Monday 14 November 2022

FACT CHECKING THE CROWN SEASON 5: separating fact from fiction


The Crown, season 5: separating fact from fiction


Did Diana tell the late Queen about her Bashir interview? Did Prince Charles breakdance? Fact-checking the Netflix drama, episode by episode



Alexander Larman

9 November 2022 • 9:39am


“Fiction should not be paraded as fact.” “Complete and utter rubbish.” “Full of nonsense, but this is nonsense on stilts.” “An inaccurate and hurtful account of history.”


Usually, when a high-profile new television series is launched, its makers fall over themselves to get laudatory quotes to promote it with. However, in the case of the new series of the royal drama The Crown – its fifth – there has been a chorus of criticism from those portrayed in the show itself.


Previous series took advantage of the fact that most of the major characters depicted in it were either unlikely to make any public statements – the Royal Family sticking to its old motto of “never complain, never explain” – or were no longer alive. However, as the new instalment moves into the Nineties, most of the people who appear are very much here, and often deeply unhappy about how they are presented.


The Crown’s screenwriter Peter Morgan – who has written all of the episodes for the new season himself – has always been upfront about the necessity of creating fictitious scenarios for the characters. In 2018, he stated that “we have to make some sort of leaps of the imagination, about how people were”, and conceded “maybe sometimes I get it wrong, because they aren't friends of mine.”


Yet as pressure grows on the show’s financiers Netflix for each episode to carry a disclaimer saying that it is a work of fiction – as yet resisted – how far is each episode “nonsense on stilts”, as Jonathan Dimbleby put it, and to what extent do Morgan’s inventions and elaborations illuminate a story that we might think we know, but which has never been told in quite so dramatic – or exaggerated – a fashion before?


Episode one: Queen Victoria Syndrome

Did Prince Charles meet with John Major at St James’s Palace and ask him for his help in facilitating the Queen’s abdication?



In what is already the most controversial scene of the new series, there is a clandestine meeting between Prince Charles and the-then Prime Minister John Major, presented with maximum secrecy for fears that word might get back to the Queen about their encounter. Charles even asks: “Did your office tell anyone at Buckingham Palace we were meeting today?” He then implicitly compares his mother’s situation to that of Margaret Thatcher’s, suggests that Major has revived the Conservative party, and offers the PM the chance to ask whether “this institution that we all care about so deeply is in safe hands”.


It is an engaging, provocative scene, well acted by both Dominic West (as Charles) and Jonny Lee Miller (as Major), but bears no relation to the truth. It would have been seen as constitutionally improper for the prime minister to meet with the heir to the throne privately, as his audiences were with the monarch, and the idea that a subject so explosive as this might be discussed openly is highly implausible, to say the least. No wonder Major’s spokesperson commented that “there was never any discussion between Sir John and the then Prince of Wales about any possible abdication of the late Queen Elizabeth II – nor was such an improbable and improper subject ever raised by the then Prince of Wales (or Sir John)”.


Did the Queen ask John Major to pay for HMY Britannia to be replaced at public expense?

Partly true


In one of their weekly meetings around 1992, Major and Imelda Staunton’s Queen Elizabeth disagree about the proposed refurbishment or replacement of the Royal Yacht, HMY Britannia. Major argues that, at a time of national belt-tightening, it would be difficult to ask for the public to pay for Britannia’s refurbishment, suggesting “it might backfire on us both”. The Queen is having none of it and says: “Only Britannia have I solely been able to make my own…she is a floating, sea-going expression of me.” She then goes on to add: “As sovereign, I have made few requests, let alone demands…people should do as I ask, without question…I want the government’s reassurance that the costs for the refurbishment will be met.”


