Peter Morgan’s fourth season of The Crown faces perhaps its greatest challenge so far.
The 1980s was one of the most documented, catalogued, debated and scrutinised decades of the House of Windsor.
Morgan will no doubt be keenly aware of viewers using telephoto lenses to, once again, see if the program makers “get it right”.
Season four is a triumph of accuracy blended with creative invention that continues the program’s process of redefining the Queen (Olivia Colman).
The Queen’s main rivals for centre stage are Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (played dazzlingly well by Gillian Anderson) and Lady Diana Spencer (played wide-eyed and en pointe by newcomer Emma Corrin).
The production standards, casting and acting are excellent; the script structure now well known to fans of the series; the costumes are without a stitch out of place; and they even – I never thought I’d type these words – get Diana’s hair and voice right.
The series pivots around episode two, The Balmoral Test.
Thatcher and Diana must adapt to royal ways during the Windsors’ annual decamping to Balmoral in Scotland.
The seemingly jokey initiation ceremonies disguise a deeply serious process of vetting suitability to enter the royal fold.
Will they bring the right footwear and clothes for country life? (Diana yes, Thatcher, no). Do they know that dinner is at 8pm, not 6pm?; that no one is to sit in Queen Victoria’s chair? (Thatcher, no).
Do they love blood sports such as fly-fishing, grouse hunting and – perhaps bloodiest of all – after-dinner parlour games? (A big “no” for Maggie; Diana proves better at faking it).
The hunter and the hunted
The season charts the civic unrest of Britain during a period of high unemployment and the clashes over nationalist spending for endeavours such as the Falklands War.
Episode five brings this narrative thread together with the break-in to Buckingham Palace by unemployed and socially dispossessed Londoner, Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke).
Having scaled the palace walls, he sits on the Queen’s bed: A symbol of the bleeding and broken Britain under Thatcherite rule.
The other major storyline is the courtship and marriage of Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana.
During her first visit to Balmoral, Diana is subjected to one of her first tests. She and Philip (Tobias Menzies) go deer stalking, with the aim of finishing off a 14-pointer Imperial stag that has been badly injured by an “overseas” hunter (echoes of the paparazzi?).
The bride stripped bare
It is poignant and clever that we do not get to see a full-blown recreation of the “fairytale wedding of the century”.
The Charles and Diana we meet in St Paul’s are there merely for their wedding rehearsal, Diana in plain clothes and fake wedding veil and train, the rehearsal wedding vows interrupted and left unsaid.
This is the bride stripped bare, the marriage finished before it has even begun.
The rest of the royals drift through exhibiting degrees of pain and loneliness, all craving affection, recognition and meaning.
Princess Margaret continues to party and suffer hard.
Princess Anne’s marriage (barely glimpsed in all four seasons) disappears altogether.
Prince Andrew emerges as a smug and entitled buffoon (bring on season seven); and Camilla is, to say the least, equivocal about a future with Charles.
This latest series of The Crown opens with a close-up of the Queen preparing for ceremonial duty and ends with a close-up of Diana’s face as she poses for a family photo at Sandringham.
The Crown’s bookending of the two leading royal women signals the next season will be the Windsors’ reckoning with the late 20th century, a period of enormous adjustment and reinvention for the family.
The Crown season 4 will air on Netflix from November 15.