Divorces, Diana and Charles, the Bashir interview, the Andrew Morton book, the Al Fayeds, toegate, the Windsor Castle fire, the rise of New Labour, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transfer of sovereignty in Hong Kong...

It’s fair to say, there’s no shortage of subjects to explore and bounce off as Imelda Staunton takes over from Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in the fifth and penultimate season of The Crown.

The latest cast changes – Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki come in as the warring Charles and Diana – are mirrored by a change in mood as the pomp, ceremony and stiff upper lip of the lavish Netflix series' early years are long gone.

Elizabeth Debecki and Dominic West as Diana and Charles in The Crown season 5 Netflix

Truth be told, the Diana and Charles soap opera, which has been covered so exhaustively in films and documentaries over the years, is the least interesting of the many threads in season 5. 

Keeping with tradition, Lesley Manville’s Princess Margaret is a show-stealer with her latest heartbreaking romantic entanglements and withering one-liners. Make a whole series of Manville and Timothy Dalton as the returning Peter Townsend and we’d take it.

And as ever, it's in the slightly more unusual detours – the history of the Al Fayeds, the story of footman Sydney Johnson who served under the Duke or Duchess of Windsor, and the visit of Boris Yeltsin – that the series shines.

Diana’s desire for companionship, raging paranoia and mistreatment dominate the series – and Debicki captures the warmth and quirkiness of the late Princess of Wales magically. However, the show doesn’t have anything new to say about the figure who throws a grenade into the cosy royal world as her relationship with Charles careers off the rails.

Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce in The Crown season 5 Netflix

Season 5 is on stronger footing when Imelda Staunton - in her first run as the Queen - is given more room to breathe away from the Charles and Diana storylines, and we see her struggling to come to terms with the rapidly changing world around her and the increased disdain from the public for the Royal Family.

Both the very public nature of her children’s private lives and the stuffiness of the senior royals are out of step with the public mood. The slow demise of her beloved Royal Yacht Britannia acts as a metaphor for her struggles to keep pace with the public, and the yacht's long service bookends the series as we go from a flashback to Claire Foy's Queen launching the ship to the yacht's tearful final voyage.

Frustrated heir Charles, meanwhile, is desperate to get his feet under the desk, and the monarch's new close confidante John Major (a remarkable performance of subtlety from Jonny Lee Miller) is being pushed out of the door for the glossy and slick Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel). And gigantic shifts in global power, significantly in Russia and China,  mean Staunton’s Queen is faced with the brutal reality of being considered a relic.

The latest season of The Crown has faced more controversy than earlier runs as the stories it explores, and the characters within them, begin to edge towards the present day – we get Prince William having his first day at Eton and enjoying tea with the Queen, for instance. The Queen's death in September will also serve to cast the latest season in a different, reflective light, even though it was completed before her death.

But the Netflix series has never really been about providing a history lesson or taking a side in the debate about the British monarchy. The show is far from a hatchet job, is frequently generous to the royals and even opts to take a neutral stance on a buffoonish Prince Andrew in this series.

At its best, the series is less historical and more emotionally driven as it taps into unheard stories and alternative perspectives on famous events and figures. 

As with the greatest episodes in season 1 to 4, The Crown’s greatest strength is in exploring the steady decline of British power through incredible and unusual human stories of romance, joy, heartbreak and tragedy.

The Crown season 5 review score - BT.com verdict

4 stars out of 5 rating

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