This article contains spoilers for Season 4 of “The Crown.”
LONDON — Imagine you are invited to a black-tie dinner with the queen of England and the extended royal family at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and it’s extremely important that you make a good impression. You’re asked to meet for drinks at 6 p.m. Do you arrive as the clock strikes in elegant evening wear, or do you wander in whenever, in an unbuttoned shirt, woolly sweater and muddy shoes?
If you answered with the former, then you have already failed the test, and the royal family are aghast. The queen might be smiling graciously, and brightly insisting that dinner (always at 8:15 p.m.) can be moved forward by over an hour, but the damage is done. At least you won’t be alone: this is Margaret Thatcher’s experience in an excruciating scene in the new season of “The Crown.”
In the fourth season of Netflix’s lavish show about the royal family, two significant new characters — Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) — form very different relationships with Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) as a result of the extent to which they understand the bizarre, contrived intricacies of British upper-class etiquette and royal protocol.
Thatcher is first introduced to “The Crown” through the lens of the British class system. As the queen watches the news of her election, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) describes Thatcher in a sneering tone as “the shopkeeper’s daughter,” to which Elizabeth replies, “an alderman’s shopkeeper’s daughter, who worked hard and gained a scholarship to Oxford.” The distinction — in Britain — is an important one.
Thatcher’s father, Alfred Roberts, was a self-made and prosperous owner of two shops. He was alderman (an extinct local government position reserved for men of a certain self-importance, who also enjoy dressing up in robes) and mayor of the town of Grantham in the north of England, where the Thatcher family lived in an apartment above his shop.
Though Thatcher would later emphasize how much she lacked as a child — including hot running water and an inside toilet — her deprived home life was a result of her father’s financial meanness, not poverty. As Hugo Young puts it in his book “One of Us,” the young Thatcher “belonged to the rising petty bourgeoisie, not the beleaguered working class.” The mid-1930s was a time when 75 percent of British families were officially defined as working class, but Thatcher’s family belonged to the 20 percent that could be considered middle class.
All of this is complicated by the fact that Thatcher had elocution lessons to eliminate her regional accent, studied at Oxford University alongside Britain’s privileged elite and climbed the social ranks when she married the affluent, upper-middle class Denis Thatcher. In November 1970, when Thatcher was the education secretary, The Sun newspaper asked resentfully, “How did the grocer’s daughter from Grantham become a Tory lady with a taste for large hats, a posh home, a wealthy husband and children at public school?”
“I think the queen was very puzzled by Margaret Thatcher, because she jumped class,” Dean Palmer, the author of “The Queen and Mrs. Thatcher: An Inconvenient Relationship,” said in a telephone interview. Jumping into the upper class bracket is notoriously difficult in Britain, since, generally, the main way to get titles, land and “good breeding” — the traditional cornerstones of the aristocracy — is to inherit them. Mere money rarely cuts it. (Before Prince William married Kate Middleton, sources close to the royal family were quoted in newspapers bemoaning her wealthy — but not aristocratic — mother, whose faux pas included social climbing, chewing gum in public and an earlier career as a flight attendant.)
By the time she became prime minister in 1979, Thatcher looked and sounded posh, but she had very little in common with royalty. Still, a stickler for the rules and an ardent monarchist, Thatcher famously arrived early to her meetings with the queen and gave incredibly low, reverential curtsies. She admitted in her autobiography, “The Downing Street Years,” published in 1993, “I was anxious about getting the details of procedure and protocol right.”
But biographers have observed that Thatcher’s anxious disposition, pretentious accent and grandiose manner simply irritated the queen. Before Thatcher became prime minister, she was invited to Buckingham Palace as leader of the Conservative Party. “On at least two occasions,” Palmer said, “she got dizzy and fainted, and the queen had to say ‘Someone catch that woman — again!’”
In the second episode, “The Balmoral Test,” the relationship between the queen and Thatcher sours during trips to the queen’s private residence in Scotland. Once called “the sweetheart of suburbia” by The Newcastle Evening Chronicle, Thatcher had no interest in the country pursuits of shooting and fishing and did not bring the correct attire of tweeds, sweaters and wellington boots. A workaholic with little time for leisure, she shocks the royal family by working instead.
