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'The Crown' has had its scandals, but there's nothing like Diana

The face that launched a thousand tabloid stories — and books and documentaries and Instagram feeds — is taking center stage in the newest season of the Netflix series

By Sarah Lyall
Published: Nov 14, 2020

'The Crown' has had its scandals, but there's nothing like DianaFans of the long-running royal drama, “The Crown,” have been waiting excitedly for this season, anticipating the story line they know best: the emergence of Diana as the glamorous, attention-sucking vortex around which the royal family swirled for so many years. Even Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the royal family’s newest rebels, look wan and dull in comparison to Diana, who was not just “the People’s Princess,” as Prime Minister Tony Blair called her, but an international superstar for the tabloid age. (Guillem Casasus/The New York Times)

When we first glimpse her, minutes into Season 4 of “The Crown,” Lady Diana Spencer is dressed as a tree and hiding behind a plant, the picture of long-legged innocence in a foliage-festooned leotard. “Sorry, I’m not here,” she says coyly to Prince Charles, the highly eligible heir to the British throne, who has arrived at her family’s estate for a date with her older sister Sarah.

“That’s sneaky of her,” Sarah says to Charles afterward. “I told her to leave us alone.”

Here is Diana in her contradictory glory, naive and conniving, full of charm and full of guile, destined to marry a prince and wreak havoc on a monarchy. Everyone already knows the sorry end to this disastrous love story. But the new season of “The Crown” (released Nov. 15, and not a moment too soon, after all we’ve been through) takes us back to its beginning, when Charles was a self-pitying bachelor, Diana was an unworldly earl’s daughter, and the world was thrilled to believe in what seemed like the happiest of fairy tales.

Fans of the long-running royal drama have been waiting excitedly for this season, anticipating the story line they know best: the emergence of Diana as the glamorous, attention-sucking vortex around which the royal family swirled for so many years. Even Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the royal family’s newest rebels, look wan and dull in comparison to Diana, who was not just “the People’s Princess,” as Prime Minister Tony Blair called her, but an international superstar for the tabloid age.

With its intoxicating stew of ingredients — royalty, beauty, adultery, celebrity, media intrigue — the tale of the doomed princess has been one of the most rabidly consumed true-life tales of the past few decades. Even 23 years after her death, Diana is still a cottage industry, her story fueling too-many-to-count books, films, documentaries, musicals, plays, miniseries and even present-day tabloid stories, her sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring (currently displayed on the hand of Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William’s wife) instantly recognizable. Now the new season of Netflix’s marquee series, under the watchful eye of its writer and showrunner, Peter Morgan, has to perform its greatest high-wire act yet: how to make such a familiar story feel fresh and new.

For the part of Diana, the production cast the unknown actor Emma Corrin, 24, a recent graduate of Cambridge University, who plays the princess from the ages of 16 to 28. Alert Diana-philes will notice that Corrin has gotten the princess’s seductive signature gesture — head tilting to the side, eyes glancing coquettishly upward through her bangs — just right. But inhabiting that most-talked-about of women presented challenges of its own.

“It’s very difficult; it’s a lot to take on and a lot of pressure, especially as we get close to when it comes out,” Corrin said in an interview. The series is fiction, she pointed out, and her portrayal of Diana is her own. “I never went into this thinking I wanted to embody or mimic her,” she said. “I think of her more as a character, and this is my interpretation of her.”

Peter Morgan’s multigenerational saga, a consistently enthralling mix of serious history and frothy gossip, has already spanned more than 30 years. This new season brings us into the 1980s, the era of big hair and puffy dresses, of pleated pants and Conservative government. In Britain, it was the decade of Margaret Thatcher, the country’s first female prime minister (Gillian Anderson, her manner imperious and her voice full of cardboard).

As always, intimate developments in the lives of the Queen and her family are set against the sweep of British politics and the wider forces of history: the Falklands war; the Irish Troubles; Thatcher’s efforts to remake her party and upend the welfare state; the subsequent economic upheaval. As we move closer to the present, these events seem less like distant history and almost like familiar home movies, parts of a collective past shared by many viewers.

Morgan said that he had approached the new season in the same way he has all along, but that expectations for it seemed higher. “I’m slightly more conscious of accuracy as opposed to truth, and I’m leaning into accuracy as much as I can,” he said, speaking by phone from London.

Luckily, the research team had a trove of firsthand material to draw on. The vicissitudes of the royal marriage were aggressively covered by the British tabloid press, often with the tacit help of Diana (although she denied it at the time). In addition to endless newspaper accounts, the production turned to Jonathan Dimbleby’s exhaustive biography of Prince Charles, written with Charles’s help and providing an insight into his difficult relationship with his parents; and Andrew Morton’s explosive biography of Diana, based on hours of confessional tape recordings from the princess and full of juicy details about her marriage. “In earlier seasons our subjects were not given to this kind of self-reflection, so this was very helpful,” Annie Sulzberger, the production’s head of research (and the sister of The New York Times’ publisher, A.G. Sulzberger), said in an interview from London.

The show had a team of advisers with direct knowledge of the events, a change from previous seasons, when “there were fewer people alive we could talk to,” said Oona O Beirn, a “Crown” producer who worked closely with the research team. (For instance, in the first season, they had just one surviving source from Churchill’s office; now there is a plethora of contemporary experts, including Patrick Jephson, a former private secretary to Diana.) “As the show has become more well known, we get approached a lot, and then it’s a case of talking to who we think would be helpful,” O Beirn said.

