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What Judi Dench’s spat with Netflix says about “true life” drama in 2022

On the surface, the recent PR clash between Dame Judi Dench and Netflix over the upcoming fifth season of The Crown seems like any other blink-and-you-missed-it media controversy – good for occupying a space on Twitter’s trending sidebar for a few days, but no more than that. Dig deeper, however, and it reveals several interesting things about TV drama in the 21st century.

For those who did indeed blink and miss it, Dame Judi wrote a letter to The Times newspaper published on 20 October. In the letter, she called on Netflix to add an on-screen acknowledgement that The Crown should be treated as fiction rather than historical fact. The beloved star – who has played Queen Victoria twice onscreen – did not mince her words. The show was “crude sensationalism” and “cruelly unjust”, she insisted.

Netflix has demurred on such requests to acknowledge The Crown’s fictional boundaries in the past, insisting it was always clear that the series – which depicts the intimate private life of Queen Elizabeth II from her coronation onwards – was a dramatisation based on supposition. However, this time the request was heeded and when Season 5 debuts on 9 November it will be preceded by a caption affirming that the events are a “fictional dramatisation”. 

Some of the reasons for the change are obvious, not least the high-profile nature of an actor of Dench’s stature writing in one of the UK’s most prestigious newspapers to raise the issue. The main reason, clearly, is the recent death of the show’s subject, which has put The Crown’s melodramatic approach in the crosshairs once more. Given the taciturn privacy of the UK Royal Family, and the fervent defence they provoke from the UK media, the series has always courted controversy with its gossipy tone, suggestions of bitter palace rivalries and unreported feuds.

Dame Judi Dench (left) criticised Netflix's “crude sensationalism” in The Crown. Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce (right) portray the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in Season 5. (Image: ANDREAS RENTZ/GETTY IMAGES)

That controversy was always going to heat up now that the drama has reached the 1990s and must grapple with the shocking death of Diana, Princess of Wales; an event widely regarded as putting the first crack in the diminishing popularity of the Royals. As the Season 5 trailer claims, it is “the beginning of the end”. Add in rumoured plotlines suggesting surreptitious attempts by Prince Charles to remove Her Majesty from the throne and it’s understandable that Netflix has now opted to placate its critics, given the timing.

Which brings us to another important factor: Netflix can ill afford this flagship show to become mired in tabloid hysteria right now. Fighting to keep subscribers and about to change its business model to include an ad-supported free offering, a messy publicity battle over such an emotive topic would be a distraction rather than a benefit. The last thing Netflix needs is a boycott campaign led by The Sun or Daily Mail.

Along with Stranger Things – also set for its fifth season – The Crown is one of the few surviving Netflix IP from the mid-2010s, those halcyon days of streaming when Netflix had the throne to itself. Back then Netflix was famous for rarely cancelling a show, making it appealing to producers battered by the whims of network television. Today, streaming – and Netflix in particular – is better known for sudden cancellations, storylines left unfinished, and shows that hit big for a weekend and then vanish from the cultural conversation. With a budget now reportedly north of $260m, The Crown is one of Netflix’s most expensive and best-known shows and literally cannot afford to lose its shine.

But there’s also a wider context to this conversation. While the death of Queen Elizabeth creates a unique situation where The Crown is concerned, it must also be acknowledged that there is growing pushback against the “based on a true story” genre from the audience and commentators. True crime remains immensely popular, but rumbles of dissent surround the ethics of turning horrific crimes – often within living memory – into glossy must-see television. Netflix got a taste of this in September when Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was greeted with criticism from justice campaigners, the relatives of Dahmer’s victims, and even Dahmer’s father for its perceived glamourisation and exploitation of his shocking murders.

It used to be that such dramatisations could simply say “some names have been changed” at the end credits, but the old concept of dramatic license may need a rethink in an era of fast-paced social media outrage and nuance-averse commentary. When streaming shows have such a small window of opportunity to put forth their narrative before being swallowed by the next wave of content, spending that time quibbling over semantics may not be the best use of a platform’s resources. Netflix, in this instance, has wisely decided that discretion is what’s needed.

Dan Whitehead

Dan Whitehead has been covering TV and video games for over fifteen years, both as an entertainment journalist and as an industry consultant.