At the end of “48:1,” an epilogue notes that “the Palace continues to insist that the Queen has never expressed an opinion or passed judgment on any of her prime ministers.”
That kind of dry statement is exactly why we need and love a show like The Crown, because it provides a humanized portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II that real life would never permit. It’s what allows “48:1” to insinuate that the outwardly apolitical Queen was not at all supportive of Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to back economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime.
The central conflict of “48:1” is drawn from an infamous 1986 article published in Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, which suggested the Queen had broken protocol and vocalized disappointment with Thatcher’s policies. The Crown’s take is that it’s all true, exacerbated by Thatcher’s contempt for one of the few things the Queen holds dear to her heart: The Commonwealth.
In the episode’s cold open, viewers are not only reminded of how deeply Elizabeth cares for this consortium of nations, but the assumed reason behind Claire Foy’s season 4 Crown cameo is finally confirmed. A flashback to Cape Town, South Africa, 1947, sees a 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth making her birthday radio address to the Commonwealth, pledging a life of service to its people. As her message of collective unity is broadcast around the world, it’s juxtaposed with the individualistic ambitions of Oxford University student Margaret Roberts.
Then the action returns to fall 1985, where we meet the Queen’s press secretary – and aspiring novelist – Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell). Shea is an unapologetically loyal member of Buckingham Palace staff. So loyal that when his literary agent suggests he try writing a political thriller, using his day job for reference, he winces at the thought of betraying his employers. When the rumors trickle in about the Queen’s frustration with Thatcher’s attitude toward South Africa, he toes the company line, providing the press with the Palace’s longstanding message: The Queen never shows partiality when it comes to her prime ministers.
Both the Queen and Thatcher are preparing for the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The most important item on the agenda is that 48 out of the 49 Commonwealth countries are committed to imposing sanctions on South Africa, but the United Kingdom remains the lone holdout, and the measure cannot move forward unless all nations are in agreement. Even Elizabeth, despite the Crown’s officially neutral stance, cannot sit idly by and let an apartheid government remain unchecked.
In her Downing Street flat, an irate Thatcher explains her controversial position to her cabinet ministers (while cooking them dinner, I should add): The idea of a Commonwealth goes against her personal ideology of individualism. She also doesn’t like that the Queen “fraternizes” with African countries like Uganda and Malawi. Yes, that’s an unabashedly racist comment, but to be fair, Thatcher also has some more valid reasons to believe the aforementioned countries are “unstable despotisms with appalling human rights records.”
As CHOGM gets underway in the Bahamas, the rift between the Queen and Thatcher soon devolves into an irreparable schism by the time they meet on board Britannia – a setting that, on The Crown, is now code for Bumpy Waters Ahead. Both parties are on the offensive: An obstinate Thatcher holds firm to her belief that sanctions would not only destroy the South African government, but the U.K. economy as well, peppering her argument with comments that wouldn’t be out of place at a MAGA rally 35 years later.
But Thatcher’s back is against the wall by now, with all of the other Commonwealth leaders giving her the stink eye from their hotel balconies. She agrees to sign a statement pertaining to the Commonwealth’s stance toward South Africa, as long as it doesn’t contain the word “sanctions.” What follows is an exhausting back-and-forth between Thatcher and the Queen, in which the prime minister rejects more than 10 alternatives – until the Queen realizes that this impasse doesn’t require a political expert, but a wordsmith.
Enter Michael Shea, whose pen is mightier than Thatcher’s sword. He substitutes “signals” for “sanctions,” and it’s just benign enough to pass muster with the prime minister. She signs the statement and all seems to be well. That is, until Thatcher tells the press she bent the 48 Commonwealth countries to her will, not the other way around. The Queen is not pleased with her prime minister’s arrogance, and Thatcher’s comments have done little to temper the tensions surrounding South Africa.
On July 20, 1986, the Sunday Times releases a juicy, front-page article claiming the Queen is “dismayed” by her prime minister’s “lack of compassion,” citing Palace aides as sources. At their weekly audience two days later, Thatcher is ready to throw down. Both women are unyielding in their stances, with the Queen, while insisting she never spoke to the press, doing little to refute the article’s details. But it’s not until the meeting concludes that the prime minister accidentally reveals the reason why she was opposed to the South Africa sanctions. While exchanging pleasantries about their children, Thatcher lets it slip that her “favorite” son, Mark, has business interests in South Africa. Given Elizabeth’s aggrieved reaction, it seems The Crown is suggesting Thatcher’s unhealthy attachment to Mark is why she didn’t want to impose sanctions: It would hurt her son’s finances.
Despite Shea’s tireless efforts to deny the story, infighting between the Palace and Downing Street is just too salacious to disappear within the regular news cycle. In order to deflect attention from Elizabeth, Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary, throws Shea under the bus. He gaslights the Palace loyalist into thinking he was the article’s source (even though Shea was the one advising the Queen to maintain an image of cordiality), and gently pushes him to resign.
Is that what happened exactly? Maybe. Maybe not. This is The Crown, after all. The episode does include a wordless scene that shows Shea suspiciously meeting with an unnamed guy at a pub (immediately after taking a call from a Times reporter), but when he’s forced to give notice, he seems genuinely shocked. According to Elizabeth the Queen: Life of a Modern Monarch, by Sally Bedell Smith, and this obituary, Michael Shea was exposed as the Times’ source pretty early on. Although he admitted to speaking to a Times reporter, Shea claims it was only on background.
But there was a silver lining that followed his resignation from Buckingham Palace. As stated in the epilogue, Shea took his agent’s advice and put his career experience to good use, writing several political thrillers before his death in 2009.
We’ll never know the Queen’s opinion on Margaret Thatcher for certain, but as I said, the endless opportunity for speculation is what makes episodes like “48:1” so much fun.
• I hope you are having as much of a ball as I am watching The Crown viciously troll Prince Andrew, whose wedding to Sarah Ferguson, while maybe not eclipsed by the Queen/Thatcher attention, did have the misfortune of taking place three days after the Sunday Times article ran. The day of his nuptials, a delusional Andrew whines to his siblings about how “the wedding of the Duke of York should be a landmark event.” (This coming from a guy who is still dropping hints to Mummy that he’d make a better king than his older brother.) In response, Charles assures the most loathsome member of the royal family that not only will he never be king, but he’s now, thanks to the births of Princes William and Harry, gasp! a “fringe” royal. And I’m in full agreement with Prince Edward’s pithy observation: “That was impressively cunty.”
• Did you notice how, all these decades later, Elizabeth still takes all the papers out of the red box and flips them over – just like her father taught her?