In secret documents dating from 1996, it was made clear that Major was uncertain about paying for the Royal Yacht. His private secretary Alex Allan wrote: “In the light of the current debate about the Royal Family and the Monarchy, the Prime Minister did not feel it was the right time to take a decision on a new Royal Yacht.” Yet this was in the wake of several high-profile royal divorces and a growing feeling that the monarchy was, if not unfit for purpose, worthy of debate; it was also notable that the government decided that Britannia should be paid for in January 1997, only for the incoming Labour government to scrap this upon election. Britannia accordingly sailed her last voyage in 1997.


Episode two: The System

Did the doctor James Colthurst act as a go-between for Princess Diana and Andrew Morton?



Andrew Morton’s infamous book, Diana: Her True Story, In Her Own Words, was put together using tape-recorded confessions by the Princess, which were then surreptitiously passed to Morton by a third party. The identity of this man or woman is, if not quite a secret, certainly less well-known, but, as played by Prince William look-alike Oliver Chris, the dashing and charming doctor James Colthurst is shown acting as a conduit between Elizabeth Debicki’s Princess and Morton. Colthurst emerges from the series as a close platonic friend of Diana who cares about her – “I feel protective of her, as a friend…she’s like a sister to me” – and who acts out of principle and a desire for her to be allowed to present her story to the world.


Were Morton and Colthurst threatened during the writing of Morton’s book about Princess Diana?



Colthurst is shown being run off the road by a white van; Morton returns home one day to find that his study has been ransacked, presumably by interested parties searching for documents. Neither of these things bear any relation to reality, but give an indication of the mounting paranoia that Diana, and those in her circle, felt at this time. It’s telling, though, that another royal biographer, Anthony Holden, claimed that, while he was writing a hostile (or at least unauthorised) biography of Prince Charles, his home was burgled several times. As he said: “When we called the police, the local constabulary looked round carefully before declaring that this was out of their league. They could do nothing more. In other words, as indeed they spelt out in so many words, it looked to them like the expert work of intelligence operatives.”


Was Prince Philip an aficionado of carriage driving?



Jonathan Pryce’s Prince Philip is depicted as saying that he gave up polo at 50 due to being injured repeatedly; he describes the sport in a television interview as “the love of my life”, before correcting himself and calling it “the big sporting love of my life”. He then takes up the decidedly niche sport of carriage driving, with the aid of his new-found friend Lady Penny Mountbatten; this friendship will have dramatic consequences before too long.


Episode three: Mou Mou

Did Mohamed Al-Fayed see the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Alexandria in 1946?



The opening scene of the third episode shows a young Mohamed Al-Fayed (or “Mohamed Fayed”, as he then styled himself) playing a game of football in post-war Alexandria and seeing a well-dressed, middle-aged Englishman and his wife emerging from a chauffeur-driven car: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, once again played by Alex Jennings and Lia Williams. The implication is that the Duke’s style and taste influence the young Fayed, and eventually lead him to hire the Duke’s former valet, Sydney Johnson, in his quest to be regarded as an English gentleman. As so often with The Crown, the scene is thematically relevant but bears no relation to fact: in 1946, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were mainly living in France, with occasional visits to Britain and America, and there is no record of their visiting Alexandria that year, let alone their encountering the young Mohamed Al-Fayed.


Did Princess Diana first meet Dodi Fayed at a polo match?

Partly true


The episode concludes with a fateful meeting between the Princess of Wales and Mohamed Al-Fayed at a polo match in Windsor: Al-Fayed, serving as official sponsor to the event, has essentially paid to be introduced to the Queen, but she, finding more entertaining company, sends her daughter-in-law in her place, who self-deprecatingly says, “I realise I’m no substitute for the big chief” as Al-Fayed says, “the boss lady seems allergic to me”. In what might almost be an act of revenge, Al-Fayed then introduces Diana to his son Dodi, and the relationship is set in train.


In reality, it is believed that, while Dodi and Diana might first have met at a polo match, this would have been in 1986, during which Charles was also playing, and that, if the future lovers had encountered one another, it was nowhere near as auspicious as the show might suggest.


