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
2022 • 9:39am
should not be paraded as fact.” “Complete and utter rubbish.” “Full of
nonsense, but this is nonsense on stilts.” “An inaccurate and hurtful account
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.
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.
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.”
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?
one: Queen Victoria Syndrome
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
Queen ask John Major to pay for HMY Britannia to be replaced at public expense?
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.”
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.
two: The System
doctor James Colthurst act as a go-between for Princess Diana and Andrew
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.
and Colthurst threatened during the writing of Morton’s book about Princess
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.”
Philip an aficionado of carriage driving?
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.
three: Mou Mou
Al-Fayed see the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Alexandria in 1946?
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.
Princess Diana first meet Dodi Fayed at a polo match?
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
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.
four: Annus Horribilis
Queen weep at a lunch at the Guildhall to celebrate her 40th anniversary on the
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.
Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend reunited shortly before his death?
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.
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.
Princess Margaret have a dog called Rum?
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.
five: The Way Ahead
Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles’ “Tampongate” conversation recorded by
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.
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”.
Charles confess to adultery in an interview with Jonathan Dimbleby?
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.
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
six: Ipatiev House
British Royal Family indirectly responsible for the deaths of the Romanovs?
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
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.
Philip enjoy a close friendship with Penny Mountbatten?
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.
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
seven: No Woman’s Land
Bashir lie to Princess Diana in order to persuade her to participate in a
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.
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.
Princess Diana go on the cinema on a date with the surgeon Hasnat Khan to see
Apollo 13 in disguise?
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”.
BBC’s chairman Marmaduke Hussey clash with its Director-General John Birt over
the Panorama interview?
“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.
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.
tell the Queen about the Panorama interview in advance?
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?”
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”.
nine: Couple 31
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?
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.
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
Charles and Princess Diana meet privately after the divorce was finalised?
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
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.
Charles and Tony Blair have a private meeting shortly after Blair became Prime
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”.
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
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.
Charles fly Business Class to Hong Kong to mark its handover to the Chinese
while the politicians and Blair flew first class?
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”.