Most of the time, royal fairy tales end with an ambiguous “and they lived happily ever after.” It’s a phrase that glosses all manners of sins, a blanket declaration that things work out in the end. In the case of Prince Charles and Princess Diana however, the one thing we do know about their love story is that they decidedly did not live happily ever after. The implosion of their fraught relationship, culminating in a contentious 1996 divorce before Diana’s tragic death in 1997, has dominated every other aspect of their time together, to the point that it’s difficult to recall the happy pair that drew 750 million TV viewers from 74 countries to cheer on their union.
And yet, the early days of their courtship are central to the latest season of The Crown, which hits Netflix today (15 November). Season 4, which spans the late 1970s into the early 1990s, tracks Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana (Emma Corrin) from their very first meeting, through the birth of their two children, William and Harry, and into the troubles that would become synonymous with their paired names. It’s an intimate — albeit partly fictional — look at one of the most famous relationships of all times, and one that’s sure to surprise viewers in its complexity.
“My opinion changed of their marriage,” Corrin told Refinery29 ahead of the season 4 premiere. “I kind of always assumed it was a doomed marriage, and there was never any happiness and it shouldn’t have happened. I do think it was a mistake, but I also think that there must have been a time where they were in love. Josh and I worked very hard at holding onto the fact that there was some love between them, and that there was something there. It made our portrayal of them more interesting, if we approached it from that way.”
In the show — as in real life — Charles first meets Diana in 1977 on a visit to the Spencer family home of Althorp. She was 16, he was 29, and actually dating Diana’s sister at the time. Their first encounter occurs in the season premiere, “Gold Stick.” Charles, who’s still hung up on a now-married Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell), is being pressured by his family to settle down and find a suitable wife. One such candidate is Lady Sarah Spencer, Diana’s eldest sister and the daughter of family friends. She’s got everything Charles is looking for: breeding, looks, charm. Still, he’s clearly not invested. On a visit to Althorp, Sarah steps out for a moment to get them some horses to ride. Suddenly, Charles’ attention is caught by a young woman dressed as a wood sprite, hiding behind a large vase.
“Sorry,” she says. “I’m not here. I was given strict instructions to remain out of sight.”
As she tiptoes across the room, finding shelter from a series of potted plants, the two banter about their shared passion for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play Diana is performing at school, and the reason for her bizarre attire. By the time she reaches the staircase and disappears onto the landing, Charles is hooked.
In The Crown, the two meet again a few years later, right after the death of Lord Mountbatten, Charles’ mentor and the family member he feels emotionally closest to. Diana offers her condolences, and piques Charles’ interest once more.
In real life, Charles and Diana’s second meeting occurred in 1980, when the two were invited to stay at a mutual friend’s house in Sussex. From there, things progressed very quickly. After a few phone calls and a handful of dates, Diana was invited to be introduced to the royal family at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, a visit depicted in “The Balmoral Test.” She was a triumph, and in 1981, their engagement was announced. As legend would have it, the two only met in person 13 times before Charles proposed.
It’s not that surprising then that two people who barely knew each other before committing to spend a lifetime together would hit some speed bumps. Almost immediately, Diana is confronted with the somewhat less glamorous reality of her position, and the heavy weight of expectations placed on the Princess of Wales.
As a 21-year-old former schoolteacher, Diana had thus lived a life relatively sheltered from court protocol. Episode 3, “Fairytale,” sees her isolated and cloistered in her suite of rooms in Buckingham Palace, learning the art of deportment and other royal etiquette. There, we get to see a new side to Diana, one in sharp contrast to the young woman viewed only through Charles’ gaze. She roller-skates through the halls, dances with abandon, and calls her former roommates to help keep the loneliness at bay. This is also the episode that first depicts Diana’s famous struggle with bulimia.
Still, Corrin stresses that no matter how real this all seems, her version of Diana is just that: a creative interpretation of a real person.
“I’m worried that people are going to go into it wanting to see her,” she said. “I’m not Diana, surprise, surprise. For people to enjoy, I think they have to let go of that and know that we’re telling a story. I hope that they can get what The Crown does so well, which is what happened behind closed doors, and learn a bit about what it takes to function in that world, which is a crazy one.”
The Crown takes a sharp turn after episode 3, which ends with a shot of Diana’s famous wedding dress. From then on, we’re on the Charles and Diana rollercoaster, full of vicious arguments, sad and lonely moments, and sporadic agonisingly embarrassing attempts at reconciliation. But for Corrin, those intense moments were also the ones she most looked forward to as an actor.
“The arguments that Charles and Diana had are obviously very heavy, but I enjoyed them. I find it enjoyable to do scenes like that and sink your teeth into them,” she said.
That tension broke as soon as the cameras stopped rolling, however. Unlike Charles and Diana, Corrin and O’Connor became very close on set. “We had so much fun,” she said. “We get on very well, which is lovely. We’re both naturally very silly and a bit outrageous. We played a lot of games, and made up a lot of games. It was very stupid, childish stuff, but it helped.”