Episode four: Annus Horribilis

Did the Queen weep at a lunch at the Guildhall to celebrate her 40th anniversary on the throne?



The Queen famously described 1992 as her “annus horribilis” in a speech that she gave at the Guildhall on November 24 that year, referring to the partial destruction of Windsor Castle by fire and the separations or divorces of three of her children. It was undoubtedly an emotional occasion for her, but the monarch did not weep or become choked up, as she is shown being in the episode, nor did she say that she acknowledged “the errors of the past” – an invention of Morgan’s. Instead, she said: “I dare say that history will take a slightly more moderate view than that of some contemporary commentators. Distance is well-known to lend enchantment, even to the less attractive views.” She may well have been proved correct in this.


Were Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend reunited shortly before his death?

Partly true


The show features a big emotional pay-off for one of the major storylines from season one, namely the way that Princess Margaret was not allowed to marry the love of her life, the royal equerry Peter Townsend. As depicted in the show, Timothy Dalton’s Townsend, now a married man living in France, heard her appearance on Desert Island Discs, during which one of the songs that she chooses was Hoagy Carmichael’s Smile, which was their mutual favourite. Deeply affected, he writes to her, now played by Lesley Manville, and they resume a version of their former relationship, sharing a tender kiss after Townsend tells Margaret that he is dying of cancer, as well as having a reunion at a boisterous party at the Caledonian Club.


Virtually every detail of this is incorrect. Margaret’s appearance on Desert Island Discs came in 1981, not 1992, and she did not pick Smile as one of her chosen tracks then, preferring the likes of Rule Britannia and Swan Lake. It is believed that Margaret and Townsend had already reunited, courtesy of Margaret’s lady-in-waiting Lady Glenconner, but that this took place in 1978, shortly after Margaret’s divorce from Lord Snowdon. Lady Glenconner described the encounter as “very touching”, and said that “in Margaret’s eyes, [Townsend] hadn’t changed at all”. It has been suggested that the two did meet for tea in 1992, when Townsend attended a reunion of those who had travelled with the Royal Family in 1947 – an event Margaret eschewed, fearing publicity – but no details of such a meeting have ever emerged publicly.


Did Princess Margaret have a dog called Rum?



A lighter moment comes in the episode’s conclusion when Margaret expresses her intention of getting drunk “with Rum”, and the Queen queries this, saying, “getting drunk on rum? Like a pirate?” In fact, Rum was the name of a dachshund-corgi cross owned by Margaret – a dorgi – and others in the family’s possession were called Cider, Brandy, Tinker, Vulcan and Candy, amongst others.


Episode five: The Way Ahead

Was Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles’ “Tampongate” conversation recorded by accident?



One of the most excruciating episodes in the new season of The Crown – and, by extension, Prince Charles’s own life – is when an intimate conversation between him and Camilla Parker-Bowles, the so-called “Tampongate” scandal, is shown being stumbled across by an amateur radio operator, who, realising the value of what he has come across, sells the tape to the Daily Mirror, which then splashes it across the front pages. Surprisingly, these details are presented more or less accurately. As the series shows, the fact that this conversation was obtained by chance, rather than through phone-hacking – presumably the method of choice, had it taken place a few years later – meant that it was fair game both to be recorded, and, later, used to sell papers.


The shocked and horrified reaction of both Prince Philip – “You’ve alienated the Church and politicians, and you’ve pressed the self-destruct button” – and the Prime Minister feels accurate, as does Princess Anne’s more human summation that “it’s all a bit gynaecological for my taste”, but also she believed  the tape showed Charles and Camilla as “gloriously human and entirely in love”.


Did Prince Charles confess to adultery in an interview with Jonathan Dimbleby?



In an interview that Prince Charles gave to the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby in June 1994, he was explicitly asked whether he had been faithful to Diana. His response was to say, “Yes, until it was clear that the marriage had irretrievably broken down.” Arguably this confession – the first time that such a thing had ever been publicly admitted to by a member of the Royal Family – led to everything that followed, from Diana’s so-called “revenge dress” that she wore to a party at the Serpentine Gallery immediately afterwards to her own, fateful decision to give a score-settling interview to Martin Bashir and Panorama the following year.


