There is a moment in the most recent season of The Crown that is impossible to credit.
Having put up with 10 episodes of shenanigans from Charles and Diana, the Queen (Olivia Colman) launches into the sort of fully articulate, takedown speech we’d all like to deliver once in our lives.
“[People] know that you are a spoilt, immature man endlessly complaining unnecessarily, married to a spoilt, immature woman endlessly complaining unnecessarily, and we are all heartily sick of it.”
It goes on in this way, all the beats perfect, uninterrupted by the sucking of wind that anyone who is not Olivia Colman would need to take in order to get through it.
Is this true? Did this happen?
Well, of course not. Everyone knows the only sort of mother who can give a speech this cold-blooded and lacerating is an Irish mother. The ability to reduce your children to frozen compliance with the words, “Let me tell you something, mister …” is a better genetic marker for Gaelicness than DNA.
That scene works because it is entirely fictional. If such an encounter did take place and were we to see a faithful reproduction of it, it’d be all shouty, half-baked thoughts that go nowhere and a bunch of crosstalk. Unwatchable dreck, as all domestic squabbles tend to be.
The series is full of this sort of licence. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to fill this with spoilers. Let us just say that every time the show fiddles with the technical accuracy, it boils down to one pompous oaf being cruel to another pompous oaf. That’s the history of the British royal family in miniature: Pompous oafs being cruel in glorious real estate.
The Crown got away with sanding the edges off history for its first three seasons because much of it was history contemporary viewers could not remember. This season, we’ve got as far as the 1980s, and a few of us do remember that.
The reaction to the fictional nature of a work of fiction has, in some quarters, been outrage.
The Guardian summed up the objection nicely when it called this TV show – one featuring human actors dressed up as people they are not, putting on plummy accents and flouncing around in tweed while equally skilled dog actors who are not actually fox-hunting pretend to do so – as “reality hijacked as propaganda” and “a cowardly abuse of artistic licence.”
Good Lord, save some of that powder for later, guys. They’re making a Hulk Hogan biopic and wait until you hear how pro wrestling actually works. You don’t know from cowardly abuses of artistic licence until you’ve seen one man jump on another man from the top turnbuckle and neither of them requires orthopedic surgery.
Nothing you see on TV that lists a casting director in the credits is real. “Based on real events” means “some parts of this are cool, but most of it is, ugh, just like your life, so we’ve changed all that and tried to imagine what you would be like if you were cool all the time and had a completely different face.”
I assume most things I see, read and hear are not the capital-T truth. This includes the news. Not because I suspect anyone is attempting to mislead me, but because I am alive and know from experience that no two people perceive any event in exactly the same way.
There is the thing that was said (objective), the way it was said (less so), how it was meant (grip on ‘truth’ loosening) and the subtext (we have now crossed fully over into subjective).
At some point – and it comes quite early in any story – each of us deploys our internal telemetry in order to determine if what we are seeing or hearing is true. More often than not, we don’t bother deciding. Maybe the story is too good to care. Maybe it seems true enough. Maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because it’s just not important enough to care. That accounts for the vast majority of stories.
On rare occasions, we deem something so important that the truth of it must be found out. How often do you interrogate someone as they tell you a story? That’s how often you feel yourself needing to know the truth.
This is where someone bursts in through the column’s side door and screams, “But Donald Trump!”
Yes, it’s bad when a public figure lies routinely. The problem down south is that half the population knows they are being lied to and does not care. That’s a different philosophical kettle of fish.
The important corollary to this relative indifference to Greek ideals of truth is that we don’t accept everything we see, hear or read as forensic evidence.
What criticism of The Crown really highlights is our modern fetishization of truth. We want to know things for absolute certain and all time, and can’t.
No wonder so many people are angry. Their ancestors revelled in the unknowable, because so much of what happened was unexplained. Now they live in a world in which everything has a defined cause, yet they still can’t get their arms around the whole of it.
Eventually, these frustrated people are screaming at the TV because they read it on good authority that Charlies did NOT write Louis Mountbatten that letter before he was blown up, which, by the way, did NOT kill him immediately.
Give yourself a break. Assume what you’re seeing is a sort of truth, not the truth. Use the brain God gave you to figure out the difference. If your brain is failing you in this regard, read some poetry. And then remember what Socrates told Plato: “I know that I know nothing.”
Did Socrates really say that? Who knows. Because it’s an interesting idea to think about, why would anyone care?