The Crown’s Charles and Diana years: A world of privilege, glamour and tension

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana in The Crown. Photograph: Netflix
The spice and the hype around the fourth season from Netflix on a turbulent decade for the House of Windsor

There has barely been a dull moment in British royalty since William the Conqueror took to the throne in 1066, but the 1980s were a particularly spicy decade for the House of Windsor. From the queen’s bedroom intruder Michael Fagan and the IRA assassination of Charles’s great-uncle Lord Mountbatten to a reported battle of wills between the queen and Margaret Thatcher, The Crown creator Peter Morgan had no shortage of material for the fourth season of the hit Netflix series.

The series is already being referred to as the “Charles and Diana years” season, with much of the prerelease hype centering on the on-screen relationship between the two (played by Josh O’Connor and newcomer Emma Corrin). Where duty to the crown and stuffy protocol loomed large in the first three series, the fourth series launches straight into a world of privilege and glamour.

Look away now if you’re averse to spoilers: the series opens with Charles; still stooped and stymied, though still very much in want of a wife. His true love, Camilla Parker-Bowles, is somewhat happily married, and so he finds himself on a date with Sarah Spencer. (“Oh, Johnny’s girl!” the queen claps approvingly, while trying to identify a suitable match amid Guinnesses and European heiresses.)

While waiting on Sarah to appear in the hallway of her vast Northamptonshire home, her youngest sister Diana materialises in full forest nymph costume; turns out she is doing A Misdummer Night’s Dream at school. She has been expressly forbidden on orders from her big sister from going anywhere near Charles, but she’s a girl utterly obsessed with the young prince. A few years later Diana and Charles meet at the Burghley Horse Trials. And thus begins her transition from a young pop-loving kindergarten teacher to a frustrated royal, sequestered in the gilded cage of Clarence House.

Corrin is beguiling on screen as the young Diana, divining a balance between coy naïf and sparkling teenager

On the fringes of their relationship lies Camilla (or Gladys as Charles affectionately calls her). After finding out about their affair, the young Diana gorges on desserts and makes herself vomit for the first time. Charles, believing Diana is addicted to the spotlight, grows colder still about his wife.

Where O’Connor injects Charles with pathos and humanity, Corrin is beguiling on screen as the young Diana, divining a balance between coy naïf and sparkling teenager. Occasionally the camera and light capture her at a certain angle, and the resemblance between the two is remarkable.

Charles and Diana played by Josh O’Connor and newcomer Emma Corrin in the fourth series of The Crown, on Netflix from November 15th.
Charles and Diana played by Josh O’Connor and newcomer Emma Corrin in the fourth series of The Crown, on Netflix from November 15th.

In true Diana style, Corrin bagged the role by singing All I Ask of You, from Phantom of the Opera. “My second audition was with Ben Carson [director] and Peter Morgan [creator] and Rob Stone [casting director], and we were in this boardroom,” Corrin recalls on a Zoom call along with O’Connor.

“We just sat and talked about [Diana], just like spitballing ideas and talking, I guess, about the psychology of where she was at. Then Peter mentioned that one of the scenes he was really tempted to put into the script was when apparently Diana sang All I Ask of You to Charles on their anniversary. I suppose this was her love language, and how she expressed her affection for him, at a time when he really didn’t want to receive it.

“Anyway, I was like, ‘Oh God, I love Phantom of the Opera’ and Peter was like, ‘Do you know the song? Do you want to sing it now?’ And I just remember the bit where Rob and I did this, like, karaoke duet then and there.

“After two hours, I left the building and one of my friends left me a voicemail to see how it went, and I remember replying, ‘Honestly, even if nothing happens, and I don’t get the role, that was the best two hours of my life, and reminded me while I love this job so much.’ Because you’re in a room with people who are so absurdly, stupidly passionate about these stories and these people.”

Of course, half the fun of watching The Crown is seeing how its cast – among them, Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham-Carter, Tobias Menzies and Gillian Anderson – convincingly inhabit their characters without resorting to impersonation or caricature.

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown on Netflix.
Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown on Netflix.

“What I found is that it was quite daunting at the beginning, because the people you are playing are so well known,” says Corrin, of striking the balance between the two.

“I was getting quite frustrated with the research I did initially, which was watching documentaries and reading a lot of biographies, and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything,” Corrin adds. “It was kind of like just reading a newspaper, you know? That kind of superficial, factual information. And then I got the scripts, and that really helped, because suddenly that put this person I was playing in context.

“It also reminded me that, as much as it’s about someone we all know and love, it’s The Crown’s version of Diana, so that was kind of like an invitation for me to play my version, my understanding of her.

The whole point, to me, of The Crown, is that we are exploring the fictional version of bits of history

“And it made it feel more manageable, instead of being overwhelmed by this bigger picture, I was thinking about, okay, how would I feel if my husband was in love with someone else or how would I feel if I joined a royal family and found myself in the middle of very awkward social situations?”

O’Connor, too, admits that exacting a crowd-pleasing and convincing version of Charles took some tweaking: “You sort of want to have little things that place you as Charles, but I think a lot of the work at the beginning was like what can I do to make him feel like the Charles we recognise?

