Netflix's 3rd season of The Crown tackles tumultuous history, echoes current events

Netflix's The Crown echoes current events from Russian infiltration to strained international relations as it tackles 1960s and '70s Britain with a new cast.

The rare decision to feature a different generation of actors for Season 3 to show the passing of time — Olivia Colman has replaced Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, Tobias Menzies now plays Prince Philip and Helena Bonham Carter is the new Princess Margaret — is addressed in the first scene of the latest season's first episode.

As Colman enters the room as Queen to approve a blown-up version of new stamp portraits featuring her profile, her current image is placed side by side with the previous iteration of the stamp (a photo of Foy as Queen).

"A great many changes, but there we are," Colman says in the scene. "Age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it."

The introduction was deliberate.

"I thought, let's just get it out in the open," writer-director Peter Morgan told The Associated Press in a phone interview from London this week. "It's always best to, as it were, be honest and direct about it: We're changing cast. This is the new one." 

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Reflecting reality, by accident

It's a transparency the series tries to live by as it tackles sensitive issues of the past that resonate alongside current events.

Season 3 begins with the election of British Prime Minister James Harold Wilson in 1964 and continues to 1977 — the year Prince Charles met his future first wife, known then as Diana Spencer.

It slowly moves into more familiar territory for audiences — many will remember watching original footage of that public courtship — but also covers topics that remain top of mind today.

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The series explores potential sexual affairs by Royal Family members in the past at a time when real-life Prince Andrew sat down for a BBC interview Friday about sexual misconduct allegations against him as a result of his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier and convicted sex offender found dead in his prison cell in August.

"Forty years on, we're saying that members of the Royal Family are still able to attract the sort of explosive headlines with their relationships," said Roya Nikkhah, royal correspondent for Britain's Sunday Times.

From Russian infiltration and strained diplomatic relations with the U.S., to the impossibly impartial role of the monarchy in politically charged climates and ongoing questions about its relevance and expense, the series casts interesting parallels between then and now. Morgan insists it wasn't done deliberately — he was just reflecting the reality of the time period.

"You have the left and the right screaming at each other, and not hearing and not listening to one another," said Morgan. 

"In a funny way, it was reassuring because what the show has continually reminded me of, again and again and again, is that crisis is the default position rather than harmony."

While Netflix doesn't typically release viewership numbers, it's clear The Crown has won over both audiences and critics. The series took home a Golden Globe for best drama series in 2017 and Foy won an Emmy for her role in 2018. The trailer for Season 3 racked up more than 3.5 million views worldwide prior to Sunday's release.

No endorsement from Buckingham Palace

While the well-researched series admits to using creative licence for the sake of entertainment, it also appears to take its role as a historical drama seriously. A scroll at the end of the first episode, for example, describes the real-life aftermath of a crisis at the palace depicted in the episode to show its veracity.

Still, Nikkhah says although the drama series might be rooted in real events, much of it is still the work of fiction.

"The Crown isn't claiming that the conversations between the Queen and her husband and her children are accurate," said Nikkhah.

In fact, when Morgan mentioned to the Guardian earlier this fall that he had meetings with high-ranking royal officials, Buckingham Palace made a rare on-the-record statement to quash the suggestion it endorses the series.

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Donal McCabe, the Queen's communications secretary, said "the royal household has never agreed to vet or approve content, has not asked to know what topics will be included and would never express a view as to the program's accuracy."

While audiences are just starting to absorb the latest season, production of Season 4 is already in progress. Portrayals of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and the future of Camilla, now married to Prince Charles as Duchess of Cornwall, are expected to feature more prominently as the show approaches the 1980s and '90s.

"On the one hand, you're looking at history, and you're looking at a family and you're looking at the British constitution," said Morgan.

"But because these people are such strong connective tissue ... you're also looking at your grandfather, your grandmother, your father, your mother, your own childhood and your children's childhood."