As always, they have taken many cinematic liberties. “Crown” watchers in Britain are already debating what is accurate and what has been changed for dramatic purposes. In one episode, for instance, Diana gets a crash course in royal-family protocol — where to walk, where to stand, how to speak in public. In real life, Sulzberger said, the instruction came from two members of the palace staff. But “The Crown” gives the job to Diana’s grandmother, the harsh Lady Fermoy, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother known for testifying in court against her own daughter, Diana’s mother, during Diana’s parents’ bitter divorce. “We had some advice from one of our advisers that Lady Fermoy was more of the kind of taskmaster we were looking for,” O Beirn said. The resulting scenes are painful: Diana really does come across as a lamb to the slaughter, a description she once used of herself.

Sulzberger said that with so many people alive to remember what happened, the show was particularly concerned with plumbing the nuances of the story. That meant acknowledging potential bias in even knowledgeable sources. For instance, accounts sympathetic to Diana at the time stressed her despair over Charles’ infidelity while conveniently eliding her own adulterous adventures. But “The Crown” makes it clear that there were two sides to the tale, showing Diana promising the Queen that she will give up her lover, James Hewitt, and then going back to him after Charles fails to end his own affair with Camilla Parker Bowles.

Both Corrin and O’Connor, who returned this season as Charles (he will be replaced next season by Dominic West, she by Elizabeth Debicki, among other cast changes), said they tried to not take sides in the million-dollar question surrounding Charles and Diana’s operatically disastrous marriage: Whose fault was it? “The Crown” gives evidence for both positions, and neither position.

“The more I’ve learned about the intricacies of this marriage and this relationship, the harder it’s been to pick sides,” Corrin said. “People criticize Charles, but he did love this one woman this whole life, and it wasn’t the one he married,” she said, referring to Camilla. “So many mistakes were made by Diana and Charles after their marriage, but the biggest mistake was that the marriage ever happened in the first place.”

Indeed, I was a Times correspondent in Britain in 2005 when Charles married Camilla, the woman he had loved all along, after years of upheaval following his divorce from Diana and her sudden, shocking death. I spent the day interviewing the crowds who had lined the streets in Windsor, where the wedding took place. Theirs was a mature, low-drama love between two people who knew each other thoroughly, and the public that had once so reviled them greeted this new chapter in their long relationship with a muted but respectful understanding that has deepened over time. They are both in their 70s now, with Charles still pointed toward the throne, and it feels as if they’ve been together forever.

But the new season reminds us how the relationship began in scandal, with the young Charles unable to give up Camilla even when she marries another man, and proposing to Diana only after his family browbeats him into finding a suitable wife. O’Connor presents Charles as a kind of Hamlet-on-the-Thames, stooped under the weight of his own ennui, by turns annoying and sympathetic. “He can be soft and gentle and kind,” O’Connor said in an interview. “I liked the idea that he was a sort of tortoise, with a shell over him that protects him from the world.”

Audience reactions at early screenings, Morgan said, have been emotional. “I’m inclined to think for the viewer there is now an increased sense of connection,” he said. “People are feeling it far more vividly.”

As always, the series skates through public events, focusing its attention on the more interesting private dramas. We see only a glimpse of the wedding, with Diana all but drowning in her famously over-pouffed meringue of a dress, but we are thrust right into scenes showing her doubts and unhappiness beforehand. (As one of her sisters said to her back then, it was too late to get out of the marriage because “your face is on the tea towels.”) The production also addresses head-on the bulimia that took hold of her, showing Diana compulsively gulping down food and then throwing it back up. The scenes are hard to watch, but true to the disease that consumed her for so many years.

The emphasis on behind-closed-door drama adds a special frisson to episodes like “The Balmoral Test.” First Thatcher, new to her job, and then Diana, new to Charles’ romantic orbit, are summoned to Balmoral Castle, the Windsors’ estate in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. It’s hard for outsiders to break in to what we see here is a close-knit family with peculiarly aristocratic traditions: the muddy, bloody joy they take in hunting; the incomprehensible parlor games they play; the upper-class language conventions that smoke out who (from their point of view) is well-born and who isn’t.

Thatcher finds it excruciating and fails test after test, sitting in the wrong chair; saying “I beg your pardon” instead of the correct (according to the snobbish Princess Margaret) “What?”; wearing city clothes for a day of hunting. By contrast, Diana, whose family is actually older and grander than the upstart Windsors, knows exactly how to play it.

It all feels like voyeuristic fun, especially in every scene featuring Olivia Colman, who brings a droll, in-on-the-joke archness to the role of Elizabeth this season. Because the real-life Queen is scrupulously dull and anodyne in public, most of her private conversations are wholly made up — but true to her character, said Morgan, who has made a career of plumbing the personal lives of public figures and who has studied the queen from multiple angles in the past.

As always, we return to Diana, who remains as complicated and unknowable in death as she was in life. Was she the savior of the royal family, dragging a stultified institution, and a nation along with it, into the modern age with her humanity and common touch? Or were her emotional upheavals alarmingly anti-British and rather unhinged, a debasement of centuries of stiff-upper-lip rectitude?

It remains to be seen how the final two seasons of “The Crown,” which are expected to end in the early 2000s, will treat Diana’s legacy. But if you leave this season believing that to be a complex question — as indeed are the relationships between the Queen and her family, the Queen and her government and the Queen and her country — then Morgan will have done his job. You don’t even have to be a flag-waving royalist to care what “The Crown” reveals about the Windsors and the kingdom over which they preside.

Morgan himself isn’t a particular royal fan, he says: he’s much more interested in his characters’ unique position as both private and public figures, their personal lives inextricably intertwined with the history of their country. “Once you’ve spent time with these characters,” he said, speaking of his job as author of this ongoing drama, “you don’t pass judgment on them.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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