When “The Crown” returns Wednesday after a two-year absence, the splintering marriage of Charles and Diana and more woes for Queen Elizabeth II are in the drama’s elegant but intrusive spotlight.
There’s swirling off-stage drama as well for the Netflix series that began with Elizabeth’s marriage in the late 1940s and, in its fifth season, takes on the British royal family’s turbulent 1990s. The queen famously labeled one stretch her “annus horribilis” — Latin for “horrible year.”
The safe distance of history is gone in the 10 new episodes set within recent memory for many and whose stories, sight unseen, have been denounced. The death of Queen Elizabeth, 96, in September adds an uneasy dimension: We speculate freely about the famous before and after they’re gone, but is more owed a country’s beloved and longest-serving monarch?
Among the prominent critics is Judi Dench, an Oscar-winner for her role as Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love.” In a letter to The Times of London, the actor blasted elements of the drama as “cruelly unjust to the individuals and damaging to the institution they represent.”
She called for each episode to carry a disclaimer labeling it as fiction. It’s a demand that Netflix has heard before and continues to resist, framing the series as drama inspired by historical events. Series creator Peter Morgan was unavailable for comment, Netflix said.
Dench is not amused by the streaming service’s intransigence.
“The time has come for Netflix to reconsider — for the sake of a family and a nation so recently bereaved, as a mark of respect to a sovereign who served her people so dutifully for 70 years,” she wrote.
Her plea followed a rebuke of the series from former Prime Minister John Major, shown in the new season being lobbied by Prince Charles — now King Charles III — to help maneuver the queen’s abdication. A spokesman for Major labeled the scene as false and malicious.
Cast members including Jonathan Pryce, who plays Elizabeth’s stalwart husband Prince Philip, beg to differ with the series’ detractors.
“The queen is in no danger from ‘The Crown,’” Pryce told The Associated Press. He said critics are lambasting the new season despite ignorance of it, reminding him of what the British once termed “the Mary Whitehouse effect.”
Whitehouse had “a huge following and she criticized programs she’d never seen,” he said. “I think a lot of the protests this time, people haven’t seen this series. They don’t know how these issues are treated. I have to say they’re treated with a great deal of integrity and a great deal of sensitivity.”
Imelda Staunton, stepping in as the latest actor to play Elizabeth, defended the series, its award-winning creator and its viewers.
“I think it’s underestimating the audience,” Staunton told AP. ”There have been four seasons where people know it’s been written by Peter Morgan and his team of writers.”
Morgan, writer of the movie “The Queen” and play “The Audience,” both starring the Oscar- and Tony-winning Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II, has made royals a specialty. The recent criticism may suggest his winter of discontent is ahead, but Morgan has it easier than another writer who feasted on the British monarchs as material: William Shakespeare, who dramatized the reigns of seven kings.
All were in the past, with Shakespeare treading lightly around the rulers of his time, Elizabeth I and James I.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.