‘Diana would have identified with The Phantom of the Opera - she also yearned to be loved'

Huge fan: Diana meets Sarah Brightman, Michael Crawford and Andrew Lloyd Webber at the opening night of Phantom in 1986 - Starstock/Photoshot
Huge fan: Diana meets Sarah Brightman, Michael Crawford and Andrew Lloyd Webber at the opening night of Phantom in 1986 - Starstock/Photoshot

The much-heralded season four of The Crown charts – as the world and his wife now knows – the troubled marriage of Charles and Diana. It does so via a cavalcade of personal exchanges and detailed incidents. But what’s striking is that cultural activities play a crucial role too. As well as a trip to a Verdi opera and a surprise public duet with Wayne Sleep, there is also a private moment of attempted reconciliation.

Diana hands Charles a video of herself recorded singing the yearning-filled All I Ask of You from The Phantom of the Opera, with orchestral accompaniment. Her anniversary gift is received with distant, puzzled coolness by her other half as they watch. “Say you need me with you now and always/ Promise me that all you say is true” falls on deaf ears.

The first two are matters of record (although in reality it was a trip to Verdi’s Requiem, not an opera), the latter sounds like make-believe. Not so, avers The Crown’s head of research Annie Sulzberger. “Phantom is fact,” she asserts. “We did not make this up. There were a number of [press] reports on this, enough to make us feel comfortable including it in the show. It’s a story that pre-existed the writing of the script. We don’t know for sure what she did. She could have mimed to the song. The reports suggest performance and dancing. To minimise the number of witnesses, there is a chance they played a recording.”

She points to a credible-seeming Sunday newspaper feature in September 1988. A column in The Washington Post published in August also suggests that Diana was filmed on the set at Her Majesty’s (where Phantom was staged since its premiere), her movement directed by the show’s choreographer Gillian Lynne. The same source suggests that Andrew Lloyd Webber supervised the performance. That’s flatly denied by Lloyd Webber, who then playfully tells me: “I suspect she did sneak in with Gillie!”

The VHS bombshell is met with scepticism by the Diana biographers I consult (Penny Junor, Ingrid Seward and Simone Simmons) and incredulity from Ken Wharfe, Diana’s bodyguard from 1987 to 1993. “I can’t see her recording All I Ask of You and giving it to the Prince, he’d have launched it from the first window he could find.”

Diana loved to play the piano, here in Prague in 1991 - Hulton Royals Collection
Diana loved to play the piano, here in Prague in 1991 - Hulton Royals Collection

What’s incontestable, though, is that she was mad-keen for the show, visiting it on multiple occasions. And she loved that duet. Lloyd Webber signed a copy of the Sarah Brightman and Cliff Richard single, and gave her a signed manuscript of the score, adding the lyrics, a gift which Simmons says she saw on a wall at Kensington Palace.

Simmons tells me Diana played it on the piano, and remembers her singing along to it too. “She was a very gifted pianist. No one seems to know this. She could play pieces of music that made your insides melt. She listened to some pop music but her real love was the classics.”

Wharfe accompanied her a few times to Her Majesty’s: “We walked up the Haymarket – she was dressed casually so she wasn’t recognised and by the time she was, you were inside”. He recalls it being one of the many songs the Princess would put on during their long drives from London to Highgrove. “It was a popular piece for her and I remember us singing along. She liked musicals – especially the American shows like West Side Story, Porgy and Bess.”

Jessica Hobbs (who directed the 1988 episode) confirms it was singing All I Ask of You at the final audition that swung it for Emma Corrin: “[Series creator] Peter [Morgan] said, ‘Do you know the song? … You don’t want to sing it, do you?’ And I applaud her, she sang it. She went bright red but she did it – and I thought, ‘There’s Diana’.”

Though she went to other Eighties shows – Cats, Starlight Express and Blood Brothers – what was it that made this one the Princess’s favourite? It opened in 1986 – when the wheels were truly coming off the marriage, Junor notes: “I’m sure she would have identified with Phantom – being trapped, being signed up to something she wasn’t altogether happy with. She loved romantic novels and was always yearning for something she could never achieve – to be loved.”

Lloyd Webber offers a salient anecdote: “I found myself sitting between six of the world’s most famous supermodels not long after Phantom opened. They were obsessed with it. I asked what they were drawn to and one replied, ‘You may think we’re the most beautiful girls in the world. But all of us have something we’d like to change – that’s why it resonates’. Diana was the ultimate supermodel, yet damaged.”

Putting Diana’s passion for Phantom under the spotlight brings to the fore the fact that she was far more into the arts than is commonly supposed. The Crown further features a notable visit that she made to New York in 1989, framed as a major moment of independence, travelling without Charles. She attended a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in her capacity as patron of Welsh National Opera.

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana arriving at the Royal Opera House on Prince Charles's birthday - Netflix
Emma Corrin as Princess Diana arriving at the Royal Opera House on Prince Charles's birthday - Netflix

The company’s general director Aidan Lang, a staff director at the time, remembers it as “the buzz event of New York that night”: security guards everywhere, Diana in the dress circle, working her magic. “I even have a feeling the road her car came down had a bumpy surface that got fixed overnight – if nothing else, she had an immediate benefit for Brooklyn in getting that road repaired!”

The principal of the Royal Academy of Music, Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, recalls a visit in 1996, when he was vice-principal. He remembers a “touching diffidence, almost as if she felt she wasn’t qualified to be president”. She listened appreciatively to the recitals, but “what she loved was the informal chat with students afterwards. I introduced her to a group of woodwind players and she whispered to them – as if in a confessional box – ‘I love Mozart but I don’t really know very much because [looking at the floor] I listen to different kinds of music’.

You could see the joy in their unison response, ‘So do we, Ma’am’.” Diana’s modesty about her musical knowledge belied relatively sophisticated tastes. The Crown may show her roller-skating through Buckingham Palace, listening to Duran Duran on a Walkman, but there was far more to her than the Pop Princess of tabloid repute. Seward says: “Rachmaninov was a particular favourite and she used to sit on the stairs of her Coleherne Court flat with her radio/tape machine listening to it at full blast.”

Perhaps there’s scope for more of that detail in season five, including her incognito visits, with the help of a wig, to Ronnie Scott’s. The Crown appears to have missed a trick, though, in not showing Diana’s adventure-seeking late-night trip from Verona to Venice in August 1990, after watching an abortive attempt by Pavarotti to sing Verdi’s Requiem amid a downpour.

In his book Diana: Closely Guarded Secret, Wharfe described the Venetian scene, the Moon appearing after midnight, the Princess jumping out of her car “and kicking the puddles, as if she were Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain”. Swigging Pinot Grigio as they explored a deserted St Mark’s Square, she said: “Ken, if only I could have this freedom once a month, it would make the job worth it all the more.”

While those words aren’t in The Crown, the underlying sentiment is there, loud and – painfully – clear.

The Crown is available on Netflix from Sunday