Did Prince Charles breakdance?

Partly true


The episode’s conclusion shows the unlikely spectacle of the heir to the throne semi-reluctantly breakdancing at an event for his charity, the Prince’s Trust. It seems like an invention too far, even by The Crown’s standards, but in fact, it’s true, even if the only footage in existence of the then-heir to the throne breakdancing comes from 1985, rather than the mid-Nineties that the show implies.


Episode six: Ipatiev House

Was the British Royal Family indirectly responsible for the deaths of the Romanovs?

Partly true


Most series of The Crown feature an episode that is as much history lesson as insight into the monarchy, and the sixth episode, Ipatiev House, is no exception to this. It depicts the brutal murder of the Romanovs, the Russian royal family, and the attempts by the present-day monarchy, the government and the new Russian president Boris Yeltsin to find and inter their remains, after nearly a century: a task that is eventually successful, after some disagreements between Yeltsin and the Royal Family. However, the detail that most viewers will find provocative is the suggestion that George V and Queen Mary were offered the opportunity to give the Romanovs asylum in Britain after the Russian Revolution and declined to do so, whether on the grounds that there was a rivalry between Queen Mary and the Russian monarch Alexandra, or that it was felt that the Czarina was pro-German and offering her special treatment would spark a diplomatic crisis.


It was long believed that the British royal family, especially George V, were deeply upset at the treatment of the Romanovs – given that they were cousins - and would have offered them a home in Britain, but were overruled by the government of the time, who feared that the matter would have established an unfortunate constitutional precedent. However, government papers released in the 1980s suggest that it was King George – rather than Queen Mary, as the episode implies – who would not allow his relatives to come to his country, fearing reputational damage. The Tsar was by no means a popular figure, being viewed by many in Britain as no better than a tyrant, and so family loyalty had to be subsumed to national considerations, once again.


Did Prince Philip enjoy a close friendship with Penny Mountbatten?

Partly true


The Crown has previously hinted at Prince Philip’s “friendships” with other women while never suggesting that he committed adultery. This episode shows Philip and Penny Mountbatten’s friendship going far beyond that of two enthusiastic participants in carriage riding together, with Lady Mountbatten sitting in the front row of Duke of Edinburgh award ceremonies and acting as a confidante to the Duke. This eventually leads to a furious row between Philip and the Queen, in which she says, “She’s half your age…she’s a married woman…it does compromise me, me as your soulmate”, and suggests that he should have found a pliable secretary instead if he wished to pursue that kind of relationship.


While the show never explicitly suggests that there was anything between the two other than a friendship of shared ideals and interests, the depiction of such a close relationship between such high-profile people is obviously laden with difficulty. It is little surprise that the Queen’s former press secretary, the magnificently named Dickie Arbiter, commented: “This is very distasteful and, quite frankly, cruel rubbish. The truth is that Penny was a long-time friend of the whole family. Netflix are not interested in people’s feelings.” He may well be correct.


Episode seven: No Woman’s Land

Did Martin Bashir lie to Princess Diana in order to persuade her to participate in a Panorama interview?

(Mostly) true


For many years, Martin Bashir’s incendiary Panorama interview with Princess Diana, in which she revealed “there were three of us in this marriage”, along with discussing her suicide attempts and eating disorders, was thought to have been obtained through traditional, if unorthodox, journalistic methods, However – fortunately for Morgan as a dramatist – it emerged in 2020 that Bashir had falsified several documents, including bank statements, and used them to dupe Diana and her brother Earl Spencer into giving him the interview: the implication was that the Royal Family were actively working against her, using her private secretary, amongst others, as a spy, and that the interview became a form of both protection and revenge.


