it online, and tapes exist only in a few select archives.

By the period covered by the new season of “The Crown,” the 1990s, the media was less a fly on the wall than an elephant in the room for the royal family. The British tabloid press engineered unfettered access to the younger royals, especially Diana and Prince Charles, whose intimate phone calls (with other people) were splashed across front pages in the early ’90s.

In 1994, Prince Charles, as depicted by Dominic West on “The Crown,” gave an interview to the BBC journalist Jonathan Dimbleby.Credit…Netflix

The once-happy couple needed a way to regain control of their public narratives, and one of the primary ways they did so was by sitting down for television interviews. In 1994, Charles gave an interview to the renowned British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, and the following year Diana spoke to Martin Bashir, a then-unknown reporter at the BBC.

“The Crown” dramatizes a conversation between Charles and an adviser who tries to convince him to do the Dimbleby interview. “Right now the problem is, no one knows you,” the adviser tells the prince. “They don’t know who you really are, nor what you think, or feel.”

Charles’s admission of infidelity in his Dimbleby interview prompted hundreds of headlines, including, “Charles: I Cheated on Diana” and “Di Told You So.” The Sun newspaper set up a telephone poll called “You the Jury,” and reported in June 1994 that two out of three callers felt that Charles was not fit to become king because of his adultery.

“Charles had made a huge mistake, everyone agreed, by even submitting to the interview at all,” Christopher Andersen, the author of several books about the royals, said in a telephone interview. Charles had wanted, according to the dramatization in “The Crown,” to show who he “really” was, but the British public then didn’t like the flawed person he revealed himself to be.

Diana, a year later, fared rather differently. Her Bashir interview was watched by hundreds of millions of people globally, and when the broadcast ended in Britain, the country’s National Grid reported a surge in electricity usage as people collectively put the kettle on, to discuss what they had just seen over a cup of tea.

Getting a royal TV interview performance right is a high art. “It really worked for Diana, with her bashful gaze and downcast eyes: The impact was enormous, it was a spectacular, Oscar-worthy performance on her part,” Andersen said. Perhaps in part because of her tragic death two years later, Diana’s interview is remembered, both in the public consciousness and in the new season of “The Crown,” as a triumph of the underdog, a genuine display of hurt and anguish.

When early clips were released of Elizabeth Debicki’s re-enactment of this interview, people online commented that she hadn’t sufficiently captured Diana’s vulnerability. Members of the public, even those who were not alive in 1995, have a very definite idea of what Diana’s motives and feelings were in the interview, and wanted to see those reflected in “The Crown.”

Diana’s 1995 interview with Martin Bashir was conducted in secrecy in Kensington Palace.Credit…Tim Graham/Corbis, via Getty Images

These ’90s interviews also set a precedent for how the royals communicate with their public. Without Dimbleby and Bashir, there could have been no Harry and Meghan on Oprah, nor Prince Andrew’s disastrous 2019 interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis, in which he tanked his already nose-diving reputation conclusively by showing little remorse for his connections with the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Following accusations of sexual assault, Andrew was soon stripped of his military titles and royal charities.

Harry and Meghan’s interview may have had a decidedly American flavor, but its shocking revelations about the inner workings of the monarchy and some royals’ apparent prejudice, in this instance toward the couple’s mixed race child, has a direct lineage to the Diana interview.

Harry and Meghan, like Diana before them, committed the cardinal sin against the royal family: refusing to shed flattering light on the institution. More, even, than other famous people do, the royals live their lives in public as a constant act of role play: fulfilling duties that are expected of them, reflecting well on the crown wherever they can.

And despite the efforts of these provocative TV interviews, “I don’t think we know anything about them as real people,” Clancy said, adding that in the era of social media, authenticity is something we require of the royal family more and more. Prince William and his wife, Catherine, for instance, have a highly managed but personal-seeming Instagram account, where pictures of them playing with their children are posted.

The media moves fast, and the primacy of the television interview is giving way to the social media post, the livestream. “Claims that the British monarchy has modernized, alongside similar claims about Britain as a whole, are to be taken with a pinch of salt,” Blain said. Many elements of the monarchy are increasingly anachronistic in the 21st century, and the royal family’s drive to protect the institution is always going to be at odds with seeming truly modern.

And then there is the question of what is revealed in an honest moment caught on camera: A clip of Charles seemingly angrily requesting a royal aide move some pens from his table as he signed his ascension proclamation earlier this year has circulated widely online, with people ridiculing what they interpret as a rude, out-of-touch attitude.

It seems possible that the more you let the public see the royal family, the less they are going to feel that the royals have an untouchable, appealing mysteriousness about them. As the Victorian commentator Walter Bagehot wrote of royal mystique: “We must not let in the daylight upon magic.”

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