When Princess Diana died more than 25 years ago in a car crash in Paris at the age of 36, thousands poured into the streets of London to pay their respects and leave messages and flowers outside of Kensington Palace. Mourners were seen openly sobbing.
But members of the British royal family were reportedly not as emotive. In the fourth episode in the sixth season of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton) and her husband Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) are hesitant to issue a statement offering comfort to the nation. Dominic West as Prince Charles (now King Charles) chides the Queen for not showing enough grief and compassion in public. “We can't be a private family when we want to be and a public one when it suits us,” he says.
Robert Lacey, who has consulted for The Crown and is the author of the 2020 book Battle of Brothers: William, Harry and the Inside Story of a Family in Tumult, told TIME around the 25th anniversary of Diana’s death in 2022 that there is “no doubt” there was a coolness in the royal family’s reaction to the Princess’s premature death.
“If you’re looking for the moment when the British monarchy was most severely challenged and found itself most at odds with public opinion, it has to be following the death of Diana and the perception that the Queen and the royal family didn’t care,” he said.
But as noted by Lacey and the 1997 TIME magazine issue, the coolness from the royal family preceded Diana’s death, and even her divorce from Charles. The royal family disapproved in general of the attention Diana attracted, from the explosive 1995 BBC Panorama interview to the sustained tabloid coverage. This comes through in The Crown Season 6, which picks up well after Charles and Diana’s divorce and in the midst of her romantic relationship with Dodi al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). When Diana and Dodi vacation on his father’s yacht, they are chased by paparazzi the entire time. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are shown as disappointed that photos of two hanging out are splashed across the front pages of tabloids.
In the third episode of Season 6, the cameras follow Dodi and Diana to Paris, where Dodi proposes to Diana, and shortly thereafter, they get into the car that crashes and kills them. However, according to the 1998 book Death of a Princess: The Investigation written by TIME’s Tommy Sancton and Scott McLeod, it’s believed that Dodi did not get a chance to fully carry out a formal proposal. The ring was found in an unopened box in his Paris apartment.
In the fourth episode, Charles is shown waking up William (Rufus Kampa and Ed McVey) and Harry (Fflyn Edwards and Luther Ford), at Balmoral castle in Scotland. He gently breaks the news of their mother’s death and encourages the boys to be brave. While Charles is depicted as showing tenderness toward the boys, in real life, Prince Harry has said his father displayed a certain stiffness when he told them of Diana’s death.
“Pa didn’t hug me,” he wrote in his 2023 memoir Spare, noting that a pat on the knee was the extent of the comfort he received. Prince Harry says he himself didn’t cry at that moment or during her funeral procession. He claims he only cried when he saw his mother’s coffin being lowered into the ground and alluded to the family’s stoicism in front of the press. “My body convulsed and my chin fell and I began to sob uncontrollably into my hands,” he wrote. “I felt ashamed of violating the family ethos, but I couldn’t hold it in any longer. It’s OK, I reassured myself, it’s OK. There aren’t any cameras around.”
Similar to Peter Morgan’s other royal family drama The Queen, the fourth episode of Season 6 follows Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in their hesitation over making a public statement about Diana’s death. Philip argues Diana is not part of the royal family anymore. But the episode ends with a dramatic reinterpretation of the queen’s actual first public statement after Diana’s death. Notably, she said, “No-one who knew Diana will ever forget her. Millions of others who never met her, but felt they knew her, will remember her. I for one believe there are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death.”
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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at firstname.lastname@example.org