Imelda Staunton picks up royal baton as new queen in 'The Crown'

World premiere of 'Downton Abbey: A New Era' in London

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian

LONDON (Reuters) - Imelda Staunton picks up the royal baton as the latest actor to play Queen Elizabeth in hit Netflix drama "The Crown", whose new season has faced criticism as it addresses a difficult era for the British royal family so soon after the late monarch's death.

The award-winning stage and screen actress, whose past credits include "Vera Drake" and the "Downton Abbey" and "Harry Potter" films, leads a new cast for season five, set in the 1990s, of the royal drama focused on Elizabeth's reign.

Elizabeth herself called 1992, the late monarch's 40th year on the throne, her "annus horribilis" following family marital upsets, public dissent and a fire at Windsor Castle.

"This time in the royal family’s life was very tumultuous and the writers didn’t shy away from any difficult issues," Staunton told Reuters in an interview.

Season five is released on Nov. 9, two months after Elizabeth died and her son Charles became king.

One of its main storylines is the divorce of then-Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Some royal commentators have voiced concern about the impact the show could have at the start of Charles' reign.

Others, including actress Judi Dench, have called on Netflix to add a disclaimer, criticising fictionalised scenes and dialogues.

In a letter to London's Times newspaper last month, the 87-year-old Dench said that as the award-winning show approached present times, "the more freely it seems willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism". [L8N31L38W]

Netflix says "The Crown" is "fictional dramatisation", inspired by real events.

"I think the idea that there is a need for a disclaimer is a little bit patronising. After four seasons, I think people around the world are well aware that this is a drama based on real events," actor Jonathan Pryce, who plays Prince Philip, said.

"I think the proximity of the queen’s death...Nerve-endings are still raw, and people are feeling very protective," Staunton said. "If this was coming out two years ago I don’t think any of this would be going on. And it’s understandable, of course it is."

Pryce, who previously played Pope Francis in "The Two Popes", said he had gained a greater understanding of Elizabeth and Philip working on the series.

"And far from being hurtful or damaging, I think the audience will discover, as we discovered as actors, how compassionate this show is towards the problems that the royal family had at the time," he said.

(Reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Mark Heinrich)