The Crown series 3 fact vs fiction: Aberfan to Princess Margaret's US trip - how real-life compares to the series | London Evening Standard | Evening Standard

The Crown series 3 fact vs fiction: Aberfan to Princess Margaret's US trip - how real-life compares to the series

A (spoiler-filled) guide to the latest episodes


icking off in 1964 and coming to a close in 1977, the third series of Netflix’s The Crown covers a tumultuous era in British history.

The late ‘60s and 70s saw Harold Wilson enter, leave and then return to Downing Street against the backdrop of industrial unrest, austerity and the three day week.

Behind palace doors, things were strained too, with new episodes touching on the breakdown of Princess Margaret’s marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones and the start of Prince Charles’ relationship with his now-wife Camilla.

As ever, The Crown's showrunner Peter Morgan has taken real life events and seamlessly woven them into his script - but how much creative license has he used? We've fact-checked some of the most memorable storylines from series three, to save you googling while you watch...

Was Harold Wilson really rumoured to be a Soviet spy?

 Rumours: Jason Watkins as Harold Wilson  / Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

Wilson, played on the show by Jason Watkins, was dogged by rumours of communist sympathies from his early days as a politician, thanks to his links to Russia and as the president of the board of trade, he attempted to promote links between east and west, and made several official visits to the USSR.

It was enough to attract attention from the secret services on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

In England, MI5 opened a file on Wilson, under the pseudonym Norman John Worthington, upon his election to parliament in 1945, while the KGB also started keeping tabs on him as a potential contact, giving him the code name Olding (which is used as the title of series three’s first episode).

The Crown season 3

In 1961, a Soviet defector named Anatoliy Golitsyn made the wild claim that Wilson was a KGB agent, and that Hugh Gaitskell, his predecessor as leader of the Labour Party, had been assassinated by the Russian secret service to clear the way for a pro-Soviet leader.

However, his assertions were dismissed as fantasy, and MI5 concluded that Wilson had never been poached by the KGB.

The service did, however, continue to keep a file on Wilson throughout his premierships from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1976 - however, that didn’t mean that he was necessarily under suspicion.

Was Princess Margaret ​sent to the White House to patch things up with President Johnson - and did he bail out the banks after her visit?

Party animals: Princess Margaret's trip to the US is depicted as a roaring success / Netflix / Des Willie

Episode two, Margaretology, sees the Queen’s younger sister and her husband embark on a tour of the United States, which boasts a schedule heavy on champagne-fuelled parties and light on royal engagements.

The American public are dazzled by the glamorous Princess - but, with the very real possibility that the pound could be devalued without a significant financial bailout from the US, the Queen steps in to curtail Margaret’s fun, ordering her to visit President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House on a charm offensive.

The Princess’s visit is presented as a riotous success - complete with late night dancing, scatological humour and some less-than-reverential comments about Johnson’s late predecessor, John F. Kennedy.

Princess Margaret’s American tour did hit the headlines - though it was not received quite so warmly on this side of the Atlantic. The cost of the tour was viewed as a tone-deaf and unnecessary extravagance in a time of austerity and even promoted a discussion in the House of Commons.

“Never in modern history has a Royal visit overseas evoked so much public and private criticism from all shades of opinion and from all parts of the Commonwealth as did the recent trip of Princess Margaret to the United States of America,” anti-monarchist MP Willie Hamilton said during the debate.

Divisive: Margaret's tour had a cooler reception on this side of the Atlantic / Des Willie / Netflix

Margaret’s visit to the White House was also actually organised ahead of time, rather than being shoe-horned into her schedule at the last minute, and it’s unlikely that even the notoriously sharp-tongued Princess would have insulted JFK when guests at the dinner included the late President’s sister-in-law and mother.

According to contemporary reports, though, the party did go on until the early hours. The New York Times’ Washington column recorded that Margaret and Snowdon didn’t leave until 1.35am, while the Johnsons stayed up until 2am.

Any suggestion that the Princess played a key role in encouraging Johnson to support an IMF loan for the United Kingdom, though, is a fabrication.

