Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Crown.
Royalists have expressed increasing anxiety and dismay about Netflix’s Windsor drama, The Crown, and perhaps rightly so. Season 5 is the show’s most scandalous entry to date. Not only does the series delve into the divorce between Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, but it also dredges up perhaps the most embarrassing moment of newly-named King Charles III‘s life: Tampongate.
In 1993, the British press published the full transcript of a private conversation between then-Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in which the two had an intimate and sexual exchange. The conversation was notable for a number of reasons, not least of which because it involved the heir to the throne saying that he would like to “live inside [her] trousers” and joking that he would be reincarnated as a tampon, hence the name of the scandal. (Some publications referred to the incident by the name “Camillagate,” which has a more sexist connotation because it places the blame on just the woman involved.) Charles and his now-wife and queen consort Camilla were both married to other people at the time. The transcript not only confirmed Princess Diana’s claims that Charles had been cheating on her but threw gasoline on Charles and Diana’s already contentious separation.
The Crown handles what could have been—and probably still is—a tawdry moment with humor and care. Dominic West, who took over the role of Charles this season, brings a light touch to the conversation. Camilla actor Olivia Williams imbues her character with empathy. It’s clear that the tampon joke is more a reference to his endless bad luck and a joke between intimate partners rather than some bizarre sexual fantasy. The scene portrays Charles and Camilla as tragic figures, star-crossed lovers who should have married each other in the first place, and who remained deeply devoted to one another ever after the royal family endeavored to keep them apart. The show handles Diana’s reaction, too, with sensitivity. The moment is obviously devastating for a woman whose marriage was doomed before she ever entered it.
The Crown helms closely to real-life events, though it does elide a few details, including another recorded phone call that had embroiled the royal family in scandal just a few months earlier. Here’s everything you need to know about Tampongate.
Did Charles and Camilla really have that phone sex conversation?
Yes, the conversation between Charles and Camilla that has been since immortalized as “Tampongate” actually took place on Dec. 17, 1989, when they were both still married to other people. (Charles and Diana separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. Camilla and her ex-husband Andrew Parker Bowles began living apart in 1993 before finalizing their divorce in 1995.) The press did not print the recorded call in full until 1993.
As depicted in The Crown, Charles and Camilla’s intimate chat ranged from the mundane to the sexual. At one point, Charles told Camilla that he would like to live in her trousers. When she asked if he was going to be reincarnated as a pair of knickers, he joked that it would be his luck to come back as a tampon. Unsurprisingly, this portion of the conversation is what dominated tabloid headlines.
Rumors has swirled for years that Charles and Camilla had had a long affair. And in 1992, the Andrew Morton biography Diana: In Her Own Words accused Charles of infidelity. Tampongate confirmed not only that the pair was having an affair but that they were also very much in love. Read past the sordid headlines, and it’s clear that these two had the sort of bond only achieved in long-term, committed partnerships.
The phone call also proved that all of Charles’ friends were not only aware of the affair but complicit in helping them conduct it. Camilla and Charles spend most of the conversation discussing the logistics of their illicit relationship. They debate which high-born friend’s house they will use for their next rendezvous, implicating several of their friends in hiding the not-so-secret relationship from Diana.
Charles later admitted in a 1994 documentary about his life that he had cheated on Diana. But he claimed he did so only after their relationship had “irretrievably broken down, us both having tried.”
What did Charles and Camilla say on the call?
The Crown remains faithful to the true text of the call, but here is the part that scandalized the nation:
Charles: Oh, God. I’ll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier!
Camilla [laughing]: What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers? [Both laugh]. Oh, you’re going to come back as a pair of knickers.
Charles: Or, God forbid, a Tampax. Just my luck! (Laughs)
Camilla: You are a complete idiot! [Laughs] Oh, what a wonderful idea.
Charles: My luck to be chucked down a lavatory and go on and on forever swirling round on the top, never going down.
Camilla [laughing]: Oh darling!
Charles: Until the next one comes through.
Camilla: Oh, perhaps you could just come back as a box.
Charles: What sort of box?
Camilla: A box of Tampax, so you could just keep going.
Charles: That’s true.
Camilla: Repeating yourself … [laughing]. Oh, darling, oh I just want you now.
Was it really an amateur radio enthusiast who recorded the call?
Probably, though there are other theories. At the time, the press speculated that British secret services must be behind the recording of several royal calls, including ones between Diana and friends, and Prince Andrew and his then-wife Sarah Ferguson. Ex-spies interviewed by People magazine in the 1990s said the high quality of the recordings pointed to professionals as the leakers.
But in his memoir, Dogs and Lampposts, former Daily Mirror editor Richard Stott says that the tape was recorded and brought to the paper by a Merseyside resident “who had had a few pints of lager and a curry and decided he would test out his latest gadget, an electronic homing device that picks up Cellnet signals.” Charles was staying nearby, and apparently the amateur radio enthusiast stumbled on the call and immediately recognized the prince’s voice.
