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The Crown: The System

Prince Philip: “You can break as many rules as you like. You can do whatever you want. You can make whatever arrangements you need to find your own happiness. As long as you remember the one condition. The one rule. You remain loyal to your husband and loyal to this family in public.”
Princess Diana: “You mean silent?”
Prince Philip: “Yes.”

Prince Philip tries to help two women who married into the royal family to deal with the system.

This starts with the Duke of Edinburgh giving an interview about how he got into carriage racing. The point of the opening scene is how careful he is when he speaks. When he says something not to his satisfaction, he backs up and edits. He does his best never to say anything that could harm the monarchy.

In this episode, the most significant threat to the monarchy is the book planned by Princess Diana. The author is Andrew Morton, and how it comes about is fascinating. He never approaches her himself; instead, he sends a middleman. The middleman in this episode is James Colthurst, a radiologist and an old friend of Diana’s.

At first – at least in the episode – Diana resists; she knows a tell-all book would destroy her relationship with the royals. On the other hand, that relationship is already terrible, so there’s not much to lose. She gets persuaded by the argument that her estranged husband is writing a book via his friends. So she agrees to try, with the caveat that she will have final approval over the manuscript.

How to write such a book is interesting; it reminds me of prisoners who, while in captivity, sneak out pages. Diana, with good reason, fears her phone is tapped, and certainly every move of hers is monitored by the media and the monarchy. They manage it by having Colthurst bring questions from Morton and Diana record her answers on cassette tapes (it’s hard to imagine Diana actually writing the answers).

The episode does well in showing both the good and the bad of several situations. Diana’s answer to Morton’s question about why she is writing the book makes her seem perfectly reasonable. Her husband has had a mistress since the beginning of their marriage; hence, she has never been happy. But the royal family holds many cards; a tell-all book is the only way she can protect herself.

On the other hand, she describes her childhood as extremely unhappy, with her mother constantly in tears. And although this may have been true, it brings up the possibility of an instability in Princess Diana, caused either by her environment or even by her genetics. While she was still such a young woman, she may have not been capable of a good relationship with anyone – and certainly not with Prince Charles, who was in love with someone else. Furthermore, she seemed terribly high maintenance, although perhaps that’s de rigueur for a Princess of Wales.

The episode also presents different points of view about the book. Although it’s sold to Diana as a chance to tell her side, several times we learn that Andrew Morton could expect to become a very rich man. His project is not altruistic.

The second thread to the episode is the Duke of Edinburgh’s reaching out to Penny Knatchbull, the wife of his godson, after the death of her five-year-old daughter from cancer. He ends up teaching her carriage racing. The episode taught me far more than I ever wanted to know about carriage racing, but I guess it shows how royals amuse themselves. Carriage racing also serves as a metaphor for the system, i.e., the royal family. Everything needs to be refurbished, so much that in the end you’re not sure if it’s a new vehicle or an old one; you need to learn to control the reins; then you can be on top in a wild ride (which looks a little dangerous).

Back to Morton’s book. Although they keep it secret, eventually word slips out. Morton has to interview some of Diana’s friends (who are all very new agey; The Crown is not that kind to Princess Diana). This is to give her plausible deniability, but of course the rest of the royals learn about the project.

For the second time in the episode, the Duke of Edinburgh plays the role of the fixer. I have absolutely no idea how much he did this in real life, but throughout The Crown it’s consistent. Although he was able to help his godson’s wife, some things cannot be fixed. Prince Philip pays a visit to Diana, asking her simply to be silent, letting her know she can have lovers if she’s discreet about it. However, it doesn’t work. Prince Charles has gone too far and Princess Diana is too needy.

Prince Philip also discusses his doings with his wife. Queen Elizabeth prefers the ideal of marriages working, but as we see, in this family, that’s rare.

Title musings. “The System” is the title of the episode, and it refers to the group of people comprised by the monarch and the rest of the royals. Prince Philip has learned to embrace it. A secondary meaning could be the system that Princess Diana uses with Andrew Morton to communicate with him. The title is fair but uninspiring.

Bits and pieces

Given the blazing scandal caused by Andrew Morton’s book, Diana: Her True Story, it’s no surprise that King Charles III is nervous about what the Duke and Duchess of Sussex might say in a tell-all book.

The fact that Andrew Morton became an extremely wealthy man should remind us that Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown, may have similar motives. (Alas, writing reviews of The Crown is not a route to riches.)

While looking up some of the real people, I learned that Penelope’s husband, Norton Knatchbull (currently the 3rd Earl Mountbatten of Burma), is a descendant of one of Jane Austen’s brothers. I am a great Jane Austen fan, so this was an enjoyable discovery.


Prince Philip: There's a school of progressive medical thought that suggests we bring cancer upon ourselves as a result of repressed emotion or unresolved psychological trauma. Then a perfectly angelic five-year-old dies of it, and you realize what utter rubbish that is.

Prince Philip: You make a better person of me.
Queen Elizabeth: And you of me. Isn't that the point of marriage?

Penelope Knatchbull: Norton thought it was morbid to have her so close, but... I wanted somewhere I could see her every day. Be near to her every day. It also means I can never leave here.
Prince Philip: Why would you want to?
Penelope: It's not always easy.

Princess Diana: Andrew Morton. He's one of the friendly ones. He's written nice things about me in the past.
James Colthurst: Well, now he wants to write a whole book about you, and what it's really been like marrying into the royal family. The truth behind the fairy tale. I said you'd never agree to be involved in something like that.
Princess Diana: Oh, no.

Prince Philip: You know, one of the many, many things that attracted me to Lilibet was that the commitment would necessarily be lifelong. And to a young man who'd had such an unsettled... nomadic childhood, the clarity of that permanence felt so reassuring. It still does. But it brings its problems, too. Because it doesn't take into account the one thing human beings do the minute they make a commitment to a life together.
Penelope Knatchbull: Which is?
Prince Philip: Grow in separate directions.

James Colthurst: Uh, Andrew wanted you to start by explaining why you're doing this.
Princess Diana: Because I've tried everything. I've confronted my husband about his mistress, and I've been dismissed. I've gone to the Queen. It's like facing a blank wall. And it finally dawned on me that unless I get my side of the story out there, people will never understand how it's really been for me. And I thought about... moving abroad with the boys, but the Crown could take legal custody of any heirs to the throne. And I'd have the boys taken away from me. Which is what happened to my mother. And I couldn't survive that.

Queen Elizabeth: You see, I think in a marriage, one should aim to exist without secrets or accommodations.
Prince Philip: Yes, well, that's because you are who you are.
Queen Elizabeth: And not just because any husband or wife can feel when something is awry, but ultimately, it's not what I know about you or even what you know about me. It's what He knows.
A reminder of Queen Elizabeth’s faith.

Overall rating

The story about Diana and the book felt true to the spirit of what we know, and it was well done and interesting. The carriage racing, alas, was not interesting – at least not to me. Two and a half out of four cassette tapes.

Victoria Grossack loves math, birds, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

1 comment:

  1. I remember the book coming out and devouring it in about a day and a half. While I am sure that Diana's life in the palace was lonely and pretty dreary, I have always felt that some parts of that book may have been exaggerated a bit. After all, we only have her word and the palace refused to get into too many details. Diana was clearly a troubled young woman who needed a lot of help. Unfortunately, she never got it.

    While I agree that the carriage racing was a bit much, I did like the metaphor and I did like the juxtaposition. Here is another woman who is going through the worst thing that can happen, yet she plays by the rules and finds a way through. If only Diana could have found something similar.


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