A loan had in fact been discussed two months before the royal trip, when American Under-Secretary of State George Ball met with Wilson. Two days later, Chancellor of the Exchequer James Callaghan announced that a short-term ‘stabilisation’ loan of one billion dollars had been negotiated.

Despite this, as we learn later in the series, huge financial pressure forced Wilson and Callaghan to resort to devaluing sterling.

Was the Queen photographed crying after the Aberfan disaster?

Tragedy: Episode three deals with the Aberfan disaster / Des Willie / Netflix

The Queen sparked criticism when she waited over a week to visit the site of the Aberfan disaster, in which 146 people, 116 of them children, were killed after a coal tip collapsed, engulfing a primary school.

Instead of travelling to Wales, she sent an official message of condolence and later dispatched Prince Philip to the scene.

The Duke, however, did not actually attend the funerals of those who died in the disaster - writer Peter Morgan added this into his script as he thought it was necessary to include a main character in each key scene, the Guardian reports.

When the Queen eventually visited the site eight days after the catastrophe to meet with those who had lost family members in the landslide, eyewitnesses reported that she briefly became tearful when a young girl presented her with a bunch of flowers - though the precise moment wasn't captured on film. It’s thought to have been the first time the Queen shed tears in public.

In the episode, Colman's character claims afterwards that she had merely dabbed a handkerchief at dry eyes in order to give the public a display of royal emotion - but this is most likely a figment of Morgan's imagination.

The Aberfan disaster clearly had a huge impact upon the Queen. In a book marking her Golden Jubilee, biographer Gyles Brandreth recounted a conversation he had with her private secretary, Martin Charteris. Asked whether she had any regrets over her reign, Charteris reportedly answered: “Aberfan.”

Did Lord Snowdon travel to Aberfan too?

Empathy: Episode three also shows Snowdon responding to the tragedy / Netflix

As the series shows, the Queen's brother-in-law Lord Snowdon headed to the mining village in the immediate aftermath, and spent several days comforting bereaved relatives.

Looking back at the tragedy 40 years on, he said that he did not act as an official representative of the royal family, but as a fellow parent motivated by empathy.

"I didn't want any fuss or bother made of me," he later explained. "When you've got a disaster like that the last thing you want is to be in the way [...] I was a fellow parent and so I could relate to the terrible grief those who had lost children were going through. It was horrific seeing the loss of all those innocent young children."

The photographer recalled that he "didn't even think" about taking reportage photos from the site, as it would have been "far too intrusive."

Did Prince Philip appear on a US chat show?

Gaffe: Prince Philip's comments do not go down well / Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

Episode four opens with a PR disaster of Prince Philip’s making.

Speaking on an American television show during his royal tour of North America, the gaffe-prone Duke of Edinburgh plays into the hands of his critics by bemoaning the cash flow situation at Buckingham Palace, telling the host that he and his family may soon be forced to downsize.

It’s a tone deaf nightmare - and makes the perfect front page for a Guardian reporter who just happens to be stationed in New York to cover Muhammad Ali’s latest boxing match.

This particular scene is no flight of Morgan’s imagination - the Prince did in fact appear on NBC’s Meet The Press in 1969, and the script takes his quotes almost verbatim.

In a remarkable display of foot in mouth syndrome, he told the host: “We go into the red next year. Inevitably if nothing happens we shall have to - I don’t know, we may have to move into smaller premises.”

Unsurprisingly, his remarks did not fall upon sympathetic ears. It was even reported that a group of dockers in Bermondsey offered to chip in to fund a new polo pony for the deprived Prince (who’d suggested that he’d soon have to “give up” the upper class sport).

Was there really a royal documentary - and what happened to it?

Good publicity: The Queen starred in a royal documentary - but it hasn't been shown since the '70s / Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

The rest of episode four sees Philip attempt to remedy this spate of bad publicity by bringing cameras inside the palace for the first time to film a documentary for the BBC. The project is supposed to cast the family in a more relatable light, but not everyone - the Queen included - is convinced and the film draws mixed reviews, prompting Elizabeth to block repeat broadcasts.

