With Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher stealing scenes, The Crown's fourth season brings recent royal history to life. by Russell Baillie.
The third season of The Crown finished with Queen Elizabeth feeling not very jubilant about her jubilee.
"This country was still great when I came to the throne and now look," she told a bedridden Princess Margaret in 1977 during the 25th anniversary of her coronation. "All that has happened on my watch is the place has fallen apart."
The imminent fourth series of Netflix's great British soap opera will be the end of Olivia Colman's run as QEII. She'll be passing the sceptre – and the hats and gloves – on to Imelda Staunton for a fifth and penultimate series that isn't due until 2022.
She might need a lie-down after the fourth season, which starts in the late 1970s and runs through the 80s and will probably have her seeing things fall apart even more.
As we know from the trailers, there will be a Margaret Thatcher. There will be a Princess Diana. And there will be – according to a recent clip featuring a haka – snapshots from Charles and Di's 1983 New Zealand tour with wee Prince William (the Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club provided the haka).
So, one lives in hope of royal waka rides at Waitangi and Buzzy Bees on the lawn at Government House. But it's doubtful.
What is definite is a walk-on role by Di's wedding frock, recreated from the original pattern of designers Elizabeth and David Emanuel and fitted to the actress portraying Diana, Emma Corrin.
"We were filming the scene when you first see her in the wedding dress," Corrin told British Vogue, "and I had a team of about 10 people helping me put it on, because it's massive. I walked out and everyone went completely silent."
The dress was apparently enough. There won't be a depiction of the 1981 ceremony at St Paul's Cathedral, though the trailers feature a scene of Charles and Diana arguing as they wander the other possible wedding venue, Westminster Abbey. And with no ceremony, unfortunately, there has been no need to cast someone as wedding singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa or dig out that hat she wore from a cupboard at Te Papa.
The fourth season won't lack for big moments in royal history, but it still has a hard act to follow.
Season three of the lavishly appointed show was arguably the best, and not just because of powerhouse Colman's ascent to the throne. Its most memorable episodes weren't necessarily centred on the Queen but on the conflicted lives of her swinging sis, Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), and her Eeyore eldest, Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor).
Their stories made for some great self-contained and occasionally tangential chapters. Show creator Peter Morgan hasn't been content just to tick off a list on the House of Windsor timeline.
Two of season three's episodes were directed by New Zealander Jessica Hobbs, including that powerful finale, Cri de Coeur, and the one that won her an Emmy nomination, Moondust.
Hobbs has directed three chapters of the new season, including the ninth and penultimate episode, Avalanche. It depicts events from 1988, when the Prince of Wales' skiing party in the Swiss Alps was caught in the avalanche that killed his friend and a former equerry to the Queen, Major Hugh Lindsay.
Hobbs told goldderby.com that recreating the event in the Scottish Highlands wasn't possible due to the impact of pandemic lockdowns on the production earlier this year, something that has affected the editing of some other episodes.
"But the avalanche is both real and metaphorical and we do deal with what happened as a result of it."
The first episode will cover the death of another figure close to Charles – the 1979 killing of his godfather and great-uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten (Charles Dance), in a bomb attack by the Irish Republican Army in Ireland. At the time, Mountbatten had been attempting to matchmake the prince and his granddaughter Lady Amanda Knatchbull, who also lost her brother and grandmother in the attack. When Charles proposed the following year, she turned him down. Enter Lady Diana Spencer.
As he has with previous seasons, Morgan will return to some familiar territory when it comes to the relationship between the Queen and Thatcher, the longest-serving British prime minister of her reign. Morgan dramatised their regular briefings before, in his hit play The Audience. The new season's publicity says there will be 11 scenes with Thatcher and the Queen in their regular Tuesday meetings.
"When I found out that they were born only six months apart, that was a big breakthrough for me," Morgan told Vanity Fair.
"Because of their generation, they had a lot of things in common – they're both very resilient, very committed, work incredibly hard, have an extraordinary sense of duty. They both have a strong Christian faith. They're both girls of the war generation who switch the lights off when they leave a room. But then they had such different ideas about running the country."
Playing Thatcher in season four is Gillian Anderson, Morgan's partner since 2016, who says the show offers an emotional side of the politician, especially when it comes to the disappearance of her son, Mark, in the Sahara during the 1982 Paris-Dakar Rally. It's probable that is part of the season-four episode that also touches on the 1982 Falklands War, in which Prince Andrew served as a Royal Navy pilot on frontline duties.
But although the Queen and Thatcher had much in common, their relationship was thorny.
"On the face of it, Elizabeth and Margaret should get on," Colman told Netflix Queue. "They are the same age, have the same drive, the same devotion to their fathers, the same work ethic. Yet they don't. It's not the beautiful friendship that the Queen hopes it will be at the beginning."
Thatcher was ousted as Prime Minister in late 1990 and left Parliament two years later, so Anderson will appear only in season four.
Thatcher has been portrayed on screen before, most notably by Meryl Streep in 2011's Iron Lady, a film that got a mixed reception but won the actress yet another Oscar.
Princess Diana was portrayed by Naomi Watts in one awful movie, 2013's Diana. Perhaps wisely, The Crown is using an unknown star to show how Diana became one.
"Basically, I loved young Diana," newcomer Corrin told Entertainment Weekly. "You can't understand the older Diana properly without understanding a 19-year-old living with her flatmates going on her first date with Charles. You need to understand the trajectory that she underwent. But her style was awful. That second time she meets Charles, when she's in those yellow dungarees, I just wanted to cry. I was like, 'Are you joking?' Awful. And those sweater vests. It really shows that fashion is something that grows with you."
Corrin had six months of preparation for the role, including movement and speech coaching.
"No matter what Diana is saying, it kind of goes down at the end," Corrin told the Radio Times. "It's like a sadness."
The new season also faces challenges other than shoulder-padded period fashion and big hairdressing bills for both Corrin and Anderson.
The Diana years are still fresh in the memory of those who lived through them, including the show's senior actors.
Colman: "It's interesting, because series three, for me, was like doing a historical piece.
Now, it feels less like that and more 'I remember that. I remember that voice. I remember that moment.' It feels quite different."
The transformation from shy Di to the glamorous people's princess is being marked by 30-year-old Elizabeth Debicki taking over the role from the 24- year-old Corrin for the fifth season.
The end of season four will bring a major changing of the guard. As well as Staunton taking over from Colman, Lesley Manville will replace Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, who died in 2002, Jonathan Pryce will replace Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, and Dominic West will reportedly take over the role of Prince Charles.
Morgan has changed the core cast of The Crown every two seasons. "The choice is simple.
You can put lines on someone's face or maybe digitally age them," he says, "but you can't breathe the fatigue and bruises of life into a face."
Where season four will finish won't be known until Netflix releases all 10 episodes this month. A fitting finale, though, might be the Queen's 1992 "annus horribilis", when (spoiler alert) the marriages of three of her four children officially ended and a fire tore through Windsor Castle. It was the 40th-anniversary year of her coronation. It probably made the 25th feel like the good old days.
The Crown season four is available on Netflix from November 15.