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By Benji Wilson
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The death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997, has long loomed large over Netflix’s The Crown.
From the minute Diana Spencer, then played by Emma Corrin, appeared in season three, everyone knew how her story would end. The question was how would The Crown, that nostalgic, glitzy, sometimes controversial mouli of Britain’s modern monarchy deal with what was the biggest news story the royal family has ever been caught up in?
Given the series hasn’t shied away from ruptures in the late Queen and Prince Philip’s marriage, nor Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, nor the royal family’s own shabby treatment of Princess Diana (and indeed its all-round tin ear to the calls of modernity) what would The Crown’s writer and creator Peter Morgan make of the most world-shattering chapter in his story?
Elizabeth Debicki as Diana with Prince William (Rufus Kampa) and Prince Harry (Fflyn Edwards) in the final season of The Crown.Credit: Netflix
His first response has been to split the sixth and final season of The Crown in two – almost as if Diana’s death is a cataclysm so great it’s blown the entire series apart. The first four episodes build to the sudden death in a car crash in a Paris underpass of the woman Tony Blair christened “The People’s Princess”, and then cover the national mourning – and royal reckoning – that followed. The final four episodes, to be released in December, tell the story of the monarchy’s rehabilitation, culminating in happier times: William meeting Kate, and the marriage of Charles (Dominic West) and Camilla (Olivia Williams) in 2005.
Things begin with Diana in a relatively happy place too, according to the actress who plays her, Elizabeth Debicki.
“We find her going on holiday with the boys [Princes William and Harry, played in part one by Rufus Kampa and Fflyn Edwards] to Saint-Tropez, to stay with the Al-Fayeds. It was an organised holiday that Mohamed Al-Fayed facilitated for her, to be able to take the kids. I think the intention is for just some space, just to recover and refresh from what she had been going through just before [her divorce from Charles].”
The yachting trip is very much the calm before the storm, both for Diana in the story and for Debicki as an actor.
“We were filming in a really beautiful part of the world, so I constantly let that just wash over me, and tried to relax. I think knowing what’s to come, in terms of the sequence of the final 24 hours, was very demanding and obviously I’m carrying this very profound sadness in me while I was shooting that. I was seven when it happened. As an Australian too, quite far away, I learnt about it all as I got older. I have a very distinct memory of watching the funeral when I was a kid and watching the two princes, as I think everybody does, and I didn’t really understand what was going on. My mother was devastated. So there’s always an awareness of where you’re heading.”
The final 24 hours of Diana’s life were shot in Paris. Although viewers won’t see the crash itself, they will see the build-up: Debicki and Khalid Abdalla, who plays Dodi Fayed, recreated the car chase that led to the accident, all the while followed by actors playing Diana’s relentless paparazzi pursuers.
“Obviously, it’s devastating and it’s fraught and we can never know [what actually happened],” says Debicki. “But you only have to be in a situation like that for about a minute,” she says, “before you realise that this is completely unbearable. No one should ever be having to experience what it feels like to try and get from one place to another, and to have this swarm around you. You feel very trapped.”
Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II and Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip in The Crown.Credit: Netflix
Come episode three and The Crown’s interest moves to the aftermath of the tragedy. An outpouring of grief from the British public caught the royal family completely off-guard. No flag flew at half-mast outside Buckingham Palace as the public’s flowers and messages multiplied. The family were holed up in their holiday retreat in Balmoral, Scotland, miles away and the Queen, initially at least, made no personal statement. “Show us you care, ma’am,” ran one tabloid headline at the time.
“We all know how they responded,” says Jonathan Pryce, who plays Prince Philip. “They didn’t react in the way that the public wanted them to react or needed them to react.”
Pryce’s own reactions back then reflected those of many Britons, indeed many Australians too.
Dominic West as Prince Charles with Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in The Crown.Credit: Netflix
“I remember turning on the radio, hearing something weird about Diana and Paris and I thought, ‘What the hell?’ Both my wife and I found ourselves quite weepy about it. I never thought I would cry over a member of the royal family. But it was like she wasn’t a member of the royal family, she represented something entirely different.”
Eventually, Diana’s death left her ex-husband, Charles, alone in the public eye again, trying to build bridges with his two young sons.
“When something horrifically tragic like [what] happened to those two boys, their mother dying, someone gets the blame,” says Dominic West, who plays Charles in the final season.
“Peter has written that most of the blame goes to Charles and it probably did. I found that very poignant and moving because fatherhood requires unconditional love. It requires unconditional acceptance because it’s a child – you can’t get angry, you can’t get defensive, you can’t reason.”
All you can do, West says, is cry. “There are a lot of scenes of Charles trying to come to terms with it,” says Dominic West, “and breaking the news to his sons, trying to help them mourn with varying degrees of success. There are a lot of tears for Charles. And I love crying, so it was great.”
Or at least it was great until Prince Harry published his book, mid-filming. “What’s great about The Crown is that you see these public figures in private. I suspect in private he [Charles] is quite emotional, well, that’s the way I played him anyway. And then Harry wrote his book and said he never hugged him or anything, so we had to change that slightly …”
The Crown’s final season launches on Thursday, November 16, on Netflix. Quotes in this story were taken during production before the actors’ strike.
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