“But the whole point, to me, of The Crown, is that we are exploring the fictional version of bits of history. If we were doing a big documentary on it all, playing the public versions of Charles and Diana, I just don’t think it would be that interesting.

“I think what’s so exciting about Claire Foy and Matt Smith [playing the queen and Philip in the first two seasons] was that it was like a complete creation. It was beautiful, what they did. Everyone’s doing their own take, and that’s what makes it interesting – actively avoiding the sort of caricature, basically.”

O’Connor had originally created a sympathetic figure in Charles as the man cowed and weighed down by his duty to the crown. In season four, Charles is still melancholic, though a decidedly more flawed character.

Just what did the queen and the painter-decorator talk about for those 10 minutes?

“Yeah, big flaws,” O’Connor smiles. “I think when I first met Ben [Caron] and Peter [Morgan] for lunch, we talked about where we were going and where Charles would end up. It helped, knowing I had season three to kind of make everyone feel sorry for him. He doesn’t behave brilliantly in this season, but knowing the background of the family getting involved and not being with the person he’s in love with, you sort of get it.”

Much of The Crown’s compelling heft comes from a deeper dive into the conversations and scenarios that were merely alluded to in the press. Where Michael Fagan’s trespassing into the queen’s bedroom, for instance, was publicly reported at length, The Crown’s screenwriters have taken a pretty good stab at answering the question: “Just what did the queen and the painter-decorator talk about for those 10 minutes?”

Likewise, the version of Charles and Diana that has already been up for public delectation for years is merely glossed over. It’s the private, lesser known side of their relationship that Morgan revels in. Corrin and O’Connor also talked of what they knew of Charles and Diana at length, and decided on how best to portray “their version” of the couple.

“Emma and I decided early on that they did love each other in our version,” O’Connor recalls. “Without that, he is really ugly.”

Adds Corrin: “There are moments on [the royal trip to] Australia where it is blissful for them.”

O’Connor notes: “They’re not the dominant moments of their marriage, but you’d hope that as an audience, people would like, well, we can see it was doomed to fail, but they gave it a good crack.”

“Yep, it’s not as plain as all doom and gloom from the beginning,” affirms Corrin. “From the outset, there’s this [public] thinking that there was clearly no love here and it was a massive mistake. But it’s actually so much more interesting, and more kind of a universal experience of relationships, where there is a love there.”

Corrin had felt “quite indifferent” to the Royals before auditioning for the series. “They were just kind of like… there,” she says. “But I guess examining this relationship has made me much more sympathetic to the public and private tension, and the frustration of never really being able to use your voice.”

Series four’s 10 episodes was reportedly produced with a £100 million (€110 million) budget, a figure even greater than the queen’s own sovereign grant in 2019 of £82.2 million (€90 million). The eye-popping sets, arguably the most epic and lavish committed to the small screen for some time, haven’t been lost on O’Connor and Corrin.

“I think one of the hardest things is actually going from the sets to other sets,” smiles O’Connor.

Corrin is in agreement: “I mean, now I’m shooting someone else, and every time I walk into a location I’m like, ‘Where are the jewels?’ Where’s the gold?’

O’Connor adds: “Yeah, how much is that painting worth? Oh, it’s a print? And not a Rembrandt? Yeah, there’s a little bit of adjustment there but it’s a pretty amazing thing. What’s so interesting actually, more than the locations, which are all amazing, are that the ceilings are always so high, much as they would have been on these estates and in these buildings.

“It means that the rooms, combined with the almost Shakespearean epicness of the writing, means you do have to match up to that – it becomes quite a theatrical job because the rooms are so grand, and the emotions are so grand.”

Seasons five and six have already been commissioned by Netflix. Season six is now said to be ending in the 2000s, spanning, presumably, Charles and Diana’s divorce, the deaths of Diana, Margaret and the Queen Mother, the marriage of Charles and Camilla, and next generation of princes.

For season five, several of the roles have been cast for the retelling of the Windsor House in the 1990s. Imelda Staunton will succeed Olivia Colman in playing Queen Elizabeth, Lesley Manville will take on the role of Princess Margaret, and Jonathan Pryce has been announced as Prince Philip. Meanwhile, Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki will pick the baton up from Corrin.

It’s sort of like a football team, you come in and do your bit and then someone else comes in and does theirs

Both O’Connor and Corrin accept it as the nature of the gig. “I think it helped keeps the series very fresh,” O’Connor notes. “Claire had a very, very different energy to Olivia, and the same with Vanessa [Kirby] and Helena [Bonham-Carter, who both played Margaret].

“You kind of have to let it go, otherwise you do feel sad,” Corrin smiles. “It’s sort of like a football team, you come in and do your bit and then someone else comes in and does theirs.

“My friend put it really well,” Corrin adds. “She says, ‘It must be like that feeling when you see your ex move on,’ and it’s honestly kind of like that. Maybe an ex you have no beef with. So you’re kind of like, that’s sad, but I’m really happy for them. I’ll probably stalk that new person though. A lot.”

Series four of The Crown is on Netflix Ireland from November 15th.