The Crown S5 E7 real history: the introduction of Martin Bashir, and a royal education
In episode seven, ‘No Woman’s Land’, Diana’s formal separation from Prince Charles means increased isolation for the royal, making her the target of ambitious broadcast journalist Martin Bashir. Elsewhere, young Prince William begins a new chapter…
We open episode seven in a library, in the company of journalist Martin Bashir (played by Prasanna Puwanarajah). As he scans through archives of tabloid headlines about the Princess of Wales, a voiceover from Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) narrates a sense of isolation from the family she had married into in 1981.
“No one prepares you for what it’s like to be separated,” she says. As seen in episode five, the Prince and Princess of Wales had formally separated in 1992, after intense speculation about their relationship in the tabloids, and an official trip to South Korea together in November, during which they looked so miserable that the British press calls them “the Glums”.
- Previous episode | The Crown S5 E6 real history: the Romanovs’ murder, and Philip’s “spiritual companionship”
“The Royal Highnesses have no plans to divorce,” a statement from Buckingham Palace had confirmed in December of that year, “and their constitutional positions are unaffected.” Charles and Diana would continue to jointly raise their sons, Princes William and Harry, but from that moment the couple would live separate lives, with Prince Charles in St James’ Palace and Diana residing in an apartment at Kensington Palace.
The separation left Diana, as the drama has it, in no man’s land. Or rather, “no woman’s land… neither married nor single, neither royal nor normal.” In reality, the princess later described the separation as a moment when she felt she had “run out of steam”.
The 1992 announcement was also a blow to an institution already facing a brace of criticism and an ebb in popularity. As the New York Times had it, “The news of the separation comes at a time when the credibility of the monarchy is at a modern low-point, as a result of persistent reports alluding to the marital scandals and wealthy lifestyle of some members of the royal family.”
Episode seven explores Diana’s feelings during this period of her life, her relationship with surgeon Hasnat Khan, and the targeting of Diana by a BBC journalist, Martin Bashir.
How did Martin Bashir approach Princess Diana?
Martin Bashir was born in London in 1963 to Pakistani parents who had emigrated to Britain, and attended King Alfred’s College and King’s College London where he gained a Master’s degree in Theology. He joined the BBC in 1986, where he worked on a number of projects, including the flagship current affairs documentary programme Panorama.
It was in August 1995 that Bashir, then a 32-year-old reporter, met Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, at the family's Althorp estate in Northamptonshire. In this episode, Bashir paints a picture of a family under siege, telling Spencer, “I thought if they’re bugging you, what if your sister may also have been the victim of the security services’ dirty tricks campaign?” As shown in the drama, Earl Spencer did introduce Bashir to Diana the following month.
In reality, the notes that Earl Spencer made during the early meetings with Bashir are “astonishing", said the BBC's royal correspondent Jonny Dymond in November 2020. They appeared to record Bashir “spinning lie after lie about members of the Royal Family, and its staff, in an attempt, Earl Spencer says, to win his trust and that of his sister.”
Bashir really did provide both the Earl and Princess Diana with forged statements, which wrongly purported that two senior courtiers were being paid by the security services for information. The drama chooses to depict how Bashir’s “proof” was deployed at a time when the princess felt increasingly isolated, believing that her phones were being tapped and that members of her staff were spying on her. Statements about journalistic integrity during which Bashir leans on the “trustworthy and important” reputation of the BBC are positioned squarely alongside shots of Bashir’s deception.
Diana and Dr Hasnat Khan
When visiting the husband of her friend and therapist Oonagh Toffolo at the Royal Brompton Hospital in August 1995, Diana met surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan. In the drama, Debicki’s Diana admires Khan (played by Humayun Saeed) as “quite dishy”, and later tells him how “I already had a prince. He broke my heart. I’m just looking for a frog to make me happy.”
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Diana did become involved with the heart and lung surgeon following their meeting in August ’95 and they remained in a relationship until 1997. Diana visited his family in Lahore in 1996.
The drama depicts, during this period, Diana being relatively free to drive herself about London, independent of any minders. At another moment, she meets Khan whilst in disguise at a cinema. Does this seem likely? Historian Sarah Gristwood explains: “I don't personally find that completely unlikely.” Referring to a 1986 prank when Diana and Sarah Ferguson dressed up to crash Prince Andrew’s stag party, “if you think of an occasion that she and Fergie crashed a nightclub, that shows that a certain amount – for better or worse – of autonomous movement was possible. After all, even if there were detectives in the background, it wasn't the detective's job to interfere.”
