When Erin Doherty won the part of Princess Anne in The Crown, she wasn't even sure who she was. The 28-year-old from Crawley has gone on to capture the Princess Royal – including, in the highly anticipated new series, her long-forgotten affair with her bodyguard.
As it manoeuvres into the bloody battlefields of the Eighties, the fourth season of Netflix's The Crown brings out the big guns: Thatcher and Diana. Yet this season's episodes boast no more affecting or powerful scene than a quiet encounter between the Queen and her daughter, Princess Anne, in the grounds of Gatcombe Park, Anne's Gloucestershire home. It hits the viewer resoundingly, like a nail on the head, or a bullet to it.
It is 1981. Anne is unhappy. The press, head over heels with Diana, is out to get the older woman. Having relished scaring people, she is now scared herself, alone and friendless. Her eight-year marriage to Mark Phillips persists only in name. The Queen has heard from the head of royal protection that Anne has become "intimate" with one of her bodyguards, a detective named Peter Cross. He will be transferred, she says. Anne protests that he is the one thing that makes her happy, but there follows no reassuring hug, no word of sympathy, just an injunction to plough on. The Queen, one feels, hardly deserves her title – the title of mother, that is.
People buy in to what Olivia Colman has done with Her Majesty, admire Tobias Menzies's quiet take on Prince Philip and will, perhaps, have varied views of Gillian Anderson's Mrs T. The young actress Erin Doherty's performance as Anne is different, however, for it does not seem to be a performance. Doherty simply is Anne, exactly as we older subjects saw her on the chat shows she condescended to appear on for a while, exactly as we assumed she must be off them.
Peter Morgan, The Crown's creator, has confessed he is often asked to put more Anne into The Crown. "Anne's often overlooked," he said, "but Erin's portrayal means that everybody has fallen in love with her. Searches about her on Google went through the roof."
As I leave for Chichester, where Doherty is about to star in a brief, socially distanced revival of Crave, a short, bleak play by the late Sarah Kane, I mention to my wife that I have met Doherty before, on the set of The Crown two Januaries ago. I liked her a lot. "Posh girl, I suppose," she says.
So you would think. But when Doherty cheerfully introduced herself in a trailer in Elstree – Colman, like the Queen herself, required no introduction – I had to stop myself from exclaiming, "But you talk like you're from south London!" – Crawley, West Sussex, in fact. The dissonance between portrayer and portrayed was softened a little that day by her being in costume with her hair whipped tall like the princess's. This evening, in the empty restaurant of Chichester's Minerva Theatre, it is in a ponytail and Doherty wears jeans and a hoodie. She now looks too small, too slight to be Anne, although the stats say they are both 5ft 6in. There is, too, no getting away from her plebeian vowels. Doherty says "blimmin' " a lot, like a Victorian street urchin.
"No, I'm not like her at all. I definitely get people going, 'You're nothing like Anne.' And I take that as a compliment, and then they go, 'Do you get recognised?' And I'm like, 'No, because I'm nothing like this woman.' "
The voice she has found comes from repeat viewings of the Princess Royal, especially on Parkinson and Wogan.
"To be fair, I think the voice, for me, was the key," she says.
It's lower than hers?
I removed from my mind the idea that Anne watches The Crown. Too much pressure.
"It's so much lower and it's much more constrained. The nature of the accent means you do have to be quite rigid with your mouth. It is quite a lot of effort to say the words. When I was playing around with it and doing it for the first time, it made me feel really angry. I kind of understood a lot about this woman just from the way she spoke. There's a constriction and rigidity there."
You do feel it might all one day explode and Anne will come out with a speech such as Doherty's in Crave: "I'm evil, I'm damaged, and no one can save me."
She agrees. "Sarah Kane is what wants to come out, but actually she has to be Princess Anne."
We are talking, of course, of a construct, the Morgan version of Anne. The woman herself has largely kept her own counsel on The Crown. In an ITV documentary celebrating her 70th birthday this summer, she claimed she had not seen it and then, contradictorily, that the early seasons were more interesting. She had, however, read in an interview (from Town & Country) that "the actress" playing her had said getting the hair right could take two hours. It took her, she scolded, "10 or 15 minutes".
"And I'm like, 'Well, yeah.' My hair is clearly the opposite of hers because it genuinely took hours. It's pretty massive. It's huge and it genuinely did kind of transform everything. Once you're in the make-up chair and it was done, it affected everything."
Did she feel herself getting more regal?
"In a weird way, you do. When you're occupying more air, something happens."