The 1969 documentary Royal Family (which was actually filmed several months before Philip’s appearance on American TV, rather than as a response to it) is something of a white whale for royal fans. Filmed by a BBC unit over 75 days and across 172 separate locations, the two hour programme featured scenes just like those shown in The Crown - shots of Prince Philip barbecuing sausages at Balmoral and Prince Charles practising the cello were interspersed with footage from royal occasions like Trooping The Colour and meetings with foreign dignitaries.

It was watched by 23 million people on the BBC in black and white, and was then seen by a further 15 million when it was broadcast in colour on ITV the following week. While some papers praised the film for lifting the curtain on royal life, others were concerned that it would destroy the sense of mystique surrounding Britain’s most famous family.

The scene which sees Colman’s Queen veto a request for the documentary to be broadcast overseas twists the truth a little: the programme was in fact shown in Australia just a few months after it debuted in the UK, and later aired on American television, albeit with some slight alterations to the audio commentary.

It wasn’t completely banned in the UK, either. Royal Family was shown again on Christmas Day in 1969, on New Year’s Day in 1971 and again in 1972 to coincide with the 20th year of the Queen’s reign, but the monarch then seemed to have a change of heart and has not since given permission for the film, which is protected by Crown copyright, to air. It can, however, be accessed privately by researchers (for a fee of £35) with the permission of the Palace, and short clips have since been used in other documentaries.

Was Prince Phillip really obsessed with the first men on the moon?

Starstruck: The astronauts arrive at Buckingham Palace / Des Willie / Netflix

Episode seven sees the Duke captivated by the Apollo 11 moon landings, an event which also seems to prompt considerable soul searching for Philip, who questions his achievements and sense of purpose.

When it’s suggested that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins might visit the Palace, he jumps at the chance to meet his heroes, requesting some time alone with the crew in order to learn more about the history-making expedition. When he comes face to face with them, however, he’s a little disappointed by how down to earth they seem (no pun intended).

The NASA heroes did actually visit Buckingham Palace in October 1969, and while the Duke met the astronauts alongside the Queen and his younger children, there’s no evidence to suggest a private meeting like the one featured in The Crown - though Armstrong did suffer from a heavy cold at the time of the reception, and is thought to have been mortified after coughing over the monarch, biographers have revealed.

Did ​Prince Charles' relatives try to break up his relationship with Camilla?

Star-crossed: Emerald Fennell as Camilla and Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles / Des Willie

Camilla Shand (played by Emerald Fennell) makes her debut on the show in episode eight.

She becomes part of what is best described as a love ‘square’ when she catches the Prince’s eye at a polo match - despite being in a complicated on-off relationship with Andrew Parker Bowles… who then becomes involved with Charles’ younger sister, Princess Anne.

Though Charles is smitten, his relatives (namely his grandmother, the Queen Mother, and his great uncle Lord Mountbatten) are less than convinced that Camilla would make a suitable future queen. Lord Mountbatten pulls some strings through his connections in the navy to ensure that the Prince is sent overseas on an eight-month posting, while the Queen Mother meets the Shands and the Parker Bowles families to help broker a match between their children.

Heartbroken: Charles is left alone when Camilla marries Andrew Parker Bowles / Des Willie / Netflix

The couple did then in fact marry while Charles was posted abroad with the navy, but there’s little to suggest that his family had much to do with orchestrating the (temporary) break-up.

Though Camilla’s non-aristocratic background (having a baron as a grandfather was deemed insufficient, somehow) and the fact that she’d been linked to other men (including Parker Bowles) meant that she wasn’t viewed as a particularly desirable match for the Prince by senior royals, there’s no evidence that his elderly relatives meddled in such an egregious manner.

“[Charles] had joined the Navy, he was assigned to a ship and that ship was going to the Caribbean,” royal biographer Penny Junor told The Telegraph. “I have never heard [a plot] suggested at all.”

​The Crown series three is available to stream on Netflix now.