“If you’re not interested in shooting or horses or dogs, what do you do?” Palmer said. “That Balmoral world is a very strange, backward world that doesn’t exist outside of ‘Downton Abbey’ these days.” In the show, Thatcher leaves the visit early, infuriated by the lifestyle of a family she increasingly saw as the idle rich.
If Thatcher failed “the Balmoral test,” “The Crown” shows Diana passing with flying colors. We first hear about the Spencer family when the queen is told that Charles is dating Sarah Spencer, Diana’s older sister. “Johnnie’s girl?” she responds. “Oh, I rather like that idea!”
“Johnnie” is John Spencer, the eighth Earl Spencer: an Eton-educated nobleman and member of the House of Lords who had served as an equerry (a kind of attendant) to both King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. The connection to royalty is an old one: Diana’s maternal grandmother was a friend of Elizabeth’s mother, and Diana was named after an ancestor intended to be another Princess of Wales. The two families quite literally could not have been closer: Diana was raised on the estate of one of the queen’s private residences: Sandringham, in Norfolk. Essentially, the queen was the family’s landlord, until they inherited their own palatial estate when Diana was 14.
As the author bell hooks has noted, that Diana “was from an upper-class background was obscured, and hers became a rags-to-riches story.” The writer Hilary Mantel observed in a recent essay collection, “Mantel Pieces,” that, in some ways, the Spencers were more embedded in the British aristocracy than the royals: “Though she was not born royal, her ancestors were ancient power-brokers, dug more deeply into these islands than the Windsors,” she wrote.
By the time Charles had begun dating Diana, both the royals and the press were delighted by the suitability of the match. “Her pedigree is perfect,” one news reporter cooed. “At that time it seemed imperative that the Prince of Wales should marry an aristocrat,” Penny Junor, who has written biographies of both Elizabeth and Diana, said in an email. “Diana seemed perfect in every way.”
Having experienced an aristocratic rural upbringing similar to Prince Charles’s, Diana understood life at Balmoral. “Diana had no difficulty fitting in with the royals,” Junor said. “She knew how to hold her knife and fork, and was used to servants. She seemed to fit in perfectly, and appeared to enjoy all the outdoor activities.” A private secretary to the Queen praised Diana’s “wonderful instincts.”
But this was, to an extent, a performance. “In reality she didn’t enjoy yomping across the heather in the pouring rain,” Junor said. Diana made this abundantly clear when, after their wedding, Charles took her back to “Bloody Balmoral” (as she would later call it) for the last leg of their honeymoon. Tina Brown, in her biography of the princess, called this the moment when the “happy, gosh-I’m-all-muddy” Diana disappeared.
Diana was so bored and overwhelmed by the numerous formal dinners with strange guests that the family, Brown observed, “began to get the alarming realization that for a girl of her pedigree she was somehow a social novice.” Though her childhood was aristocratic, it was solitary, and Diana found the constant social pressures of royal life exhausting.
Later episodes of “The Crown” also show Diana struggling with the intricacies of royal life, like whom she had to curtsy to first, even at the family’s own private gatherings. In his biography, Andrew Morton wrote that Diana was “deeply disenchanted with the protocol, the flummery and the artifice” of the family, and “the brittle formality” of royal life. As she persisted with a more casual, less stuffy approach to her own relationships and duties, she was celebrated by the public but resented by the royals, becoming increasingly alienated from them.
Of course, the most important story of class in 1980s Britain is not one of upper-class etiquette. Thatcher’s 11 years in power was a period of dramatic economic and racial inequality, and a worsening quality of life for the average Briton. As her policies shrunk the welfare state, opposed labor unions and sold off social housing, unemployment and child poverty rates doubled.
“The Crown” only nods to this wider context in the story of Michael Fagan, the man who the show depicts breaking into the queen’s bedroom in 1982 as an act of class protest. Colman’s queen lets him voice his troubles, saying unemployment “bothers” her “greatly” and seems to have real sympathy for the plight of the working classes under Thatcher. In reality, the queen “ran out of the room” upon discovering him, Fagan told The Independent in 2012.
“A lot of people want to present the queen as a lefty at heart,” Palmer said. “I don’t buy that at all.”
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