There’s a passage in The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown’s biography of the late Princess of Wales, that baffled me. Suddenly adopting the flowery cadences of a bad romance novelist to describe a twentysomething Prince Charles, she starts waxing lyrical about his magnetic appeal – and it’s enough to make even the most ardent royalist feel a bit queasy.
"The Prince has always been more glamorous in person than in pictures, where the flyaway ears tend to dominate," Brown writes. From this backhanded compliment she goes on to praise his eyes ("bluer than you’d expect!"), his "light, sporting tan" (acquired on the slopes of St Moritz rather than from a bottle of St Moriz, she implies) and his posh Savile Row wardrobe. This unsettling portrait of the prince as a Jilly Cooper-style romantic hero isn’t exactly convincing, especially to anyone who has YouTubed his toe-curlingly awkward engagement interview. Pro tip: "Whatever 'in love' means!" is not a great response when asked a question on national television about being in love with your new fiancée.
From Off-White’s Diana-inspired collection a few years back to Hailey Bieber’s recent Vogue Paris shoot and the excellent Instagram account @ladydirevengelooks, this generation has embraced Princess Diana as an undisputed icon. It’s fair to say, however, that Prince Charles has never been particularly appealing. A few decades on from his divorce, he’s just about managed to rehabilitate himself as the eco-loving grandad of four tiny, photogenic royals. With respect to Tina, though, devoting several pages of a Diana biography to swooning over her ex remains an extremely rogue move.
But after watching the third season of The Crown, I’ve had to reconsider Tina’s view, and it’s entirely Josh O’Connor’s fault. For round three of Netflix’s sumptuous period drama, the series has lurched forward in time to the late '60s and early '70s, with a new cast of royals ready to take centre stage – including O’Connor, who plays a twentysomething Prince Charles. He is a) very good at acting, as proven by his turn as a Yorkshire sheep farmer struggling with his sexuality in the staggering God’s Own Country, and b) a pretty flattering casting choice. Watching his performance feels not unlike the uncanny moment in my A-level history class when we unearthed a photo of a problematic autocrat as an improbably attractive young man. Spare a thought for my existential crisis.
My crush stepped up when Charles starts to fall in love with Camilla Shand, only to be separated by the queen mother and Lord Mountbatten. It's like Romeo and Juliet for posh people!
The Crown’s take on Prince Charles doesn’t exactly fit the flashy portrait from Brown’s biography but it has a charm of its own. We’re introduced to Charles in episode six, "Tywysog Cymru", when he is dabbling in student theatre at Cambridge (as Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth puts it, one eyebrow slightly raised, "It helps him express himself") and practising – heavy symbolism alert – the role of a Shakespearean king. He seems perfectly content until he’s deployed as his mother’s political pawn to learn Welsh at the University of Aberystwyth before being officially sworn in as the Prince of Wales, against a backdrop of growing calls for Welsh independence (in an ironic real life twist, his tutor was a deputy leader of Plaid Cymru).
Though he initially appears gauche and painfully awkward, the episode does much to humanise Charles, who becomes warmer and more charismatic during his stint at Aberystwyth – until he has to return to his chillingly formal royal home, moping around like the Lonely Boy of Buckingham Palace. Though a gossip piece published in The Sun a few weeks before the series launch claimed that Charles’ team is "deeply paranoid" about the new episodes, suggesting they could prove "disastrous in terms of [his] bid for popularity," the show is arguably a pretty decent piece of PR. Casting a good-looking rising star, then framing him as a misunderstood outsider in the royal establishment feels like a feat of free publicity. My sympathy crush stepped up in episode eight, when Charles starts falling in love with the brisk Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell) only to be cruelly separated by the panto villain machinations of the queen mother and his great uncle, Lord Mountbatten. It’s like Romeo and Juliet for posh people!
Not all fanciable blokes on TV have to be Richard Madden-in-Bodyguard types.
I should clarify that this performance probably isn’t going to spark a universal Hot Priest (Hot Prince?) moment – if anything, The Crown’s Charles is more akin in spirit to Fleabag’s series one boyfriend. The show goes to no great lengths to sex things up (though it’s perhaps worth contrasting our introduction to Charles – doing weird vocal exercises before his student play – with our first view of Erin Doherty’s Princess Anne, who (eye-roll) the camera takes in legs and arse first) but instead lets viewers fall for a rather endearing, bumbling and slightly lost character, if they’re so inclined. Not all fanciable blokes on TV have to be Richard Madden-in-Bodyguard types, and Josh-as-Charles can happily be filed alongside other sappy fictional characters I have known and loved, like the intern from the BBC's W1A and "that lovely vicar from Grantchester" (copyright: my mum).
Embarrassment factor aside, it’s impossible to have a conflict-free crush on fake Prince Charles. The Crown has a habit of making us root for uber privileged people who have done awful things, and creator Peter Morgan carefully plays up certain sides of royal life while conveniently ditching others. Focusing on the famous relationship with Camilla – and throwing the blame for their split on two scheming elderly relatives – avoids engaging with the grim double standard that let the real-life prince "sow his wild oats" but wrote off any of the women he was linked to as "damaged goods". Tackling the late '70s and the '80s, the next season will undoubtedly bring more turbulent storylines and throw a different light on Charles’ character. Series three feels like a honeymoon period, so I’ll enjoy it while I can.
Want even more from The Crown? Head over to our curated Pinterest board for all of the 60s and 70s inspiration you’ll need as you work your way through the series.