How The Crown corrects Diana's flawless icon image

princess diana the crown season 5
‘The Crown does not need a fiction warning’Getty Images

The new season of The Crown has finally arrived. It’s been a long road filled with Judi Dench-shaped criticism, but we got here in the end and now we’re free to enjoy the heavy-handed metaphors and gilded drama of the series in peace.

Once again, the accuracy of the show has become a sticking point — particularly surprising for a season based largely on primary source material provided by Charles and Diana themselves through the various interviews and authorised biographies they willingly took part in. Just this week, former PM John Major dismissed one storyline in the latest series as “malicious fiction”. As if anyone could forget the award-winning Netflix series is a drama not a documentary when, as the BBC put it, the show is essentially an “upmarket soap”.

Perhaps the seemingly endless calls for a fiction warning will finally simmer down, as critics realise Peter Morgan’s creation is actually a sympathetic and humanising portrayal of The Firm.

Diana in particular receives a well-rounded portrait in Elizabeth Debicki’s performance that picks up from Emma Corrin’s critically acclaimed portrayal last season. Debicki’s interpretation is messy: the late Princess of Wales comes across as imperfect and wounded, but simultaneously savvy and with a capacity for emotional intelligence that verges on manipulative. Debicki’s Diana is neither the villain nor the disempowered victim of the piece, which comes at least close to the truth of what has made the real woman a figure that captivates the attention of even the generation born after her death.

Diana is, and always has been, a cult figure. Not just because she bequeathed us the cycling shorts and baggy jumper look: the unpopular but vital causes she chose to champion arguably changed their course forever, and her candid admissions about life inside the Royal Family and her mental health struggles have renewed resonance in the era of Meghan and Harry finding their own path in California.

From the T-shirts to the memes, the tongue in cheek veneration of Diana in recent years has coincided with Meghan and Harry’s decision to step back from life as senior royals. Her own rebellion against an establishment that she couldn’t find a way to happily exist within only echoes their particular struggle. More than that, Diana’s role as royal dissenter has come to represent, to some, all the ways the royal establishment fails to adequately support the British population.

According to the BBC, a wider lack of enthusiasm for the monarchy as an institution, coupled with the fact that younger people are “three times more likely than over-65s to interpret the new series of The Crown as ‘mostly accurate’,” has driven the resurgence of interest in the People’s Princess.

The misremembering of Diana began almost as soon as she died. The outpouring of grief seemed, to many, to border on mass hysteria. William and Harry have themselves said that the public reaction was at the time, alarming.

princess diana the crown season 5
Tim Graham - Getty Images

This was my mum. You never even met her.” Harry has said, and William has noted how much he had appreciated the Queen’s initial delayed response to his mother’s shock death (something for which the monarch was highly criticised at the time by the public), saying he was grateful for the “privacy to mourn, to collect our thoughts,” and explained that returning to London to meet the grieving crowds and have to put a “game face” on was challenging.

Diana’s untimely death means that she will remain forever in the public imagination as young and glamorous, with a lingering sense of wasted potential. It has also created a sense of polarisation about who she was, either a saint or a sinner. Diana can no longer speak for herself, which is why this season of The Crown could be seen as a crucial way into remembering her as more than just a flawless icon, but a human being containing multitudes.

Patrick Jephson — Diana’s former private secretary — is both depicted onscreen and acted as a consultant for season five. He has said his impression of the finished product was a program that: “created in my mind a story that chimed truthfully with the reality through which I had lived.”

Jephson is not the only person who knew Diana who was impressed with The Crown’s portrayal of her. Andrew Morton, who wrote the bestselling biography Diana: Her True Story with Diana’s secret cooperation said: “that performance really conveys the Diana I got to know.”

Above all else, The Crown reignites an interest in the Royal Family that is not only beneficial to them, but a requirement of their continued existence and, as previous seasons of the drama have portrayed – an ability for the royals to remain relevant to the British people is essential – without that, there seems little purpose in continuing to fund them.

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