“This is going to be enormous; people have no idea, like nothing we’ve ever seen,” declares an anxious Dominic West in a surprisingly beneficent portrayal of Prince Charles in the final season of Netflix’s The Crown. Charles is accurately predicting the public reaction to the death of his former wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, but he could just as well be talking about the Aussie actor who plays her, the extraordinary Elizabeth Debicki.
The show’s first four episodes are dominated by her captivating performance. For anyone who wasn’t around to be caught up in Diana’s unique blend of vulnerability, charisma, maternal warmth and manipulative girl power, this is a chance to catch up.
Through Elizabeth, viewers witness Diana’s dreamy charm lighting up the screen. It’s a fantastic piece of acting. That shy head tilt, doe eyes gazing up through her fringe, seductive plummy voice, gazelle elegance, puckish playfulness, sad search for love – OMG, Diana is back!
It’s a very strange feeling because we all know the story, whether we were there or not. Now this beautiful, vibrant young woman is about to be snatched away, again, which creates a dramatic tension all of its own.
“I was seven when it happened,” notes Elizabeth, who sees Diana’s tragedy as “a piece of human history … part of a culture. I have a very distinct memory of watching the funeral when I was a kid and watching the two princes … I was really young, I didn’t really understand what was going on. “My mother was devastated and I was trying to process it,” she remembers.
Like many royal correspondents I was concerned when I heard that The Crown’s creator, Peter Morgan, was working on a dramatisation of Diana’s death. Elizabeth’s right – this is a moment in history when the world stopped and as such it was comprehensively documented in news footage from the time. Why fictionalise it? Surely the truth is dramatic enough.
I was working in the media in London when the news broke and for days, weeks and months after, it was all that was covered, not just in the UK, in countries Diana had never even visited. In the decades that have followed, the intensity of this tragic event still cuts deep.
Her sons, Princes William and Harry, have both spoken – and in Harry’s case written – about their ongoing trauma. Not only did they lose their mother on August 31, 1997, they have had to relive that pain every time another documentary or media story unearths a new conspiracy theory about the circumstances surrounding her death.
But time has started to heal, Diana’s memorial was unveiled in 2021 and royal life has marched to a different drum which has its own complexities. So now, barely a year after their grandmother, the Queen, has died, it seems especially callous to present the brothers with The Crown’s idea of what went on that heady summer when their mother started dating Dodi Fayed.
Diana hung out on luxury yachts, was pursued by paparazzi through the streets of Paris and the couple died together in a devastating car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. I can only imagine how they are feeling – which is pertinent, because The Crown is all about imagining.
This series has invested millions into the highest production values and research, resulting in a six-season drama that looks and feels so true to life that many take its scenes as gospel. Peter Morgan has repeatedly refused pleas to declare the piece a work of fiction in the credits. He claims there’s no need; it’s obviously a drama. But in my own “imagining” of his intentions, I suspect he doesn’t want to break that fourth wall, as dramatists would say.
He wants to create an aura of veracity while brazenly making up dialogue and scenes, and in many cases twisting the facts to suit his character arcs. Whatever his intentions, though, I find myself strangely comforted by the first four episodes just released of this final piece of fictionalisation. If the royal family do watch it, which only Harry has admitted he does, I don’t think they have anything to worry about.
So far, this is a dignified piece of TV drama. While there are some factual inaccuracies, which I’ll come to, the tone is respectful and deeply empathetic. Prince Charles especially is shown as a caring father who admits he’s made mistakes. He is listening to the public mood and he understands how they feel about Diana. In the weeks before her death we see the couple trying to navigate divorce with maturity and understanding, to be “brilliant” at co-parenting, putting their boys first. When discussing her funeral Charles says, “I admit I let her down in life but I will not let her down in death.”
