Entertainment

What 'The Crown' Gets Wrong (and Right) About Princess Diana

From the AIDS crisis to the Royal Wedding, it's a mixed bag.
JG
London, GB
November 24, 2020, 10:48am
diana-the-crown
Left: Des Willie / ©Netflix / Courtesy, Everett Collection. Right: REUTERS / Dylan Martinez DM / CMC / PN

Princess Diana is easily the best thing about season four of The Crown. Unlike Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Thatcher, which feels like an over-the-top, cartoonish caricature, Emma Corrin perfectly captures Diana’s energy, her vulnerability and her charm.

But what about the story The Crown is trying to tell about Princess Diana? Here’s what it gets right, and what it gets wrong.

Was Charles Really Dating Diana’s Older Sister?

Fair play to The Crown for depicting Charles and Diana’s first meeting – where a 16-year-old Diana is dressed up as a wood nymph and Prince Charles is a grown man – as incredibly creepy, rather than a charming rom-com meet cute. And yes, Charles really was dating Diana’s older sister at the time.

According to Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing As Society, a social history of the 1980s, Diana’s sister “ruined her moment in the spotlight as one of Charles’s girlfriends by blurting out her life’s story to James Whitaker [a Royal correspondent] and another tabloid journalist”.

Advertisement

Looking at how Diana’s marriage ended up, this may well have been a lucky escape.

Did Charles Really Respond to an Interviewer Asking If He Was in Love with His Fiancée By Saying, ‘Whatever ‘in Love’ Means’?

Yes. Oddball behaviour. In The Crown, Diana is shocked by this, and discusses it anxiously with her friends afterwards. But Charles reportedly used this exact same phrasing to her, in private, when he proposed. Which… should maybe have been a red flag.

Was Charles and Diana’s Wedding Really That Big of a Deal?

Yes. Taking place at a fraught time politically, the Royal Wedding was seized upon as an opportunity to bring the nation together, and it largely worked. As much as £400 million worth of commemorative memorabilia was sold, 750 million people watched the televised ceremony across the globe and 1 million people lined the streets of London on the 29th of July, 1981 to catch a glimpse of the royal carriage.

Diana quickly became an international beauty symbol. So much so that American heavy metal star Ted Nugent reportedly declared, during a 1984 gig at the Hammersmith Odeon, “I’d drag my dick through a mile of broken glass just to jerk off in her shadow.” The president of the USA, however, didn’t share this fascination. When the couple visited the White House for the first time, according to McSmith’s No Such Thing As Society, Ronald Reagan accidentally raised a toast to “Prince Charles and Princess Andrew”.

Advertisement

Juan Carlos, then the King of Spain, was furious that the couple’s honeymoon would pass through Gibraltar, a disputed territory, and refused an invitation to the wedding – as did Reverend Ian Paisley, on the grounds that it would be too fancy. “I’m a plain man and I don’t particularly enjoy pomp and ceremony,” he said at the time.

Did the Royal Family Really Do Diana That Dirty?

The Crown has its cake and eats it when it comes to its depiction of the Queen. When she’s up against Thatcher, she’s very much “the goodie”, an empath who sticks up for the the welfare state and cares deeply about the dispossessed. But when it comes to her interactions with Diana, she is ice-cold, to the point of outright cruelty. Yes, people can be multifaceted, but surely not to those extremes?

Well, the consensus seems to be that Diana was treated as coldly by the Royals as The Crown depicts. According to No Such Thing As Society, “What she lacked was not professional advice but emotional support. At the age of nineteen, she had been torn away from everything that was familiar, and abandoned in the corridors of Buckingham Palace, where emotional contact was unknown.”

This is certainly the narrative that Diana herself subscribed to. She once said, “I couldn’t believe how cold everyone was. I was told one thing but actually another thing was going on. The lies and the deceit.”

Was Diana as Troubled as ‘The Crown’ Makes Out?

If anything, even more so. The Crown details Diana’s struggles with bulimia in unflinching detail, but that was just the start of it. While she was pregnant with William, she threw herself down a flight of stairs, later saying she felt neglected and that it was a bid to get her husband’s attention.

“I had told Charles I felt so desperate and I was crying my eyes out,” she told her biographer, Andrew Morton. “He said I was crying wolf. ‘I’m not going to listen,’ he said. ‘You’re always doing this to me. I’m going riding now.’”

Advertisement

As well as bulimia, Diana also struggled with postpartum depression and self-harm.

Was Diana as Stupid as ‘The Crown’ Makes Out?

The Crown depicts a gap in cultural interests as one of the key sources of tension in the Wales’ marriage. In one mortifying scene, Diana unwittingly sabotages an evening of opera held in Prince Charles’ honour by going on stage and surprising him with a dance to “Uptown Girl” (which really happened). When she gives him, for his birthday, a video of herself singing a number from The Phantom of the Opera, it doesn’t go down any better — which, in fairness, is the one part of the series where I felt a twinge of sympathy for Prince Charles. But is this dynamic accurate?

According to some sources, kind of. Diana once described herself as “thick as a plank”, so clearly didn’t have any pretensions of being an intellect. She left school without any O-level qualifications and, prior to marrying Charles, worked as a cleaner and a kindergarten assistant (The Crown takes pains to establish Lady Diana as a bit of a working class hero – despite the fact she was born, at the Sandringham Estate, into British nobility).

According to journalist and historian Paul Johnson, “She thought she knew nothing and was very stupid… she made it impossible to criticise her, because she’d say, ‘I am very thick and uneducated.’” Still, however she thought of herself, the empathy she clearly possessed is a form of intelligence. She was also far more skilled at playing the media than anyone else in the Royal Family, which suggests a level of shrewdness.

Was Diana’s AIDS Work Actually Such a Big Deal?

The work Diana did during the AIDS crisis is one of the main reasons she remains a widely loved figure in the LGBTQ community (the other reason being that she was both really hot and desperately unhappy, which is a potent combination for gay men). At a time when discrimination against people with AIDS was extreme, the interventions Diana made did make a difference.

As historian Alwyn Turner writes of Diana in Rejoice! Rejoice!, a book about Britain in the 1980s: “Her involvement in AIDS charities did as much as anything in the short term to help turn around public opinion around the condition, and her televised meetings with patients helped destroy myths around the syndrome being spread by normal social contact.”