It all makes for a riveting soap opera. And, against all this, Mrs Thatcher is almost light relief. Morgan has chosen to paint her, until she enters her imperial phase, in a largely sympathetic light (imagine for one moment how the BBC would have tied itself in knots over her portrayal if it had made The Crown). She has her weaknesses – adoring one child and ignoring another, bullying poor old Sir Geoffrey Howe – but the drama humanises her in the way it once humanised the royals. Her relationship with Denis (played with nice understatement by Stephen Boxer) is warm, and her work-life balance endlessly fascinating: calling a meeting at No 10 to discuss the invasion of the Falklands, then whipping on a pinny and cooking supper for the Admiral of the Fleet.
Anderson’s impersonation is a good one but not quite a triumph: she has mastered the walk and the facial expressions but sometimes seems to be straining too hard. She has based the voice on the Prime Minister’s speechifying but doesn’t soften it for private moments. In her weekly audiences with the Queen, Thatcher’s manner alters as the years go by: first deferential, then on equal footing as Morgan flags up the parallels (mothers to favoured sons, women operating in a man’s world) and finally – in an episode that sees the two women clash over South African sanctions – openly scornful.
That episode is one of several that makes heavy use of artistic licence. Did Princess Margaret really learn of the existence of two mentally disabled first cousins, callously disregarded by the Queen Mother and locked away in an institution, from a throwaway comment by her therapist? And did Diana really record herself singing a tune from Phantom of the Opera, complete with full orchestra, as an anniversary gift to Charles?
An episode devoted to the Palace intruder, Michael Fagan, is a flight of fancy that gives the Queen some entertaining but very silly dialogue (“Have you come far?”). There is one major error of taste, when scenes of Lord Mountbatten’s funeral are soundtracked by an IRA diatribe crowing about the murders.Hatred of Thatcher is channeled through Fagan, who is given lines about her “destroying the country”. As the series wears on and we move closer to her eviction from No 10, the Prime Minister becomes less sympathetic. The Left will likely think the portrait too kind, while the Right may bristle at some of Morgan’s claims, such as the inference that Thatcher opposed sanctions to help her son’s business interests. But she remains human.
And what of the minor royals? There is little space in this series for Princess Margaret, who is now an absolute cow, although Helena Bonham Carter injects some pathos. Anne is miserable. Andrew and Edward are dreadful. Sarah Ferguson is glimpsed at the bottom of the stairs but not allowed a speaking part, more’s the pity; this series could have done with a royal who was still having fun.
Series four of The Crown is available on Netflix from Sunday