Returning the princess's compliment, Doherty did not watch the documentary. After two years inhabiting Anne, she needed some distance. Also, she never liked to think of the princess or her friends judging the performance for its veracity. "That is just too intimidating."
It's another way to mark her, I suppose.
"Exactly. It's too much pressure. So I removed from my mind any possibility she could ever watch it."
The possibility was all the more scary because by now Erin Doherty was among HRH's biggest fans. When she got the part, she was not entirely sure which "one" Anne was. To some, that might sound hard to believe, but Doherty is 28, and was just 26 then. The last time Princess Anne was really in the news, for her extremely low-key second wedding in a Scottish kirk, Doherty was five months old.
"I think that's also what excited me so much about playing her," she says. "For my generation, it would kind of be like an introduction to a person people deserve to know because she's magnificent. The way she is within the rigidity that is the royal family, the way that she behaves within that, is brilliant. And it was so much fun to play her. So, yes, I kind of fell in love with her."
She admires Anne for being outspoken, for telling the press to "naff off", for really not caring what people think of her. She loves her unsentimental humour – a wickedness shared with her father, whose favourite she was – and her courage.
If someone had called me frumpy as a 16-year-old, I'd have had a breakdown.
It is an adjective indiscriminately bestowed these days, but Anne possesses the real thing. In 1974, returning from a charity event along the Mall to Buckingham Palace, she survived an armed kidnapping attempt. Four men – including, ironically, given her dislike of the press, a tabloid journalist – were shot by her would-be abductor, Ian Ball, who planned to hold her ransom for millions of pounds. When Ball ordered her to get out of the car, however, the princess politely declined.
"He was slowly running out of bullets," she drily told Michael Parkinson on his chat show later, and got a laugh. While Mark Phillips had admitted to Parkinson that he had been frightened, Anne turned her near miss into an anecdote. Doherty loves that interview. Yet Morgan did not dramatise the incident in his series.
"I was gutted," says Doherty. "I was so gutted. When I was reading about her before we'd even started filming I was like, 'This is amazing. They have to put that in.' "
Did she talk to Morgan about the omission?
"Well, what he said and what I completely agree with, and I stand by it – that's why I've made my peace with it – is that he does what the public doesn't necessarily know about. It probably is one of the most known things about her. I completely get it, but as an actor, I was gutted."
Anne was heroic that night. Ball had grabbed her forearm and she stayed put.
"I know, and she said, 'No.' That told me everything I needed to know about her. In a genuinely life or death situation, you understand who a human being is and she completely resisted."
But part of Anne's courage, and part of the reason Doherty admires her so much, comes from her having – and this is my paraphrase – survived the mother she had.
"My choice," she agrees, "was to make [her steeliness] come from this childhood of not having that mother figure there as you would have wished. You kind of go, 'Well, that's fine. If that person isn't there, I don't need one.' "
So when the press was unkind, she was prepared?
"Exactly and that part of her personality was the most fun to embrace. She had this ability to completely deflect judgment. It had impacted her so early on from being introduced to the media. They commented on her from when she was 16. They commented on her body. I find that fascinating and horrendous. If someone had called me frumpy as a 16-year-old, I'd have had a breakdown."
In the run-up to Anne's grand wedding to Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey the Labour MP Willie Hamilton, a very visible republican of the era, complained loudly that the nation was being forced to pay for the nuptials of the monarch's "plain daughter".
"There you go," she says. "We can't say that these people aren't affected by other people's judgments."
Yet if Anne hurts less than her older brother, who minds everything, that resilience hardly redounds to her mother's credit. This year's Crown offers a tough critique of the Queen's parenting of Anne (and Philip's parenting of Charles). In one episode, the Queen blithely boasts of leaving them alone, aged six and four, for five months in 1954 while they toured Australia. Princess Margaret wonders if that might not have had consequences. Elizabeth replies, "On what? The tour was a triumph."
"And that's what's brilliant," says Doherty. "I think Olivia does an amazing job at portraying this woman, but I think that is what's fascinating about them. This family is completely circulating around this woman who needs to do this thing that she does, but it actually completely detaches her from the beating heart that is a family."
In a season that depicts Charles in despair over his choice of wife, and that wife's descent into bulimic spiral (several episodes carry a warning of upsetting scenes), it is seeing Anne, the robust one, crumbling that brings home the monarchy's institutional cruelty.
"Anne's frustrated in the first season and the fact that she didn't have anyone to communicate her frustration to ended up in it going internal, to a place where you just shut off and carry on. But we all know, if you're not communicating how you're feeling, you're going to crumble eventually and it all kind of came up in that scene with her mum, and in her marriage, I suppose. They [Anne and Mark] are both having extramarital affairs. It will seep out in its own way eventually."
