I understand that for some, The Crown is compulsive and essential viewing. Netflix’s big budget drama tells the story of Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family starting back with the death of George VI and over several seasons aiming presumably to bring things right up to date.
The show has proved both popular and controversial and has something of the marmite affect. You either love it or hate it. Hands up – we hated it. We managed a couple of episodes but found the whole thing bleak. There’s also something of a political agenda behind the story telling too.
The current season has proved particularly divisive as it focuses in on the events around the breakdown of Charles and Diana’s marriage and her eventual untimely death in a car accident in 1997. The controversy is because the show touches on some deeply painful moments for current members of the family including and especially Diana’s sons and at a time when a family is still grieving the loss of a mother and grandmother in the Queen herself. More than that though, the historical accuracy of the show has been challenged.
And the response of the show producers? Have they apologised and pulled the rest of the series? No. Have they defended their production decisions and argued that although controversial, the claims are fair comment as we seek to understand significant public and historical events, even if those events are from very recent history? Again, no. The response has been that the show is intended as fiction. To be sure, it chooses to use characters who have the same names, live in the same places and at the same time and have the same basic biography as members of the Royal Family. However, the show writers and producers are not claiming to offer a historical documentary but rather a fictional tale based loosely on the lives of the historical characters.
I’m not buying that personally. If you choose to embellish historical stories with fiction then you either have to go big or go home. You can get away with telling the story of long past events with fictional embellishment providing you are clearly dealing with day to day details that no one could possibly know. You can also, usually for satirical purposes tell a story which is so obviously a fiction because no one would seek to imagine that it is true.
This though is different. The Crown leans quite tightly into the actual history and is specifically leaning into a particular politicised narrative of the events. I don’t think we are meant to watch it and think “oh it’s fiction.” That doesn’t seem at all plausible. The feeling I get is that they want us to soak in the story as truth and “It’s fiction” is merely a defence to be deployed if they are caught out.
However, I also think that this relaxed attitude to interweaving fiction with fact is somewhat a reflection of the prevailing zeitgeist. It is as I have suggested in the title, essentially Gnostic. Gnosticism has a dualistic foundation with the idea that true reality and goodness is found only in the spiritual realm, physical matter is bad and less than true.
Gnosticism therefore gives permission to take the baseline of existence and then to re-embellish it with whatever you like. Your spirit gets to choose, your spirit gets to create its own reality. It means that on an individual level, we can completely reinvent ourselves as completely different people. The virtual world helps us to do this as we create a virtual reality to our choosing.
If we can reinvent ourselves, then we can also reinvent the story of others. That’s of course what Gnosticism did with the life of Jesus. It accepted a baseline, that there was this person, or at least the idea of a person called Jesus and then embellished it with all kinds of weird and wonderful stories. Liberalism also assumes that the actual Gospels took the same approach, hence it’s attempts to discount the Gospel accounts of miracles, healings, incarnation and resurrection, and instead seek out the so called “Historical Jesus.”
However, this is to miss the point that original Christianity and the Judaism from which it grew out of were not forms of Gnosticism but very different theological and philosophical rivals to that world view. Judeo-Christianity rests on the presupposition that a good God created a good world and therefore physical reality matters. We cannot just create our own story that leaves behind the baseline of physical and historical reality, discarding it as no longer needed.
This has important implications. It means that we need to take seriously the detail of the Gospel accounts. The writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would never brush off a challenge with “Oh that bit’s fiction.” They would want us to test and check out their claims. This is one of the distinctive things about Christianity. Its truth claims are intentionally verifiable.
It also should ethically affect how we live life today. Despite our best efforts, we cannot simply create our own reality. This of course has implications for TV, cinema and theatre but it also challenges how we relate to each other at an individual level.