Television

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Crown Season 4

Princess Diana, and Emma Corrin as Diana in The Crown
Princess Diana, and Emma Corrin as Diana in The Crown. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Raveendran/AFP via Getty Images and Des Willie/Netflix.

Season 4 of The Crown is the story of three queens: Elizabeth, the actual queen; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party’s queen bee; and Diana, the media’s “Queen of Hearts.” The new season explores both the rift between the queen and her prime minister—as Thatcher, a committed free marketeer, slashes Britain’s social safety net during the 1980s—and between Charles, Prince of Wales, and his new wife. It also continues to develop the overarching theme of the series so far—the determination to preserve the monarchy as an institution, whatever the cost to the happiness of individual royal family members—as Diana comes on the scene.

According to the show’s head of research, Anne Sulzberger, the writers’ room is not filled with scriptwriters but a team of researchers. Yet the facts seem mostly there to provide a skeleton for what the show’s creator, Peter Morgan, is really interested in: the private conversations that took place between the public events. What, for example, did Diana say to Charles after the engagement photo shoot where, when asked if he was in love, the prince responded “whatever love means”? What were the queen’s real thoughts on the collapse of British manufacturing industries due to Thatcher’s policies and the massive unemployment that followed?

Morgan has obviously had to make educated guesses about these personal encounters, and we may never know how accurate they are. But what about the events that surround these encounters, some of which sound as if they must have been created for dramatic purposes? We break it down.

A Palace Intruder

A drawing of Michael Fagan in the queen's quarters, and the scene as depicted in The Crown
A drawing of Michael Fagan in the queen’s quarters, and the scene as depicted in The Crown. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images and Netflix.

In Episode 5, an unemployed housepainter manages to cross the courtyard of Buckingham Palace without being detected, shimmy up a drainpipe, jimmy open an upstairs window, and find his way to the queen’s bedroom where she is sleeping. Fortunately for Elizabeth, the intruder is not malevolent, only somewhat emotionally unstable and at the end of his tether due to prolonged joblessness, his wife taking up with another man, and his not being able to see his kids after attacking the new boyfriend in front of them. His goal is to tell her what life is really like for the dispossessed so she can confront Thatcher about it at the PM’s next audience. The queen’s long experience of meeting complete strangers comes to her aid despite her fright, and she makes him feel really heard so when the police finally burst in, he goes quietly. The incident further fuels Elizabeth’s discomfort with Thatcher’s policies.

While the break-in really happened, the culprit, Michael Fagan, told a British newspaper in 2012 that, far from having a 10-minute conversation with him, the queen “went past me and ran out of the room, her little bare feet running across the floor.” Also, it was an unarmed footman who delayed him until the police arrived, not the queen herself. It is true that, astonishingly, he had pulled the same stunt a month earlier and really did have time to drink half a bottle of wine before escaping undetected. But it seems that Fagan was not the down-on-his-luck Everyman the show depicts, nor did he have a political agenda. “I don’t know why I did it, something just got into my head,” he said. “I went back because I thought ‘that’s naughty, that’s naughty that I can walk round there.’ ” Fagan attributed his actions to an excess of magic mushrooms taken five months previously, declaring, “Two years later I was still coming down. I was high on mushrooms for a long, long time.”

The Death of Mountbatten

Lord Mountbatten, substitute father to both Prince Philip and Prince Charles (who calls Mountbatten his “honorary grandfather”), calls Charles, who is fishing in Iceland, and urges him to forget about Camilla Parker Bowles. The two quarrel, with Charles slamming the phone down. Mountbatten writes a letter to Charles, then goes on a family lobster fishing outing. There’s an explosion and Mountbatten is killed. The Irish Republican Army claims responsibility, calling it a political act even though one of Mountbatten’s grandsons, his daughter’s mother-in-law, and the teenager crewing the boat also died. Some weeks after, a grieving Charles receives Mountbatten’s letter urging him to forget about another man’s wife and instead marry a “sweet and innocent young girl, with no past.”

Prince Charles, and Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles in The Crown
Prince Charles, and Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles in The Crown. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images and Des Willie/Netflix.

