Photo: Keith Bernstein
“Even the televisions are metaphors in this place,” Elizabeth says in “Gunpowder” as William struggles to get an old TV to be even slightly watchable. Just when you think Peter Morgan couldn’t be less subtle with his symbolism, there’s this whopper waiting in the pre-credits scene. Isn’t it nice how life can still surprise us?
The queen’s speaking about how her appliance is past its prime (is this an admission that she is, too?), but the similarities between television broadcasting and the monarchy go broader here in a classic ideological tale of old guard versus new. The old guard is represented by the long-serving (and impeccably named) BBC chairman Duke Hussey, who believes both the BBC and the monarchy are inextricable from Britain’s soul and identity, and the new guard is John Birt, the BBC director-general who sees the monarchy as part of the country’s furniture: “Something we’ve grown up with but not something that can’t be rearranged.” Choose your fighter.
When Martin Bashir and his editor, Steve Hewlett, pitch the panorama interview, Birt’s not so sure it’s ethically sound — the princess’s motives are too personal — and he knows Hussey won’t approve. Diana herself is uncertain about the interview; her brother Charles found multiple inconsistencies in Bashir’s claims. But this only makes Bashir double down and top Diana up with more lies, including the devastating idea that her brother’s turned on her. It’s one thing to know Diana thought members of the Firm and British officials were plotting against her, but it’s especially heartbreaking that she falsely believed her loved ones betrayed her as well. (And reader, I must tell you there’s more! In real life, Bashir allegedly forged an abortion receipt to convince Diana that Charles was having an affair with the boys’ nanny, Tiggy Legge-Bourke. The BBC has since paid substantial damages to the woman.)
The Crown‘s re-creation of the infamous panorama interview is spliced up and condensed, but pretty spot-on. Elizabeth Debicki has studied it with precision, mastering Diana’s cadence and body language as well as her heavy kohl eyeliner. The show’s Diana appears slightly more anxious than she was in real life (likely a choice made in service of the script), but overall the clips feel so similar that it made me think about how the BBC vowed to never broadcast the interview again … as of July 2022. When dramatizations like this exist, not to mention written transcripts, those promises end up seeming like an empty gesture. I get the principle, but the damage is done. Reminders wants live on.
What does make this feel new, however, is the framing The Crown provides around the interview. It’s not a leap to suppose that, by virtue of Bashir’s paranoia-stoking lies, the princess’s mind-set was affected and, therefore, so were her responses. In fact, last year, Prince William said as much: “It is my view that the deceitful way the interview was obtained was substantially influenced by what my mother said. The interview was a major contribution to making my parents’ relationship worse and has since hurt countless others.”
When Diana goes to inform her mother-in-law about the panorama piece — a warning that, in real life, was relayed by Diana’s private secretary — she talks about feeling shunned, to which the queen replies she has always defended Diana. “The enemy you imagine I am, the hostility you imagine we all feel, is a figment of your imagination,” says Elizabeth. “All any of us want, Diana, is for you to be happy. And, one day, to be our next queen.” This lands like a gut punch with Diana, who knows she contradicted that very idea in her soon-to-be-televised talk. Next, the queen asks Diana if she’s told William, reminding the princess that he’s just a child with enough on his plate.
If there’s anything in The Crown that damages the veneer of Diana’s near-perfect image, it’s her behavior with William. The princess is famous for changing our notion of royal parenting and how hands-on it can be; to this day, Diana is still thinking of as the ideal mother. (A 2018 poll declared her as such, beating out the Virgin Mary and the respondents’ own moms.) Diana famously prioritized protecting her boys from the press, hoping to give her sons a sense of normalcy. (In an old but well-circulated clip, she asks a videographer to respect her children’s space while covering the lens with her hand.) Even last season, despite all of his frustration with her, Charles couldn’t deny that Diana was a terrific parent.
So, yes, the princess’s informality as a royal mother was a breath of fresh air. But here we see the downside to her lack of boundaries when Diana tells William about her blossoming romance with Hasnat. “Do you have to tell me these things?” the young prince asks. Now that’s a question that Diana stops in her tracks. Bashir could never.