The drama chooses to draw a parallel between Bashir’s Pakistani heritage and that of Khan, whom Diana had spoken with about his Pakistani upbringing earlier in the episode. “Such a coincidence,” she notes, The Crown supposing this significance.
It’s true that during the mid 90s, Diana engaged in many hospital visits, and a key part of her legacy remains the use of her platform to counter myths about how HIV/AIDS could be contracted, most famously in a visit to a New York AIDS ward in 1989. “She did it for the cameras,” Penny Junor told HistoryExtra, “but she was demonstrating that AIDS victims were still human beings and you shouldn’t shun them. She did a huge amount of good for this cause.”
Prince William and Eton
Meanwhile, Prince William has enrolled at Eton College. In the background, Prince Charles and Princess Diana spar over whether the princess’s behaviour is “mothering” or “smothering”.
- Read more | What was Diana like as a mother?
The prince did attend the school from the age of 11 in 1995, and is often cited as the first senior member of the royal family to attend the institution. However, as depicted in the episode, the Queen did also receive some of her education at Eton. In 1938, then-Princess Elizabeth began receiving lessons from the vice provost of Eton, Henry Marten, on constitutional history. “Marten’s teachings,” writes Kate Williams, “were important to Elizabeth’s perception of her role: he told her that monarchy was strengthened by adaptability and talked of the importance of broadcasting directly to her subjects.”
In the drama, the Queen and William’s shared experience of Eton, and their new proximity – Eton is just over a mile away from Windsor Castle – gives them a chance to bond. A line from the Queen (played by Imelda Staunton) suggests once again the line between duty and family. “It might be nice to have him here for tea,” she says, “unless it wouldn’t break any rules.” In reality, the Queen and her grandson reportedly had a very close relationship, with Prince William referring to his grandmother as “Gary” when he was a youngster, apparently confusing the word with ‘Granny’.
What was evident in this period is that Prince Charles’s own memories of his education still represented trauma. As viewers have seen in an earlier episode, Charles cooperated with Jonathan Dimbleby on an authorised biography. The book, released in 1994, described the bullying and “crushing loneliness” Charles experienced at school, and a childhood characterised by long periods of his mother’s absence. Charles was said to feel “emotionally estranged” from his parents and yearning for affection that, in his view, they were “unable or unwilling to offer”.
In contrast to Charles, William is depicted as deeply emotionally connected to his mother, who in this episode, telephones him to have longing conversations while he is away from her at Eton. Prince William shared memories of Princess Diana when interviewed for a 2017 TV documentary: “She was very informal and really enjoyed the laughter and the fun… She understood that there was a real life outside of palace walls”.
The Crown portrayal has it that such attention comes with its own challenges, with the young William carrying a heavy burden of responsibility for his mother’s happiness, under unprecedented public scrutiny.
By 1995, the press had reached an agreement with the royal family that the young prince would be left alone during his schooling, and John Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, emphasised the importance of allowing the prince to grow up untouched by the tabloids’ affects. “Prince William is not an institution; nor a soap star; nor a football hero. He is a child: in the next few years, perhaps the most important and sometimes painful part of his life, he will grow up and become a man.”
It was true that Diana did encourage her sons to embrace emotion and empathy, later telling Martin Bashir in her Panorama interview: “I want them to have an understanding of people’s emotions, people’s insecurities, people’s distress, and their’s hopes and dreams. I would like a monarchy that has more contact with its people.”
Why did Diana decide to do the Panorama interview?
Seeking this contact, and feeling unheard by senior royals, by the end of the episode Bashir’s pressure has convinced Diana – despite concerns raised by her brother, Earl Spencer – to do the interview with the BBC. The November 1995 tell-all interview is an event which cannot be understated in terms of its effect on recent royal history, and is explored in episode eight.
After securing the princess’s words, Bashir went on to become a household name following the Panorama interview, with later career milestones including an interview with pop star Michael Jackson. He stepped down from his position as the BBC’s religion editor in May 2021, citing ongoing health issues as the reason for his departure. His resignation from the BBC coincided with an investigation into his interview with Diana.
The BBC has since made an "unconditional apology" over the way it obtained the interview.