Imelda Staunton first began what she lovingly calls her “homework” back in 2019. She had just been cast as the Queen in The Crown and was embarking on a process of learning to walk, talk and move like Her Majesty. “It’s terrifying and exciting and a large responsibility,” she said at the time.
In Season Five, we’re in the 1990s, the Queen is in her mid-60s and facing the most challenging decade of her reign which included the very public breakdown of Charles and Diana’s marriage and her famous “annus horribilis” speech, which interestingly creator Peter Morgan chooses to rewrite for dramatic effect.
Following in the footsteps of her brilliant predecessors from the first four seasons – Claire Foy and Olivia Colman – Imelda faced a daunting task. But as I chat to her now and compare the real Imelda – albeit an award-winning actor in her own right – to the character she creates on screen, the transformation is extraordinary.
Peter Morgan has always stressed that he doesn’t want his actors to be mimics, but since The Crown’s characters are people the viewers feel they know, if the drama is to work, we must believe in them. For Imelda that was achieved with a lot of hard work. But how does she do it?
“We have a dialect coach, a movement coach, and you have all the footage. You watch the real people, and for me I just need a lot of time, trying to get it into your metabolism in a way, working out how they move,” she explains. “The longer it’s in there then it hopefully becomes part of you.
‘I don’t go around in my life as the Queen but you just plug in when you have to plug in. And you have to plug in to something that you know, that you feel, oh that’s it, that sentence. When you’re learning their voice there are phrases that you use that help you, your ears get attuned, and it’s like learning music.”
The actress actually met the Queen in person when she sang for her 90th birthday and was invited to tea afterwards. That she went on to play the sovereign does feel a little “weird”, she said when she agreed to play the role. Also unsettling was the unexpected death of the sovereign during filming. “We started filming the day before she died, and we were filming on the day. We got home in the evening and found out with the rest of the world, and then thankfully in the schedule I had 10 days off, for which I was very grateful. That helped,” she says.
“The production shut down for a few days anyway in Barcelona and in London as a sign of respect, but I then filmed the day after the funeral and that was quite strange; I think probably more strange for the people looking at me.”
On set there was sadness, Imelda notes. “Although she had a long and fulfilling and happy (as far as we know) life, so it wasn’t a sudden death, there’s no feeling of tragedy, but it was still a shock, I think, for a lot of people, and more so with this particular program with this family who, like them or not, you have got to know.”
Philip’s close friend
Playing opposite Imelda in the role of Prince Philip is Game of Thrones star Jonathan Pryce. Jonathan filmed all his scenes before Philip died in April 2021, which adds a poignancy to the portrayal.
“To me, Philip has always been some kind of enigma in the background,” he tells me. “We knew very little about him, rarely heard him speak and he didn’t have very good press. I felt very confident in the way I was portraying him because I felt I was informing the audience about Philip. Then when he died, and there’s all these documentaries and tributes to him, creating an entirely different image of this man who was beloved by the family and grandchildren; a very benevolent figure; a kindly figure. Speaking selfishly, I was thinking, oh no, I wanted the audience to find that out from me.
“I suppose, speaking again in actors’ terms, it gave me a great deal of confidence, and also with the passing of the Queen and all the films and documentaries about it, that we were doing the right thing and we had not misrepresented them in any way. They were being treated by all of us with a great deal of respect and integrity.”
That idea of respect has filled the British media in the build-up to the launch of Season Five. The drama has always been controversial, but as we edge closer to recent times and revisit what Peter Morgan says may have been going on behind palace doors, there’s no question the show will be at best uncomfortable and worst deeply upsetting for a family in mourning.
In this season we see another side to Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage as they learn to live with their public roles and give each other space privately. In a powerful exchange Philip says to his wife, “You make me a better person” and the Queen replies, “And you of me, isn’t that the point of marriage?”
“I think they are two people who knew what they had to do and just did it,” says Imelda. “Knowing that she had a very strong man by her side, he might have been one step behind, but she knew his strength and his humour and his ability to look forward, and I think that they were aware of how good they were together in public. You often see them laughing in public.”
Jonathan agrees. “I like to think when I’ve seen bits of film that even though they’re in the public eye with thousands of people looking at them, for them they were like a couple of kids having a bit of fun. I sense that at times, that they were aware of the irony and the ridiculousness of it all.”
We see Philip develop a very close relationship with Penny Knatchbull, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who was the wife of Philip’s godson. “Penny suffers the death of her daughter, Leonora, and you see Philip going to console her. You see Philip and the Queen at the funeral, and they suggest to Penny that it would be good for her if she found a pursuit to take her mind elsewhere. Philip encourages her to take up carriage driving, and she becomes part of that gang so you see that friendship grow and develop,” explains Jonathan.
While it has often been suggested – but never proven – that there was something more between Philip and Penny, who was 22 years younger than him, Jonathan says the drama created in The Crown is more about Philip choosing to expand his horizons in his later years.
“He wasn’t the reluctant débutante. He went into that marriage with his eyes open, but knowing what he would have to give up – and I think as he looked back on his life in his seventies he thought, ‘There’s still time for me to build a life outside of this relationship.’ That’s what we see… It’s fascinating, but we should always remember that it is a drama.”