I’ve touched on how this season treats Diana as more of a flawed person than the last, in which her existence seemed more wrought with allegory, going from fairy-tale princess to a virgin sacrifice. I do wonder if her most ardent fans will see this as a demonization, particularly when we’re so used to seeing her deified. But I don’t think The Crown Diana wants to look like a villain here. She clearly loves her kids; preinterview, we see her place two photos — one of Harry and one of William — off camera in her peripheral vision. And while we’re hit over the head with the Guy Fawkes comparison of this episode, which also plays as a reference to Bashir being a traitor, Diana appears sorry when she learns the program will air on Elizabeth and Philip’s 48th wedding anniversary. Diana’s cool with stealing Charles’s thunder by announcing the interview on his birthday (first the revenge dress and now this!), but she doesn’t want to hurt the queen.
Diana may have made some bad calls, but several people played a hand in deciding her fate (and — surprise, surprise — a lot of them were men). Bashir’s an obvious and nefarious example. In “Gunpowder,” we see Birt wrestling with whether the interview should run: “We’ll be giving a platform to a very hurt, very unstable woman who clearly wants to inflict significant damage on the monarchy,” says the director-general, but we know where he’ll land. (Hussey yells after Birt, saying he’ll live on the wrong side of history, and ol’ Dukey boy was right: Last year, the real John Birt described the episode as “one of the biggest crimes in the history of broadcasting.” )
It’s become a bit of a game to pick which royal’s to blame in the drama of the day, but Morgan wants us to know there are larger forces at play here. Which brings us back to that trusty TV metaphor! Sure, the ’90s marked a challenging moment of upheaval for the royal family, but it was also a time of immense change in the media. Press viciousness and invasiveness skyrocketed (lest we forget Tampongate), paparazzi became increasingly relentless, and glossy commercial TV began to take over — these are things that led to Diana’s demise. Prince Harry’s statement last year regarding the Bashir inquiry suggested the same: “The ripple effect of a culture of exploitation and unethical practices ultimately took her life … Practices like these — and even worse — are still widespread today. Then, and now, it’s bigger than one outlet, one network, or one publication.”
This episode nods to how the queen is inextricably linked to television — her coronation alone sold millions of TVs — but, despite being an OG content creator, she doesn’t quite get the medium. And now, echoing this season’s overarching theme, the rate at which it’s changing is too hard to keep up with. (When William’s flipping through channels, she’s so disturbed by the likes of Richard Simmons and Beavis and Butt-Head that she averts her eyes).
Even though the queen protests when Hussey offers his post-panorama resignation, she can’t argue with his reasoning: “How can I effectively govern when it’s not a corporation I recognize anymore?” says the old BBC chairman. “It’s not a world I recognize anymore.” It’s kind of a shame we already know how long the queen reigned; this moment reaffirms her internal conflict, but any potential suspense it might have built, especially as the season’s end approaches, is DOA.
Still, it helps show the complicated, occasionally toxic relationship the royals have with the media. The Crown suggests that the queen helped to legitimize television and increase its popularity but also that it’s since taken off like a runaway train. Of course, the relationship hasn’t gone entirely sour. In many ways, it’s a necessary evil in the royals’ ongoing fight for relevance. (While the queen was always a cautious participant in filmed fare, she endearingly shared the screen with the likes of James Bond, Paddington Bear, and the Obamas.) At the same time, it’s undeniable how the media has played a role in the Windsors ‘most trying and devastating moments. It’s a bizarre fact to face: The queen didn’t necessarily create a monster, but she, along with the other royals, helped nourish it.
• The scene in which William asks Diana to be more mindful about what she tells him plays very well. Senan West does a great job showing us William’s vulnerability in this small moment of strength.
• I keep railing on about how much Morgan spells out the symbolism in the show, but then I started thinking about how much drama he has to deal with, every single season, in reiterating that this show isn’t a documentary. Can we blame him for thinking his audience is full of dummies?
• The joke about Duke’s amputated leg felt wedged in there for no good reason other than as a not-so-fun fact.
• We got schooled again this episode! And not once but twice (first about TV history, then about Fawkes)! Speaking of which, as William’s teacher talks about that historic November 5 night, his voice-over carries over images of Bashir gearing up for battle, saying, “His goal was to slaughter the entire Protestant establishment in one fell swoop.” This comparison feels like a stretch and gives Bashir way too much credit; this guy’s motives were incredibly selfish.