Throughout decades of royal dramas – real and imagined – there is one image that has haunted me, and it is that of a 12-year-old Prince Harry, forced to walk behind the coffin of his mother. His oversized suit drowning his slim, boyish frame, a metaphor for the adult mantle thrust upon him that day, the body of Diana, Princess of Wales only feet away, his grief ignored in the performance his country demanded to assuage their own loss.
The new series of The Crown is here, an even more lavish production than the last, where Dominic West took on the role of the then-philandering Charles and we watched the inevitable downfall of this most tortured royal marriage. This time, four episodes are needed to tackle, head on, Diana’s final weeks, days, hours… and then the funeral, with Harry played by young Fflyn Edwards, wearing that same oversized suit.
Bang on time, we get a new, “insider” book on the royal family – this time by Harry and Meghan’s confidante, Omid Scobie – and just a year after Harry launched his memoir Spare, which set off accusations, counter accusations and headlines screeching about betrayal.
Even The Crown couldn’t have fictionalised their lives better. And it was clear evidence of the depth of trauma from her death, and how that trauma was still ricocheting down the years. This week, even as we watch actress Elizabeth Debicki expertly conjure the glamour, strength and fragility of Diana, we are reminded again, with Scobie’s book, of how little real healing has happened since that picture of Harry in his suit hit the newspapers.
Scobie, who first co-wrote Finding Freedom about the Sussex’s departure from the royal family, makes clear in Endgame that William and Harry have not reconciled – and, in his well-briefed opinion, they never will. Every time I read about their continued estrangement, I think on that picture, with young William staring down protectively at his little brother.
There has been the usual hoo-ha and shirt clutching at the continued invasion by the series into events that still haunt Diana’s living relatives. This time, outrage has focused on the fact that Diana appears as a ghost in this series, complete with running mascara. Her spectre pops up on Prince Charles’s private jet in one episode for a rapprochement of sorts, and again at Windsor to admonish the Queen. Cue more fussing.
I, for one, have fallen out of love with The Crown. I will watch it and hope that it raises some of the same emotions the first two series did, bringing to life the young monarch that grew into the stately matriarch I knew in my life. But I suspect it will disappoint.
That Diana’s spectre now stalks our screens just confirms my low expectations of this series. But not because I find the ghost shocking, or even tawdry – it just comes across as truly bad scriptwriting. Yes, her ghostly presence is only four minutes out of four hour-long episodes. But what first captured us in The Crown was its majesty – its epic grandeur rooted in the historical, re-told with emotional force.
This feels more Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in the 1990 film Ghost. Scriptwriter Peter Morgan is one of our greatest talents, in a country filled with epic talent, and he loves to stir up a little controversy when he can.
If I was being both cynical and uncharitable, I’d say that I can’t help feeling the ghost was added to create maximum column inches. This is the last series of The Crown, after all – a final six episodes will be made available before Christmas. Netflix will want its full financial return. And here I am writing about it, after all…
However, if I put aside my cynicism that it’s a PR play, we could view Diana’s ghost as an imaginative, writerly flourish reminding us of more recent events, and the years this hugely successful series will never cover. The long shadow of her death, and the events that led to that fateful, cruel day still stalk the royals.
Today, Harry barely speaks to his father, although we learned this week he rang him on his 75th birthday, in spite of not having been invited to the actual celebrations. The brothers remain torn apart, their relationship now deemed “beyond repair”. Scobie says, “there is no going back” for Harry – that royal insiders and advisors consider him a threat to the crown, because he can speak freely, and therefore should be viewed as the “enemy”. Harry continues to battle the press in the courts.
Until these two men and their father, and those around them collectively, lay the ghost of Diana to rest, they won’t be able to move on, and will be stuck in the era portrayed in this series. All she would have wanted was for her memory to comfort her two sons and keep them together. That is the real haunting of the royals.