Diana fights back
The other significant “drama” that plays out in this series is the disintegration of the marriage of Charles and Diana. Australian star Elizabeth Debicki steps into Diana’s shoes for this season and, like Imelda, threw herself into a mountain of research material to live and breathe Diana’s world.
“Some actors don’t really like doing research. I loved it. It simultaneously makes you incredibly excited and engaged and then you just feel like it’s an insurmountable amount of work to get to know a human being in that way, but I just buried myself in It for a while,” she says. “In the ’90s everything had started to be filmed and also it was the birth of the 24-hour news cycle so there’s just this incredible amount of content that we have access to. Diana was the most photographed person in the world at that time. As an actor you open the portal and this huge tsunami of information comes at you. I happily swam around in it.
“Peter Morgan’s genius is his interpretation of the private lives of these individuals and who they might have been away from that camera lens. There’s some footage where Diana is speaking to her children that I found really powerful and evoked something very specific for me.”
As an Aussie, Elizabeth felt she had a totally different starting point to the British actors. “I’m grateful that I had a very blank canvas. I know we’re part of the Commonwealth, but I don’t have an inbuilt, genetic understanding of these people, or even the importance of this family. That gave me a freedom about angles in which to approach it. Every piece of information I gleaned would set different light bulbs going off. I really didn’t know a lot, so it was fresh to me, and genuinely fascinating.”
In many ways Diana is the centre of this series. We see her recording the tapes for Andrew Morton to write his biography and we see her become increasingly paranoid and isolated as she decides to film the infamous BBC TV interview with Martin Bashir in which she revealed her “truth” about her marriage. “It’s quite a complicated journey to get to the decision to do it, and we watch her make a series of choices, none of which are easy for her, because she gets a lot of conflicting information,” explains Elizabeth.
“My understanding of why she would choose to do it was an attempt to control a narrative that felt like it was otherwise spiralling out of her control. If you can tell your own story in that situation, perhaps people will understand what you have been through and they might understand why you may need to break away from certain systems and why you may need more freedom than you’ve been given. I think it was her attempt to tell her story in the most transparent way she could, hoping that would translate to people watching it.”
Elizabeth’s portrayal of Diana has received rave reviews from her fellow cast members. “Oh my gosh, she’s off the scale. She’s phenomenal,” says Imelda. Jonathan agrees: “I cannot look at her without getting a lump in my throat welling up. She is extraordinary. It’s great. You’d be proud of her, Australia.”
When Dominic West, who plays Prince Charles, turned up for his first camera test he was also blown away by Elizabeth’s Diana. “She came in looking just like Princess Di and sounding just like Princess Di,” he recalls. We join Charles and Diana in the first episode on holiday in Italy on a yacht for their “second honeymoon”. “It was a PR exercise, an attempt to show that the marriage was strong and that the family – Charles, Diana and the two sons – were a strong unit,” explains Dominic.
“I think in some ways they were. I think they were both good and conscientious parents. I know he read bedtime stories to them every night on that holiday. But for their marriage it was an attempt to paper over cracks that couldn’t be papered over … I think Charles and Diana did have chemistry in the early stage of their marriage and when Harry was born, but other than that, they are like two opposing magnets, they’re not getting on at all.”
Charles & William
For Dominic, playing Prince Charles (as he was then), who he has met several times and also been involved with for His Majesty’s Prince’s Trust charity, was a challenge. “I think Josh O’Connor [who played Charles in the earlier series] was totally sympathetic: it was warts-and-all and he came across as deeply humane, which I think Prince Charles is. So, I was a little concerned, particularly during this period of Seasons Five and Six, which includes Diana’s death. It’s not the greatest time of Charles’ life. You don’t take that up lightly.
“I think what Peter was interested in is how there was nothing Charles could do, no PR stunt he could pull, to make his position any better.”
The Crown revisits the infamous 1994 TV documentary journalist Jonathan Dimbleby filmed with the royal. “Dimbleby and his cameras followed Charles around for a year, which I didn’t realise, the idea being that if people saw what Charles did day to day, and they saw the extent of his work and his conscientiousness and the seriousness with which he took his role and the worthiness of the causes that he was championing, that they would understand he’s a force for good and not the villain he was made out to be in the papers,” notes Dominic.
“But it spectacularly backfired because after they did the interview, Dimbleby came back and said, ‘Look, we can’t release this without addressing the one issue everyone is actually interested in, which is your marriage.’ Against Charles’s better judgement he agreed to address that issue and of course that’s all anyone was interested in. With that one confession of adultery, he obliterated anything else good … Peter was keen to show that.”
And in an added personal twist, Dominic’s real-life son, Senan West, plays Prince William in the show. “He loved it. He’s never acted before, not even a school play because COVID stopped all that, so I didn’t know whether he could do it. He’s blue eyed and blond and exactly the right age, so when they were looking for William I said to him, ‘Do you want to have a go?’. They did a nationwide search but he did really well in the audition and they cast him. I watched the first scene he did which was quite a sad scene that Peter had written of William on the phone to his mum from boarding school and it was so moving. He was wonderful: just so totally real and innocent.”
The Crown Season Five streams on Netflix from November 9.
You can read this story and many others in the December issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.