If Morgan really does proceed by winkling out episodes from the royal soap that we have forgotten, he has certainly succeeded in the case of Anne's affair with Peter Cross. There is no doubt it happened. Indeed, Cross later confirmed it had to the journalist who broke the story, but I certainly had no memory of it. Brian Hoey's 1997 biography, Anne: The Private Princess Revealed, entirely ignores it and so does her Wikipedia entry (better known is Anne's extramarital liaison with Tim Laurence, who became her second husband following the publicity over the theft of his love letters from the palace).
As an admirer, doesn't Doherty feel a little guilty about her part in disinterring this particularly tabloid exclusive?
"Again, I'm like, well, if anyone can take it, it's Anne. In that sense, I don't feel bad because she can take anything."
When not in digs in Chichester rehearsing a difficult play, Doherty lives unpalatially in a house share in London. During lockdown it was hard. I ask if she could not now, post-Crown, afford to buy a flat of her own.
"Oh gosh, no. That's the reality of my work. Who knows? Who blimmin' knows?"
Uncertainty is integral to her profession?
"Love is what keeps you in it. I'm not in it for money, or to buy a flat on my own. I'm in it just because I love to do it."
I wonder if The Crown has put her off marriage for ever.
"Yeah, that's it. I'm just going to be alone. Keeping it safe. Just me," she jokes.
But it's not a great advert for it, is it, The Crown?
"I know. That's true. To have spent a year in an unhappy marriage as Princess Anne has kind of put me off."
Her own parents split up when she was about four, but she saw plenty of her father, who "gets aeroplanes to airports or something like that". Her upbringing, and not just because there was less money about (her mother was a doctors' receptionist), was very unlike Anne's. "My mum and dad were there. They were there." The quarter of her childhood she resented was school, at which she spent as little time as possible. "I just didn't really want to be there. I was really bad. I bunked all the time."
She lived for the weekends, which were of two halves. Her father ferried her round the region to play football matches, while her mother drove her to stage school. She was an exceptional soccer player, a midfielder and team captain. For a while, it looked as if she might become a professional footballer and she got as far as getting a trial at Chelsea. "I loved it and I still think about it," she says, but she also loved acting and, in the end, her father told her she would have to choose, "because he was the one driving me to blimmin' Bracknell or Petts Wood". With her "logical brain" on, she realised of the two risky careers, acting at least had the chance of longevity on its side. Perhaps one day, I suggest, she will combine her talents. She likes the idea. "I watch Bend It Like Beckham and I'm like, 'Oh, God. They can't play football.' Yeah, one day I'll get my football film."
The problem was finding a drama school that perceived her ability. There was a money problem. Many charged £50 ($95) just for an audition. To pay for them after A levels, she went back to work at her Hazelwick School as a PE technician, washing football kit and pumping up balls. There were plenty of rejections, but not so many that Doherty abandoned her dream. In the end, her father, who was living in Guildford, found a drama foundation course at the local college. From there, she was accepted by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, alma mater of both Colman and Josh O'Connor, The Crown's Prince Charles. At Bristol she was the Stephen Sondheim Student Performer of the Year.
Her career is still young, but her stage presence was noticed from the off. Her CV boasts a string of nominations and awards. In a 2019 Young Vic revival of the one-woman show My Name Is Rachel Corrie, she played the 23-year-old American activist killed by an Israel soldier on the Gaza Strip. The Guardian's Michael Billington called her one of the year's "great discoveries". Up the road at the Old Vic, she played opposite Rhys Ifans's Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and stayed on to take the lead role in Alan Ayckbourn's The Divide.
During its run, her agent called to say that, although her TV work had thus far been confined to an episode of Call the Midwife and a small role in the BBC's Les Misérables, she was up for Princess Anne.
She was auditioned twice by series director Ben Caron and the casting directors Nina Gold and Robert Sterne. The only advice she observed was a tip she had seen on a video at drama school given by Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, which was to prep for an audition as if you already had the part.
At Elstree in the autumn of 2018, on the set of The Crown for the first time, she found the scale of the production "insane". Acting alongside Colman, who was about to receive her Oscar, Helena Bonham Carter as Margaret and Tobias Menzies was "mind-blowing".
"They are like prime goddesses and gods at their blimmin' craft. You're literally like, 'Right, I just have to focus and do the best that I can.' I have to say, I look back and I don't know how I did it."
Yet she completely acts at Colman's level in that key scene of theirs, I say.
"Oh, bloody hell. That's great."