Lord Louis Mountbatten, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, and Prince Philip’s uncle, was indeed a father figure to both Charles and Philip, mentoring the latter when Philip arrived in Britain as an 18-year-old, and to a large extent engineering the prince’s meetings with the young Princess Elizabeth. Mountbatten continued his matchmaking efforts by setting up Charles and his granddaughter Amanda Knatchbull, but when Charles finally proposed, she turned him down. Mountbatten didn’t write a letter urging Charles to marry a girl without a past that arrived post-mortem; in 1974 Mountbatten had sent a letter to Charles with the advice “for a wife [a man] should choose a suitable, attractive and sweet-charactered girl before she met anyone else she might fall for.” This was somewhat ironic, because in the same letter Mountbatten had urged the shy, sensitive Charles to “sow his wild oats” and had been instrumental in introducing the prince to a fast-living scene of international polo players.

Margaret Thatcher Clashes With the Queen

Margaret Thatcher, and Gillian Anderson as Thatcher in The Crown
Margaret Thatcher, and Gillian Anderson as Thatcher in The Crown. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Cardwell/AFP via Getty Images and Des Willie/Netflix.

At first, new Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the queen seem set to get along, sharing a sense of duty to country, a strong work ethic, a flinty impatience with self-indulgence, a fondness for a spoiled son, and a penchant for stiff Launer handbags. But in Episode 8, the two part ways when Thatcher refuses to sign a document committing the Commonwealth—the organization of former and current British colonies and territories formed after WWII that Elizabeth considers the signature achievement of her monarchy—to imposing sanctions against South Africa as long as apartheid continues, and soon it is handbags at teatime. Worse, word of the rift reaches the press, threatening a constitutional crisis.

According to Irish government files declassified in 2017, this is exactly what happened, with the queen so furious she considered scrapping the weekly audience. “There is a wide view too that the Queen is in a rage with Mrs. Thatcher over her handling of the sanctions question,” an Irish diplomat based in the country’s London embassy noted. Morgan suggests Thatcher may have been influenced by her son Mark’s business interests in South Africa; while that’s difficult to confirm, in 1996, Mark Thatcher settled in South Africa, where he started a company that was investigated in 1998 for loan shark activity. Also, he did, as Episode 4 depicts, get lost during the 1982 Paris-Dakar road rally due to overestimation of his navigational abilities, resulting in a massive manhunt.

The Hidden Cousins

Picking up a theme from Season 3, Princess Margaret is desperate to find a serious purpose by taking on more official royal duties, especially as health difficulties mean her partying days are behind her. However, now that Princes Edward and Andrew are over 21, she has moved further down the pecking order and she is told she is unlikely to deputize for the queen. Growing ever more depressed, Margaret finally agrees to see a psychotherapist, through whom she discovers she has two first cousins on her mother’s side who were institutionalized. Although Burke’s Peerage—the Wikipedia of British aristocracy—says the cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, died some years ago, Margaret decides to investigate for herself and discovers not only are the two cousins very much alive (and developmentally disabled), but there are three other cousins of theirs in the same institution. Margaret confronts the queen mother, who justifies her nieces’ institutionalization by pointing out that, given how hard the hereditary principle is to justify, any suggestion the royal family bloodline is genetically tainted would bring the whole thing crashing down.

Katherine and Nessa Bowes-Lyon were real people with severe learning difficulties, and they were committed to the Royal Earlswood Hospital in 1941, when they were 15 and 22, respectively. According to the Guardian, there is no record of the sisters receiving any family visits, but Katherine and Nerissa’s niece Lady Elizabeth Anson declared in 2011 that “the sisters have always been looked after by that family,” and that their mother, Fenella Bowes-Lyon, the queen mother’s sister-in-law, visited them up until her death in 1966. In any case, a tragic irony pointed out by The Crown is true: The gene was passed down through Fenella’s family, not the Bowes-Lyons, and so the girls were locked away even though they posed no threat to the perceived purity of the royal family’s gene pool.

Andrew’s Girlfriend

Prince Andrew’s arrival at Windsor Castle for a heart-to-heart with the queen immediately establishes him as dashing but arrogant and entitled (in contrast to Charles, who is certainly entitled but far from arrogant). Andrew’s Royal Navy helicopter rattles the windows as he touches down on the lawn, and he tosses his helmet off to the side without even looking as he strides through the entrance hall, certain that a footman will scramble to catch it. When the talk turns to his love life, Andrew mentions he is still seeing an actress and starts describing the plot of her latest film, The Awakening of Emily, in which she portrays a 17-year-old thrown among perverted older predators. The queen is less than delighted to learn it is a “blue” (i.e., soft porn) film.