Tina Brown argues in her biography of Diana, The Diana Chronicles, that intercepting such calls in the 1980s wasn’t all that difficult, and Charles just suffered from bad luck. “From analysis of the radio signals embedded in the Charles-Camilla tape, there is little doubt that it was genuinely recorded off-air.”
Did the press bury the call?
According to The Diana Chronicles, the man who recorded the Tampongate call kept the tape to himself for several years. It was only after the press published a recorded phone call between Diana and an intimate friend that came to be known as Squidgygate (more on that call later) that the unnamed man realized he could sell his recording make a good deal of money from the tape. Brown writes that the man brought it to the Daily Mirror in 1992 and was paid £30,000 for his troubles.
The Mirror’s editor Richard Scott did not publish the Camilla-Charles conversation immediately for fear of undercutting the royal marriage. It was October of 1992, and Charles and Diana were on what the Palace told the press was a reconciliation trip to South Korea. But the tour was a disaster—the press noted that both prince and princess looked miserable. On Nov. 11, the Daily Mirror began teasing the pillow talk conversation with headlines like “Charles’s Secret Bedtime Phone Call,” though they did not publish the now-infamous tampon quote.
That winter, a fire at Windsor Castle burned down 100 rooms, devastating the Queen. The announcement of the split between Diana and Charles came soon after.
It was only after all this drama that, on Jan. 17, 1993, both the Sunday People and Sunday Mirror published Charles and Camilla’s full conversation—tampon reference and all. According to Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of Queen Elizabeth II, Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, a poll released shortly after the publication of the phone recording found that 68% of respondents said Charles had tarnished his reputation, and 42% thought 10-year-old Prince William should succeed Elizabeth as the next monarch.
What was the Squidgygate scandal?
The Crown skips over a second phone call scandal the plagued the royal family around the same time. In 1992, The Sun published a recorded phone call between Diana and her close friend, James Gilbey. Throughout the call, Gilbey calls her “darling,” and “Squidgy,” implying the two were having an intimate affair. Diana complains to Gilbey that Charles makes life “real, real torture.”
But the most tense part of the conversation came when Diana worried about getting pregnant, proof of her infidelity to Charles. Gilbey reassures her that it won’t happen.
The Squidgygate call took place just 14 days after the Tampongate phone call, likely on New Year’s Eve in 1989, given several context clues. Cyril Reenan, a retired 70-year old bank manager, made the recording of Diana’s call and sold it to The Sun. According to Brown, the paper held onto the tape for years because the editors decided it was “too hot even for them”
“Scurrilous rumors are one thing,” Brown writes, “but hard evidence that the sweetheart of the British public was not all she seemed in the virtue department was thought to be a commercially risky proposition, one that might also expose the paper to prosecution for unlawful interception.” It was the National Enquirer that finally received a copy of the tape and broke the story in August of 1992.
Puzzlingly, until his dying day Reenan claimed he made the recording on Jan. 4, 1990, four days after the conversation likely took place. And the company Cellnet has said that Reenan could not have made the recording on their airwaves in January since they had not yet built a base in the area. (Outside experts confirmed Cellnet’s claim.) Brown cites several experts who argue that Diana’s phone was bugged and speculates the recording must have been replayed over the air in hopes a civilian would pick it up.
Who exactly may have been behind the recording will likely remain a mystery. In The Crown, Diana becomes paranoid that British special intelligence is tapping her phone. Brown’s book suggests her concerns were not unfounded: She expresses skepticism at British officers’ denials that they recorded royal phone calls.
What have The Crown actors said about Tampongate?
The Crown fans have been anticipating Tampongate for quite some time—and so has the rotating cast of the show. Josh O’Connor, who played a younger version of Charles in previous seasons, said that before he signed onto the show, he asked creator Peter Morgan whether his seasons would cover the incident. “When they offered me the role, one of my first questions was—I say questions, I think it was pretty much a statement—‘We are not doing the tampon phone call,’” O’Connor told SiriusXM. “It was my one chance for my parents to see something [I’ve acted in] with no shame and there’s no way I was going to scuttle that by talking about tampons on Netflix.”
Instead, the honor of performing the intimate scene fell to Dominic West, who took over the role of Charles in Season 5. West, who found a new level of resonance with the character, doesn’t perform that call as if it’s scandalous. Rather, he emphasizes the intimate, awkward, and funny nature of two very close people joking playfully with one another. In his portrayal, it becomes clear that the call being transcribed and taken out of context made the conversation seem much stranger and filthier than it was in the moment.
“I remember thinking it was something so sordid and deeply, deeply embarrassing [at the time],” West told Entertainment Weekly. “Looking back on it, and having to play it, what you’re conscious of is that the blame was not with these two people, two lovers, who were having a private conversation. What’s really [clear now] is how invasive and disgusting was the press’s attention to it, that they printed it out verbatim and you could call a number and listen to the actual tape. I think it made me extremely sympathetic towards the two of them and what they’d gone through.”
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