How 'The Crown' Historical Consultant Weighed Fact vs. Fiction: "The History and the Past Are Different Things"

Robert Lacey explains how the Netflix show balances accuracy and imagination: "All the actors have expense accounts to, if their characters are still alive, take them out to lunch at any time."
Courtesy of Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix
Olivia Colman on 'The Crown'
[The following story contains spoilers from The Crown season three.]

About a year ago, Robert Lacey, historical consultant to The Crown and author of the new book The Crown: The Official Companion: Volume 2, bumped into Prince Andrew. Making small talk, Lacey asked the prince, second son of Elizabeth II, what he thought of The Crown. "He sniffed and said, ‘Oh, I'd never watch that,’" Lacey recalls. "But I don't think we need a lesson in how to present royalty on television from Prince Andrew."

As the bumpy early tenure of Meghan Markle has illustrated, "qualities that make for entertainment stardom and entertainment celebrity do not automatically just transfer into a royal family," Lacey says. "So, when we go back the other way and try and convey the magic of monarchy through entertainment channels, that's an equal challenge for us."

It is a challenge Lacey has gamely taken on. Serving as a historical consultant for all three seasons of The Crown, he has worked with creator Peter Morgan to support the creation of the delicate mixture of "authenticity with soaring imagination" that he believes is essential to the success of the show.

"The history and the past are different things," Lacey says. "History is a way of studying the past, but it is not the past. And the historian stands there with a sieve. The past, all this rich earth, goes through the sieve, and there's a few shards and pebbles… artifacts left in the sieve. And the historian looks at that and says, 'Ah, that is history. That is solid evidence.' But everything that has gone through the sieve has been missed. And it's the great dramatists and screenwriters, they are the people who can go into … the soil of the past and imagine what the Queen would have said to Prince Philip at any particular moment."

Lacey points to a scene in the new season, which debuted on Netflix on Nov. 17. The Queen, played by Olivia Colman, and her immediate family are filming the infamous 1969 BBC documentary Royal Family (which the Queen has refused access to for decades). The doc promised to offer a behind the scenes look at palace life. While most of the interviews are going poorly, Prince Philip’s eccentric, rebellious mother Princess Alice (dressed as a Greek nun) finds herself in front of the cameras and gives the best interview in the whole documentary. "That's totally invented!" Lacey exclaims. "But as a historian, I am happy with that, because it captures the spirit."

Equally capturing the spirit of the past is a plot involving the Queen Mother and Lord Mountbatten conspiring to send Prince Charles overseas. They want to get him away from his new love, Camilla Shand. While Charles was sent abroad at the time — possibly to cool down the affair — it was not through the collaboration of these two senior royal family members. "In fact, the Queen Mother and Lord Mountbatten loathed each other," Lacey says. "But it strikes me as a valid invention."

Despite these invented moments, Lacey explains that The Crown makes sure its backbone is based on documented history. "There is a full-time research team working with Peter all the time," he says. "When they have worked something out, I just sit down and talk about it with Peter."

Since the show deals with the recent past, the writers, actors and researchers have the luxury of speaking with people who experienced or lived though the events depicted. "All the actors have expense accounts to, if their characters are still alive, take them out to lunch at any time they like," Lacey says. "Or to take their surviving relatives."

Jason Watkins, who plays British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, has taken full advantage of this account. "He looks rather like Harold Wilson," Lacey says. "He's got all his characteristics and mannerisms right down to a T." This is partially the result of repeatedly questioning Wilson’s friends. Lacey recalls one Wilson colleague telling him, "I've been taken out to lunch four times by Jason Watkins. And each time, ‘How did he hold his coffee cup?’ Or, ‘If he discovered that his favorite team had lost that weekend, how did he react?’"

Lacey also believes that recasting the main players — Colman taking over for Claire Foy as the middle-aged Queen, Tobias Menzies for Matt Smith as Prince Philip — helps bring out the multi-faceted layers of these elusive public figures. "I thought Vanessa Kirby was a brilliant Princess Margaret," Lacey says. "But now you've got Helena Bonham Carter, and she did this completely different take."

But no matter who takes on a role, they all seem to bump up against some inevitable truths of life in "the firm."

"Look at the recording of Prince Andrew the other night. I mean, there you have an illustration of the self-confidence, some would say the arrogance," Lacey says. "It's a very special world you enter as a royal. You could see it as a mental affliction. I think the actors discover when they get into these roles a sense in which royals are very deprived people. And the challenge is to convey that."

The success of The Crown is part of a renaissance in the popularity of the Queen and the British royal family as global superstars who generate popular content across all entertainment platforms. Lacey points to "the incredible amount of research that Peter and his team do, not just the psychology of the royals, but the psychology of the people who acknowledge royalty."

"Somehow The Crown touches those ports," he says. "And that's what I try to do in the book, to explain the essentially emotional appeal of the system." It’s this archaic system, Lacey believes, and the mystery of its appeal to people despite its outdated-ness and elitism that is at the core of peoples' ongoing fascination with the royal family.

"The great country of Canada has happily chosen to have this foreign British lady as their head of state," Lacey says. "Australia in the last 50, 60 years has got a very strong Republican movement who have twice held referendums to say it's ridiculous that this Queen, this middle-aged lady living in London, should be our head of state representing Australia. And twice those referendums came back: ‘We like it.’"

Americans seem to like it as well, perhaps because it is for many a wish fulfilled. "For Americans, royalty is an outdated and privileged, rigid system … that doesn't measure up to your very rational and democratic system," Lacey says. "But our old-fashioned system has yielded a woman head of state for the last 60 years, for whom men have very happily bowed the knee."