The episode makes the build-up to the interview seem highly dramatic – with clandestine meetings in underground car parks and Bashir telling more and more lies in order to obtain his goal – but also portrays Bashir as duplicitous and manipulative, flattering a suspicious Earl Spencer (“You’ve served as an inspiration to me for my own reporting”), even as he seeks to suggest that the fictitious “Penfolds Consultants”, which was supposedly paying her private secretary, was a front for MI5. There may well be exaggeration and dramatic licence employed, but the kernel of truth in this incident is undeniable.


Did Princess Diana go on the cinema on a date with the surgeon Hasnat Khan to see Apollo 13 in disguise?

Partly true


The episode depicts Diana seeing Apollo 13 on a date with the heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, and wearing an elaborate disguise to do so. Although it’s not true that they saw Apollo 13 together – Diana attended the premiere in September 1995, and met the film’s director Ron Howard, amongst others – and it remains uncertain as to whether they ever went to the cinema, it has been suggested that Diana’s attire of trench coat and wig was in fact what she had to wear in order to go out to her local cinema, the Odeon Kensington. Her friend and biographer Stewart Pearce described seeing such films as Jerry Maguire with her, and how “nobody else knew that she was her because she'd be wearing a long blonde wig [and] sunglasses with a black trench coat… we would walk very briskly down the street to the movie theatre and go and see a movie”.


Episode eight: Gunpowder

Did the BBC’s chairman Marmaduke Hussey clash with its Director-General John Birt over the Panorama interview?



Marmaduke “Duke” Hussey, the BBC’s Chairman of the Board of Governors, is depicted in the series as the ultimate establishment figure, even down to a wife who is on joking terms with the Queen, and so it comes as no surprise that his view of a suitable show to pay tribute to Her Majesty would be something to celebrate her 70th birthday. The Director-General of the BBC, John Birt, has other ideas, and is shown giving the final go-ahead to the Panorama interview after a difficult meeting with Hussey, almost out of pique, leading Hussey to shout, “You will be on the wrong side of the history”. Birt, who is depicted as having strongly republican sympathies – “more and more people see the monarchy as part of the furniture, something that can be thrown out, if needs be” – is depicted as loathing the patrician Hussey, with the two men opposed to one another on grounds of both competence and, it is implied, class.


There was certainly no love lost between them. Hussey, who resigned in 1996, stated in a 2001 interview that Birt was an “arse-licker”, and that “I wouldn't have reappointed him if I'd had the chance. I would have got rid of him”. He criticised him further as “dogmatic and difficult and slow to take decisions” and said, “He did have some fine qualities, but admitting that others on occasion might be right was not one of them.” The revelations about Panorama and Bashir, meanwhile, have irreparably tarnished Birt’s reputation, and have turned the man who has been described as “perhaps the most consequential Director-General since Reith” into a discredited figure.


Did Diana tell the Queen about the Panorama interview in advance?



The episode features a scene in which Princess Diana warns the Queen about the incendiary Panorama interview, leading to a confrontation in which the monarch sneers that her daughter-in-law is “like a broken record”, claims that she has consistently defended her “loyally, emphatically, to the hilt” – and says that she has imagined the hostility, stating, “All that any of us want, Diana, is for you to be happy.” The Queen concludes by asking, vainly, “I suppose it’s already too late to stop this?”


The incident is, of course, dramatic invention, and there is no cause to believe that Diana did warn her mother-in-law about the interview, which blindsided the Royal Family when it was broadcast. But the Queen’s attitude towards her appearance can be gleaned from her comment to the National Theatre’s artistic director Sir Richard Eyre that it was a “frightful thing to do, a frightful thing that my daughter-in-law did”, and that “frightful” was regal code for “utterly appalling beyond measure”.


Episode nine: Couple 31

Did Princess Diana ask for an initial divorce settlement of £35 million, Kensington Palace and an office in St James? And did John Major act as a go-between?