My thought, I tell her, is that Crown viewers have grown to love Anne so much because the actress who plays her loves her so.
"I'd love for that to be true, honestly. Something just kind of clicked. I was so determined for people to be introduced to this woman with so much to offer."
Now, though, she has said goodbye to Princess Anne. Another actress, as yet unannounced, will take up her reins, literally and figuratively, in seasons five and six. Netflix has not said farewell to Doherty, however. In the streamer's forthcoming thriller Rebel Ridge, she plays the female lead opposite the Star Wars actor John Boyega. Filming is due to begin in Louisiana in March. "I'm really, really chuffed," she says. There is another Netflix film too, but she cannot talk about it for now.
First, there is this sharp, dark Sarah Kane play. Rehearsals, I gather, have been intense, but she thinks Crave a fantastic piece of writing and attractive to her because it is the complete opposite of The Crown – a meditation on mental illness, sex and mordantly dysfunctional family relationships. How unlike, I think, the home life of our own dear Queen. Or perhaps, I think again, not so very unlike.
Naff off! Not bloody likely!
Princess Anne, in one's own words
"I mean, I know what Twitter is, but I wouldn't go anywhere near it if you paid me, frankly."
On Twitter, 2020
"Nowadays, [the younger royals] say: 'Oh, let's do it a new way.' And I'm already at the stage, please do not reinvent that particular wheel. Some of these things don't work. I'm the boring old fuddy-duddy at the back saying, 'Don't forget the basics.' "
On the younger royals, 2020
"I think this person is probably the most stupid person in world sport."
After her microphone was accidentally left on following an International Olympic Committee speech, 2012
"My brother tells a story of having visited an elderly care home in Scotland, and at the time he was in a kilt. And he actually heard, when he was engaged in conversation down the other end, an old lady say, 'Is that the Princess Royal?' I am wearing trousers today. Well, there you go."
On being mistaken for Prince Charles, 2012
"A good suit goes on for ever. If it is properly made and has a classic look, you can go on wearing it ad infinitum. Economy is bred into me. My parents believe that things are not to be wasted. That lesson does last."
On her legendary thriftiness, 2008
"A 19-year-old suddenly being dropped in the middle of the street and being told to go and pick on someone and talk to them. Fun? No, I don't think so."
On royal walkabouts, 2002
"I never liked the idea of the Royal Family film [the joint BBC/ITV documentary in 1969]. I always thought it was a rotten idea. The attention that had been brought on one ever since one was a child, you just didn't want any more. The last thing you needed was greater access."
On a TV documentary, 2002
"It's rather like market research. You can ask everybody, literally everybody, the same questions. Like you have three questions for that afternoon and you ask everybody the same questions. And with any luck, it shortens the time involved. Doesn't always happen."
On meet and greets, 1985
"Obviously, in the past, I wasn't sufficiently interested in clothes to be of interest. And whatever one wore was going to be bad news. I think, inevitably, it takes people quite a long time to find their feet in terms of what's going to suit them, for anyone young. It's just taken me longer than most, that's all."
On her image, 1985
"I find it very difficult to understand why anybody gets sucked into screens and devices. Life's too short, frankly. There's more entertaining things to be done. I suppose that puts me in the real dinosaur range."
On social media, 2020
"On the basis that one didn't have a farm to work on, or there was no other alternative, both my husband and I have heavy goods vehicle licences. He has an HGV1, I have an HGV3. So, in fact, it seemed like a very logical way of earning one's living. There is, in fact, quite a demand for good horse box drivers, who know one end of a horse from another, you see? And we thought we could probably crack that one between us."
Her response to what she'd do if the royal family were abolished, 1985
Said to the paparazzi, 1982
"He said I had to go with him. Can't remember why. I said I didn't think I wanted to go. I was scrupulously polite because I thought it's silly to be too rude at that stage. And we had a fairly low-key discussion about the fact that I wasn't going to go anywhere and wouldn't it be much better if he just went away and we'd all forget about it? Which was, it turned out, wishful thinking... In the process of getting the door open, the back of my dress split from the top. All the shoulders went out of it and that was his most dangerous moment. I lost my rag at that stage."
On a gunman's attempt to kidnap her, 1974
"Not bloody likely!"
Response to her attempted kidnapper, 1974
"Being pregnant is a very boring nine months. I am not particularly maternal. It is an occupational hazard of being a wife."
On having children, 1981
"When I appear in public, people expect me to neigh, grind my teeth, paw the ground and swish my tail, none of which is easy."
On her public image, 1977
The Crown season 4 is available to stream on Netflix now.
Written by: Andrew Billen
© The Times of London