Creative Sensemaker: Royal fun

Thursday 19 November 2020

Welcome to Creative Sensemaker, our weekly guide to all that’s best in culture and the arts – movies, streaming, books, music, galleries and much else

The late philosopher and novelist, Umberto Eco, defined “hyperreality” as simulations that were not just reproductions of reality, but an attempt to improve upon it – Disneyland and the super-sensory experience of Las Vegas being prime examples.

The problem, as Eco foresaw, is that “the completely real” risks becoming “identified with the completely fake”. Though Eco’s essays on the subject first appeared in the Seventies and Eighties, they mapped out with uncanny foresight the landscape in which we now live: the world of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality technology, and of misinformation in social media.

Netflix’s blockbuster hit, The Crown – Season Four of which can now be streamed in full – is a classic example of hyperreality. Embracing the period between 1977 and 1990, it is, at heart, a tale of three very different women: the Queen, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher, played respectively, and brilliantly, by Olivia Colman, Emma Corrin (the break-out star of the season) and Gillian Anderson. The saga is narrated with lavish, unapologetic overstatement, melodrama and flamboyance.

It is also the story of the Eighties, the decade personified, in very different ways, by Thatcher and Diana: a time of painful economic change, social strife and war in the Falklands, but also of new prosperity, new national confidence, new fashion and style, and New Romantic music.

The latter half of the equation is captured in a scene where the betrothed Diana roller skates through the corridors of Buckingham Palace listening to Duran Duran’s ‘Girls on Film’ on her Walkman. In the face of these two revolutionaries – the Iron Lady and the People’s Princess – the Queen and Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) are portrayed as baffled and sometimes helpless bystanders.

It should come as no surprise that, across ten episodes, each striving for some sort of independent dramatic structure, this season of The Crown (like the others) sometimes strays from absolute factual accuracy. But apparently it is a surprise to some commentators, outraged by the occasional liberties taken by the show’s writers.

For example: Thatcher certainly didn’t ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament as a ploy to fend off the 1990 Conservative leadership crisis. And the scene in which Prince Philip warns Diana not to divorce Charles – “Let’s just say I don’t see it ending well for you.” “I hope that isn’t a threat, Sir” – is pure dramatic hokum, an obvious nod to the preposterous notion that the Duke of Edinburgh was behind the princess’s death in 1997.

Yet the real problem is that this should be the primary question being asked of The Crown – proof, if it were needed, of how debased and confused our relationship with the truth has become. Since when was historical drama denied the right to artistic licence? Or expected to be a documentary performed by actors?

As the values and forms of entertainment have colonised so much of the world – notably politics – we sometimes forget its original function. The function of entertainment, which The Crown most certainly is, is to entertain. The function of art, which The Crown sometimes aspires to be, is to convey deeper truths rather than granular accuracy. What is really worrying is the suggestion that we should go to Netflix dramas in search of historical precision in the first place.

If you want a rigorous historical account of these years, then consult the tremendous books on the Queen by Sarah BradfordBen Pimlott, and Robert Hardman; the three volumes of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher; and Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles.

I suspect the producers of The Crown may be forced to affix one of those dreary clarifications to the beginning of Season Five – ‘What follows is based on fact. However, some scenes and characters…’ etc. It is vaguely embarrassing that this has to be pointed out, but apparently, in our confused culture, such a health warning is necessary. Meanwhile, enjoy Season Four for what it is, rather than something it was never intended to be.

Here are this week’s recommendations:


Hillbilly Elegy (Netflix, 24 November)
Based on J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, Ron Howard’s film, starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams, explores three generations of an Appalachian family, beset by poverty, addiction and social dislocation. Four years ago, the book was hailed as a manual for those seeking to understand the forces that Donald Trump harnessed to defeat Hillary Clinton; with neat symmetry, the movie appears during the last, sordid weeks of his presidency (which, don’t forget, more than 73 million Americans voted to extend for a second term).