Princess Diana’s divorce settlement, although never made public, was widely believed to have been around £17 million, plus around £400,000 a year for her to maintain staffing costs for her private office. The episode revolving around the divorce negotiations not only portrays the Prime Minister as an active go-between, being one of the few public figures who enjoyed amicable relations with both camps. It also shows him attempting to convince Prince Charles to give his former wife as large a settlement as he can, as “that speaks to a generosity of spirit that you possess”, and stresses to Diana that a condition of this divorce settlement must be that things be kept “private” and “dignified”, and that she does not bad-mouth the monarchy in the future.


The eventual settlement between Charles and Diana was one of the largest in British legal history at the time, and was widely rumoured to come with the codicil that, should she remarry, she would lose Kensington Palace, her ongoing payments and the title of Princess of Wales. But there is no concrete evidence for the suggestion that Diana initially asked for a sum of nearly double what she eventually received, and so it has to be regarded as a piece of dramatic licence, along with Major’s interventionist role in the divorce negotiations. 


Did Prince Charles and Princess Diana meet privately after the divorce was finalised?



A scene that will surely be one of the season’s most talked-about imagines a meeting between Prince Charles and Diana at Kensington Palace, which begins with philosophical musings about times that they were happy, continues as the two of them share a (badly made) omelette courtesy of Diana, and then end in recriminations and arguments as they discuss Charles’s fitness (or lack of it) to be king, as Diana says, “Everyone would prefer to see William as king, not you” and Charles responds, “I leave here liberated […] with you out of this family and out of my life, we can find the happiness and the stability that has eluded us.”


The scene is testament to how even-handed the treatment of Charles and Diana is throughout the season – both are portrayed as flawed but fundamentally decent people, and the central tragedy between them is their essential incompatibility – but it is entirely fictitious. There is no record of the two of them ever meeting again after their divorce, and the only reunion that they would have had came, tragically enough, after the Princess died on August 31 1997 and Charles visited the Paris hospital in which her body lay.


Episode 10: Decommissioned

Did Prince Charles and Tony Blair have a private meeting shortly after Blair became Prime Minister?

Partly true


The new series bookends itself with two meetings between Charles and the Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair, in both of which the future king seems to suggest that it is time for change, namely his accelerated accession. In the case of Major, the Prime Minister is guarded and largely unsympathetic, later suggesting to his wife Norma that “the Prince of Wales is impatient for a bigger role in public life, but he fails to appreciate that his one great asset in public life is his wife”.


Blair, however, is non-committal in conversation, but later says to Cherie that he feels that, while the conversation was “gobsmacking”, he was impressed by Charles, talking of his “energy, brain, conscience and beating heart”, and felt sympathy for his situation, saying, “It’s a bit like being trapped for eternity in opposition.”


Again, this scene is a pure invention of Morgan’s, as is a subsequent encounter between the Prince of Wales and the Queen in which he virtually demands that she abdicate in his favour. As she remarks: “The only person to have a direct relationship with the sovereign is me.” But it is true that Charles and the Prime Minister were both present for the Hong Kong handover ceremony in June 1997, and that the Prince of Wales subsequently wrote in his diary that Blair was “most enjoyable” to speak to, even if he was “always in a hurry”. Charles even suggested that “he also gives the impression of listening to what one says, which I find astonishing”, which implies that a private meeting did take place, even if it may have been less seismic than the show suggests.


Did Prince Charles fly Business Class to Hong Kong to mark its handover to the Chinese while the politicians and Blair flew first class?



It might seem an excessively on-the-nose detail, in a series that largely explores the growing obsolescence of the Royal Family in modern Britain, that Prince Charles is compelled to fly business class to Hong Kong, while politicians such as Blair and Edward Heath were flown first class. But it’s entirely true; Charles wrote in his diary, “It took me some time to realise that this was not first class (!) although it puzzled me as to why the seat seemed so uncomfortable”, and, when he did, he sighed to himself, “Such is the end of Empire”.

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