Of course, we have no idea if he did say this, but it’s nice to think that he might have. Similarly, seeing Diana so alive and vibrant and mostly having fun as she gads about the Mediterranean is actually quite joyful, even though we know it’s to be short-lived. Indeed, the impeccable recreation of Diana’s fabulous wardrobe – all that chic resort wear, the swimsuits that became iconic and we saw in grainy paparazzi shots – now we can enjoy in full glory.
“I really love the blue swimsuit that Diana wears when she walks out to the end of the diving board and sits down,” says Elizabeth Debicki. “There was just something about that swimsuit and recreating that moment felt very sacred and important, and it was very important we got it right.” And mostly I feel they do get it right. Of course, there are a few revisions that stand out.
Yes, Diana wore her leopard print swimsuit and allowed paparazzi to take photos of her to attract front-page attention away from Camilla Parker-Bowles’s 50th birthday party. This much is true and verified by the photographers and journalists who were there. But the whole narrative of Charles begging his mother to attend his birthday party for Camilla, at Highgrove and Princess Margaret, the only royal there, then telephoning the Queen to lecture her on her need to accept her eldest son and heir’s love match, is false.
In reality, Princess Margaret didn’t go to the party, and while the guest list was kept private, I understand there were no other members of the royal family present. And while we don’t know if Charles invited his parents, I can’t imagine he would have. This wasn’t a time when the Queen was ready to announce her approval of the couple publicly. What’s more, Charles definitely didn’t give a speech professing his love, quoting Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth, as his character does in The Crown; the only speaker was believed to be Camilla’s son, Tom Parker-Bowles.
Also incorrect is the yarn about a quaint local Scottish photographer taking the famous shots of Charles in a kilt with his sons by the River Dee on the Balmoral Estate. That was a media photo-opportunity for a clutch of regular royal photographers. The story arc involving Dodi’s proposal on the night Diana died and the ring she supposedly chose is also refuted by close friends. And the rather beautiful scene in which Charles is overheard sobbing loudly alone beside Diana’s lifeless body on a trolley in the Paris hospital while her sisters and officials stand outside is certainly false.
In fact, Charles went into the room together with Diana’s sisters. While they are reported to have cried and Charles to have come out red-eyed, he didn’t break down noisily as he does in The Crown. I don’t think these departures really matter, but one dramatic device I do find off-putting is the appearance of Diana as a ghost to Charles and the Queen, highlighting their inner thoughts. Yes, Elizabeth Debicki pulls it off with aplomb, but it’s a clumsy device to discuss what Peter Morgan believes the monarch and heir are really thinking. I guess at least we know that this is fiction!
The other ghost is Dodi, who appears to his father. Mohamed Al-Fayed is the only disappointingly two-dimensional character in these episodes, depicted as a cheating, social-climbing, stereotypically controlling Muslim father who uses his son to woo Diana in a bid to get close to the royal family and have his bid for British citizenship granted. It’s a shame since the other characters are so thoughtful and complex.
Ultimately, though, these first four episodes are all about Diana. When she dies Charles holds off telling William and Harry: “While they’re sleeping they still have a mother,” he says. And when they’re walking behind her coffin at the funeral William asks his grandfather, Prince Philip, “Why are they crying for someone they never knew?” “They’re not crying for her, they’re crying for you,” replies Philip. I thought I would be crying for the boys watching this, but instead I felt a sense of peace and calm.
“It was really like an incredibly luminous being was lost,” says Elizabeth. “When I first started watching The Crown it really expanded a sense of empathy I had towards historical figures that I … either didn’t know anything about, or I didn’t feel like they were people that I could know about. They existed in a history book and Peter [Morgan] brought them to life, in a way that was so accessible, and very moving … maybe that’s its legacy.”
What follows in the remaining six episodes, which Netflix is airing from December 14, covers William and Kate dating, with the series culminating in the wedding of Charles and Camilla. “The last third is much happier for Charles as it ends with his marriage to Camilla, which was unquestioningly the best wedding I’ve ever had,” jokes Dominic West. Bring it on!