Last season on Netflix’s “The Crown,” Prince Charles had a watershed moment.
To earn his eventual title as Prince of Wales, the 20-year-old showed a progressive and collaborative attitude toward the small country by giving a rousing speech in the ancient language of Welsh. Playing the prince, actor Josh O’Connor was heartfelt and lovable. Many viewers, previously unaware of the historical event, left with a rare feeling: Charles rocks!
In recent years, the poor old guy has needed a bit of love. In 2012, a Guardian poll found that just 39 percent of Britons wanted the monarchy’s longest-serving heir apparent, now 71, to ascend to the throne, with 48 percent preferring to see the crown pass to his son William. But the passage of time, his endearing new role as grandpa to Will and Kate’s kids (Harry’s son Archie lives in LA), and, yes, shows like “The Crown” have softened his crusty image. A recent YouGov survey gave Charles a comparatively chipper 59 percent popularity rating.
This weekend, all that goodwill goes up in flames. Season 4 of “The Crown,” which debuts Sunday, depicts Charles’ rocky marriage to the late Princess Diana from their first meeting in 1977 until two years before their split in 1990. And, unlike Di, the plot isn’t pretty.
Whereas Season 3 presented the prince as a forward-thinking, sensitive and attractive option for a sovereign, these latest episodes portray a prince (again played by O’Connor) as sinister and scowling, living in a man-cave mansion miles away from his young wife and children as he shamelessly cavorts with a mistress and pouts and shouts with abandon. To millions of viewers, Britain’s next king suddenly looks less like a nice boy trying to please his mummy and more like Henry VIII.
It’s quite a change. Up until now “The Crown” has been a hugely entertaining propaganda machine for the royal family. Icy Queen Elizabeth II has been portrayed as a saint committed to a lifetime of duty for the betterment of her country, while her husband, Prince Philip, and sister, Princess Margaret, feel sidelined and search for greater purpose. Conclusion: The Windsors, they’re just like us!
“The Crown” creator Peter Morgan has been on the pro-royal train for awhile now. In 2006, he wrote “The Queen,” an Oscar-winning film starring Helen Mirren about Diana’s untimely death in a 1997 car crash, and the takeaway from that tragedy was, “Isn’t Queen Elizabeth wonderful?”
But no one will be singing Charles’ praises next week. Diana, played by Emma Corrin, is the sympathetic one now.
The series details how, on the eve of his 1981 wedding to Di, the 32-year-old Charles bought his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, a bracelet engraved with the initials of their nicknames, Fred and Gladys. It shows a 20-year-old Diana locking herself inside her Kensington Palace bedroom for hours to avoid her unfeeling new family’s scrutiny. We witness her vomiting in the toilet due to her bulimia, and see her drop a beaming smile the second she leaves an event to join her loveless husband in a car.
None of this is breaking news. But “The Crown” — with its lush cinematography and Oscar-winning stars — is more convincing than a history book, and viewers are absorbing the episodes like gospel, whether true or not. (“Beneath its enticing veneer, much of it is, in modern parlance, fake news,” wrote Alastair Bruce in the Spectator. But “those falsehoods will be accepted by many millions of people around the world as truths.”)
As we watch the couple’s romance disintegrate in horrifying detail, we pick a side — Diana’s.
For Charles this is a very real crisis. The UK’s Sun recently reported that Queen Elizabeth intends to step down next year at age 95 and hand the reins to her son. While Buckingham Palace has denied this, the biological fact is that Charles has never been closer to his destiny. And now, just as he’s on the precipice of clinching the throne during his first proper period of popularity, it’s being sullied by a streaming service.
This downturn could unleash a popular old idea: Skip Charles and give the top job to Prince William. The notion had so much momentum after Wills’ marriage to Kate Middleton in 2011, BBC News wrote an explainer on whether or not it could happen. (Answer: It absolutely could.)
Chatter about Charles being passed over has recently dulled, but now with the royals embroiled in controversy — from Prince Andrew’s connections to Jeffrey Epstein to Harry and Meghan relinquishing most duties — more bad press is the last thing the queen needs. If “The Crown” leads to an outpouring of anti-Charles sentiment, perhaps she will start giving renewed thought to the idea of a King William.
Or at least until “The Crown” covers the war between Will and Harry in 2025.
Johnny Oleksinski is the New York Post’s entertainment critic.
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