by John Milbank
Thursday, 19
November 2020

The Crown gets The Troubles wrong

Netflix's heavy-handed portrayal insults both Britain and Ireland
by John Milbank
Charles Dance as Lord Mountbatten in season 4 of The Crown

I’m a fan of The Crown. It offers slower pace, better scripts, acting and filming than many recent BBC offerings. It provides an accurately uncanny sense of an archaic culture living in a time-warp that has still significantly inflected our recent past.

At its best, for example the handling of Prince Phillip’s relationship to religion, it has achieved subtlety and seriousness about living issues usually ignored.

The liberties taken with facts and the usually fine fictional dramatisation of known tensions are justifiable where they do not seriously distort the truth, even if this line has too often been crossed.

All these virtues remained in evidence in the first episode of the fourth series, especially in the brilliant handling of Charles’s first encounter with a Puckish Diana. But this apparent subtlety of presentation eventually led to a crudity as to both style and content.

I refer to the treatment of the death of Lord Mountbatten. The build-up to the explosion which killed him was inter-spliced with well-shot but heavy-handed scenes of royals hunting, shooting and fishing, including Mountbatten himself, on his last voyage. And then the scenes of his funeral were intercut with scenes of Bloody Sunday and voice-overs of IRA spokesmen celebrating revenge.

In either case, a certain levelling and equivalence of ‘British’ with ‘Irish’ violence was implied, in a fashion that is insulting to both countries.

To be sure, there is a link between royal and imperial violence and a predatory attitude towards nature. Yet the royal family is also very much pro-ecological, and no awareness of such past linkages justifies terroristic murder in the present.

Again, it is not unfair to remind viewers of ancestral British mistreatment of Ireland as a whole, nor of atrocious mistakes made during the military occupation of Northern Ireland. But there can be no equivalence between the action of soldiers murderously out of control and the cold-blooded killing, not just of a supposed symbol of political oppression, but of innocent children.

It played to an American market by not distinguishing the Irish Republic from the part of Ireland that remains part of the UK and by framing things as a straight British-Irish conflict. No reference was made to the pro-British Protestant Ulster majority. The reality that divisions of politics and religion run historically through all of Ireland, and that these divisions are linked to similar divisions within Britain, was not even gestured towards. Some subtlety should not have been beyond the penetrating pace of this series.

Join the discussion

  • Having served two tours as an infantry officer there, I can tell you all that it was not just the Northern Irish Protestants but a large proportion of the intimidated Catholics in the North and very many in the South who also hated the IRA. The Dublin Government soon changed its attitude once it realised that its Marxist core was hell bent on their destruction too. So, yes. these things are never as cut and dried as they appear to many. But the Yanks will lap it up, so it will make lots of money!

  • I wonder if you detest the people who cold bloodedly killed three youngsters as collateral damage as they blew up a member of the Royal Family?

  • Soap opera in the article’s case about very, very serious matters.

    As Ian Acheson points out in The Spectator, the bombers “watched three children, an elderly woman and a couple get onto the boat with Mountbatten. The bomb the IRA placed on the boat had enough strength to kill them all. The youngsters were expendable.”

    I wonder if you would have the courage to say “Lighten up!” to the faces of the children’s families all these years later.

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