Industry (BBC iPlayer)
Another drama set in the heady, cut-throat world of high finance? Yes, but this is nothing like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street or J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call. With its satirical edge, this eight-part BBC/HBO series, created by Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, owes more to Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, as if reimagined for millennials and Generation Z (episode one is directed by Lena Dunham). Hubris, lust, snobbery and dirty dealing: not to be missed.

The Life Ahead (Netflix)
If, as many predict, the 86-year-old Sophia Loren is Oscar-nominated for her role in this film, she will become the oldest contender for the Best Actress statuette – and bear in mind that Loren made her screen debut almost 70 years ago in Quo Vadis? (1951). In The Life Ahead, she plays a Holocaust survivor, Madame Rosa, who provides childcare for the offspring of sex workers in a seaside Italian town, and forms a deep bond with Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), a 12-year-old Senegalese orphan. Directed by Edoardo Ponti, the film has real class, and also a sense of screen history in Loren’s compelling performance.


Send Them to Coventry – Pa Salieu
This debut mixtape by the British-Gambian rapper is already one of my musical highlights of 2020. Eclectic in the genres it deploys – Afrobeats, dancehall, drill – it grips the attention from its very first track, ‘Block Boy’: “My name is Pa, I’m from Hillside, bust gun, dodge slugs, got touched, skipped death.”

Franz Schmidt: Complete Symphonies: Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi
Only the third widely-available recording of Schmidt’s four-symphony cycle, this is a remarkable achievement, captured live in Frankfurt over five years. The Austro-Hungarian composer (1874-1939) deserves greater recognition, as these lush, expansive interpretations make clear. The Fourth Symphony (1933), inscribed as ‘Requiem for my Daughter’, is especially moving.

London Jazz Festival (Until 22 November)
There’s still plenty to enjoy online in this year’s line-up. Don’t miss J Frisco on Friday November 20, saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes on Saturday, or the excellent content already available to stream, including a fascinating discussion of music in the age of Black Lives Matter.


Margaret Atwood (Chatto and Windus)
Atwood’s first collection of poetry for more than ten years reminds us that the mighty novelist and two-time Booker Prize-winner, who now stands at the helm of the global Handmaid’s Tale franchise, was a poet first. Many of the themes that have animated her fiction are to be found in these pages – sex, dystopia, the destruction of nature, male violence against women – and are all the more powerful for their expression in poetic form.

The Moth and the Mountain: a True Story of Love, War and Everest (Viking)
The New Yorker’s Ed Caesar is one of the great narrative journalists writing today, and this remarkable book is a beautifully-crafted page-turner. What compelled Maurice Wilson to board a fragile plane in 1933, with the intention of flying to Everest and climbing to its summit? Eccentricity, genius, an inter-war yearning for escape? You’ll be gripped to the very last sentence.

Barack Obama – a Promised Land (Penguin Viking)
The first volume of Obama’s presidential memoirs sold nearly 890,000 copies in the US and Canada in the first 24 hours of its publication.

And justly so, because the 44th President is probably the finest writer to have held the office since Lincoln (on this subject check out Craig Fehrman’s Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote). Inevitably, this volume lacks the lyricism of Dreams of My Father, Obama’s remarkable account of his upbringing and youth. But it is written with true panache, depth of observation and wit – which means it is not just a book for political obsessives.

…and finally

From the start, Creative Sensemaker has promoted initiatives to assist performers and artists during the pandemic. So three cheers for the theatrical club THESP and its founder Gilly Hopper, for her new compilation Intermission, which poses the question: what happens when theatres go dark? The cast of contributors is stellar, including Simon Callow, Tom Hollander, Harriet Walter, Tanya Reynolds, and Russell Tovey. All proceeds will go to Acting for Others, which provides financial and emotional support to theatre workers in times of adversity, via 14 member charities. You can pre-order your copy – a two-for-one special – here.

That’s all for now.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs courtesy of BBC, Netflix and Zek-Snaps