Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan, and ghosts did shriek and squeal about The Crown season six,” William Shakespeare once wrote. Sort of. The Bard loved his ghosts, to an extent that even his most ardent groupies probably asked him to try and ease up on his third-act ectoplasm cameos. As Judi Dench taught us all a few weeks ago on The Graham Norton Show, Shakespeare’s words are so baked into the fabric of the English language that we quote him unknowingly almost daily – let alone emulate his narrative structure, his plots and his genre-bending in our film, theatre and television. All, that is, but for the ghosts. We do not like ghosts in things.
Look no further than The Crown. The royal romp’s sixth season, released on Netflix this week, has introduced a plot device so unpopular with critics that you’d think Peter Morgan had written an entire episode featuring nothing but corgis being taken out by firing squad. Rather, the show’s fearless leader has merely written in a tiny handful of scenes in which a ghostly apparition shares supportive messages to her family from the great beyond. Yes, this apparition is Princess Diana. Yes, the apparition tells the Queen that she’s “always shown us what it means to be British”. Yes, it’s in equal measure mortifying and in bad taste – but what isn’t in The Crown?
These scenes have, much like season six as a whole, gone down like a mouthful of bad pheasant. “A post-mortem private jet pow-wow,” is how our critic Nick Hilton summed up one of the scenes, in which Dominic West’s mumbly Prince Charles does his best impression of Demi Moore in Ghost. “Ghost Diana is all of a piece with what is now simply a crass, by-numbers piece of filmmaking,” declared The Guardian. But I’m afraid these people don’t appreciate scriptwriting genius when they see it. This is also Morgan merely making the Shakespearean subtext of the Royal Family – with their betrayals, affairs and equine comic relief – literal text. What’s wrong with that?
The reaction also reflects the lose-lose situation The Crown finds itself in. The show has long been accused of presenting distorted history as actual fact, to an extent that even its stars have complained about it. But the current backlash it’s facing suggests that including scenes of practically hysterical fiction is… also bad? The show’s detractors seem unable to decide what they want any more. Rose-tinted nostalgia that treats the royals as anodyne observers of history? A straight-forward docudrama with nothing but on-the-record tales? A surrealist soap opera with our finest actors hamming it up in flamboyant outfits? Perhaps its anxious, grab-bag approach to all of the above is why it’s no longer essential viewing.
In truth, Ghost Diana rescues an otherwise po-faced season of The Crown. West is wildly miscast. Lesley Manville’s Princess Margaret only wafts in sparingly. Everything is so leaden that you almost wish Margaret Thatcher didn’t spend the late Nineties in exile, just so Gillian Anderson could pop up again to wheeze her way through her dialogue. The Crown has, after all, been at its very best when it’s as camp as Christmas. You wish they went all out again. I want more ghosts! I want Diana’s spirit writing messages on Paul Burrell’s bathroom mirror! I want the Queen ringing up the Ghostbusters!
Further still, other waning TV shows could learn a thing or two from The Crown’s tip into the supernatural. Wouldn’t the new I’m a Celeb be more fun if Nigel Farage had to share the jungle with a ghoul? Or if Jennifer Aniston’s new co-host on The Morning Show was Casper? You know what might rescue the dismal Sex and the City revival And Just Like That? Ghost Samantha! Imagine the penis euphemisms communicated through Carrie’s new Ouija board – the possibilities are endless. So just do it, writers. For the giggles. For the camp value. For Shakespeare.
‘The Crown’ is streaming on Netflix