Andrew did indeed date an American actress named Koo Stark in the early 1980s. They were introduced by mutual friends in 1982 when she was understudying a role in a National Theatre production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and she became a serious-enough girlfriend for her to meet his mother and for him to meet hers when the couple stayed in Princess Margaret’s villa on Mustique. Six years before she met Andrew, Stark had starred in the soft-core film (now known as just Emily), in which “the sharp class distinctions of British society are blurred by the universal nature of sexual desire,” with a tabloid-friendly scene of Stark naked in a shower. Interestingly, the film’s director, Henry Herbert, led a double life as the 17th Earl of Pembroke, so Stark (who is from an upper-crust New York family) already moved in aristocratic circles. We have no way of knowing whether Andrew had this unlikely sounding discussion with his mother or if it was included because of the prince’s current involvement in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, but it seems the queen did not object to Stark as a girlfriend in real life, as the actress was a frequent guest at Buckingham Palace during the relationship. Stark proved to be a class act, never publishing a tell-all despite many lucrative offers.

Diana and The Phantom of the Opera

Princess Diana in her wedding dress, and Emma Corrin as Diana in The Crown
Princess Diana in her wedding dress, and Emma Corrin as Diana in The Crown. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Pool/AFP via Getty Images and Des Willie/Netflix.

By 1985, Charles and Diana’s marriage was unraveling, the differences in their ages (“not so much an age gap as an age chasm,” as Princess Anne observes), interests, and temperaments—not to mention Charles being deeply in love with someone else—proving to be insurmountable hurdles. We see how loneliness and lack of support exacerbate Diana’s emotional problems and her bulimia, which Diana publicly opened up about in her 1995 BBC interview with Martin Bashir. Meanwhile, Charles’ fragile self-esteem is constantly threatened by Diana’s far greater popularity with the public.

Charles is happily enjoying a gala performance of opera and ballet at Covent Garden in honor of his 37th birthday when Diana makes a surprise appearance on stage performing a duet with a ballet dancer to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” The audience loves it, giving the princess standing ovation, but Charles is furious, his thunder stolen yet again, and on the ride home berates her for what he calls a “mortifying display.” Then he drops her at the palace and goes off to see Camilla. A rebuffed Diana starts seeing her “riding instructor,” James Hewitt, and the couple lead openly separate lives, until the queen gets wind of the situation and orders them to make it work because “the heir’s marriage cannot be allowed to fail.” Diana is willing to try and dumps Hewitt, but a brush with death during an avalanche has convinced Charles that life is too short not to spend with the woman he really loves, and he wants a divorce. Nevertheless, the couple starts to reconcile and Diana comes down to Highgrove, Charles’s country house, for a romantic anniversary dinner, where she gives him a VHS tape as a gift. It turns out to be a painstakingly made recording of the princess performing a cheesy (some would say) love song from The Phantom of the Opera on stage at a West End theater, complete with the show’s original orchestra and costumes. Charles plasters a smile on his face but later tells Camilla he hates the music (Andrew Lloyd Webber is certainly not catnip for cultural highbrows) and her singing.

Diana did in fact perform a duet with Royal Ballet soloist Wayne Sleep at a gala performance, though it was one to celebrate supporters of the Royal Ballet rather than Charles’ birthday—and it was a wild success, receiving eight curtain calls. Diana loved to dance and had approached Sleep earlier in 1985 for lessons, which hadn’t worked out, but then she approached him again about performing at the gala. “Charles was going to be in the audience and she wanted to surprise him; it was all top secret,” Sleep told the Guardian. “The routine had a bit of everything: jazz, ballet, even a kickline. … She loved it, but was most thrilled we’d kept it secret from Charles, and our rehearsals away from the paparazzi.” It is also true that Charles was less than delighted, with Diana’s favorite leak conduit Richard Kay telling a 2017 documentary: “She did it as a tribute to Charles. Charles wasn’t terribly impressed. He thought she was showing off.”

Sulzberger defended the “All I Ask of You” performance in an interview with the Telegraph by stating that “Phantom is fact” and citing press reports of Diana visiting Phantom of the Opera’s West End set. But there’s no evidence that Diana ever sang and danced for the camera beyond a Washington Post column from August 1988 that suggested her movements were directed by Phantom choreographer Gillian Lynne.