The Crown S5 E8 real history: Diana’s Panorama interview causes fireworks
In episode eight, ‘Gunpowder’, the interview that Princess Diana gave to Martin Bashir and the BBC’s Panorama in November 1995 takes centre stage…
“The Crown’s carefully precise recreation of the notorious Panorama interview with Princess Diana (a startlingly convincing performance from Elizabeth Debicki) has to be seen in view of Prince William’s expressed hope it would never again be watched,” writes Sarah Gristwood for HistoryExtra.
Nevertheless, recreate it The Crown does, and it is the main focus of episode eight. In episode seven we saw how, through various means that have since been proven fraudulent, journalist Martin Bashir had convinced Diana to tell her side of the story.
We open this episode in a room full of men in grey suits, a BBC board of governors meeting, a low hush burbling around the room. That is, before ‘Duke’ Hussey (played by Richard Cordery) strides in to accost the current Director General of the Beeb, John Birt (Nicholas Gleaves). He was a veteran of WW2, turned newspaper manager, and as shown in the drama, his wife was a senior lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth II. Birt, a Liverpudlian raised in post-war Britain, was Director General of the BBC from 1992–2000, and had been tasked with pushing ‘Auntie’ into the digital era.
- Previous episode | The Crown S5 E7 real history: the introduction of Martin Bashir, and a royal education
As we’ve seen over the course of the first seven episodes, the 1990s saw the Crown as an institution considering its role and relevance in Britain – and it seems that the era had a similar effect on the BBC. The Crown tells this story by juxta-positioning Hussey, and his regard for the BBC’s Reithian principles of education, against John Birt’s zeal for modernity.
The issue that brings them into direct confrontation in this episode is the Beeb’s representation of the royal family. The Queen, who is portrayed as regarding the BBC as fondly as Hussey regards the royals, suggests that upgrading her television to receive satellite channels would be “like me becoming a catholic.” On the set plays an episode of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, which had been a jewel in the BBC’s crown for more than a decade. At that time she has (as Hussey informs us in the episode) granted the BBC a new royal charter, a formal grant issued by the monarch that sets out the arrangements for the governance of the corporation.
Meanwhile, in another scene, we learn from on-screen Martin Bashir that Diana has agreed to be interviewed, and has chosen 5 November 1995 as the date they will record. The significance of her choice, the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, is not lost on anyone. Many parallels are made in this episode between Diana’s ‘explosive’ act, and the traitors who plotted to blow up king and government in 1605. At one point, a password given at a Brighton hotel is ‘Catesby’, a reference to the lead plotter; while Bashir draws on the plotters’ hesitation to calm some last-minute nerves shown by Diana. “They were unsuccessful,” the Princess replies. “They were hung, drawn and quartered.”
Elsewhere, Prince William and Princess Diana’s relationship continues to be tested as Diana suggests their phone calls may be bugged. In 2021, in response to an independent inquiry into the Panorama interview, William shared a brief insight into his memories of the situation, saying that the deceit had “contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia and isolation that I remember from those final years with her.”
What preparation was made for Diana’s Panorama interview?
“Do you think she’ll be critical of the monarchy?” John Birt asks in the episode, weighing up the ethics of allowing Diana such a platform. “Critical of Charles at least,” replies Steve Hewlett, who was the editor of Panorama. “She’s doing it with us because she feels safe, understood and protected,” Bashir adds, another ironic nod from the show towards Bashir’s methods. (In 2021, the real Birt called Bashir “a serial liar on an industrial scale”.) Ultimately Birt decides to quietly approve the interview; former BBC governor Sir Richard Eyre has since cited Birt’s desire to get the BBC’s news department “ on the front foot” as a contributing factor.
The cloak-and-dagger operation to get Bashir and crew into Kensington Palace was real; the 2021 independent inquiry revealed how they were disguised as tradesmen to gain access to Diana’s apartments.
- Read more | Free-spirited drama or fake news? How The Crown morphed from ‘safe’ territory to controversy
Did Diana and the Queen have a meeting before the interview was aired?
The palace didn’t know about the transmission of the interview until six days before it happened. When the news broke, recalled Dickie Arbiter, then an assistant palace press secretary, “everybody looked at each other and said: ‘Martin who?’”
As for how much Elizabeth II was aware, before anyone else: “I'm not aware of any conversation like they posit between the Queen and Princess Diana,” says historian Sarah Gristwood. “I don't know what level of knowledge the queen or indeed the palace had of what was coming.”
“Certainly, I think what is true is that there was a very strong reaction against the Panorama interview and effectively against Diana, afterwards. There was a sense that a line had been crossed. I believe that view came strongly from Princess Margaret and Prince Philip; the Queen, as ever, was less vocal.
“We know that Prince Philip had in many ways been in the early stages sympathetic and supportive to Princess Diana,” says Gristwood. “But I think the royal establishment could only have felt that way about the interview – especially the moment where Diana said she wasn’t sure if Charles was the man for the top job – that this was utterly beyond the pale. That this was seeming (which actually Princess Diana didn't do) to be menacing the monarchy itself.”
The Crown’s supposition of what might have happened behind closed royal doors has the Queen telling Diana: “The enemy you think I am, the hostility you imagine we all feel, is a figment of your imagination.” At this moment, regret seems to flicker in Diana’s face.
Did Diana regret giving the interview? Journalist and biographer Tina Brown heard otherwise from Gulu Lalvani, an entrepreneur who briefly dated Diana in 1997. “I am told by Lalvani,” writes Brown, “that Diana said she had no regrets about the interview and made clear that she had said exactly what she wanted to say on camera.”
The Princess realised, says Brown, that it had served her purpose “to frame herself to the British public as a betrayed woman before the increasingly inevitable divorce from Charles.”
What did Diana say in her Panorama interview?
On 20 November 1995 (not, as the episode depicts, on Charles’s birthday, which is on 14 November – but it did clash with the recording of the 1995 Royal Variety Show, at which the Queen was present for Carol Kenyon’s rendition of 'One Night Only'), Bashir's exclusive, 54-minute-long interview with Diana was broadcast. During the interview, she admitted to an adulterous affair and spoke about Prince Charles's relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, now Duchess of Cornwall – uttering the famous phrase: "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” She also talked frankly about her difficulties with post-natal depression and bulimia.
As portrayed in the drama, the most controversial element for the royals was Diana’s response to the question of whether Charles would be king, to which she replied: “Being Prince of Wales produces more freedom now, and being king would be a little bit more suffocating. And because I know the character, I would think that the top job, as I call it, would bring enormous limitations to him, and I don't know whether he could adapt to that.”
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The explosive interview was watched by nearly 23 million people in the UK
And change opinion it did. “Public opinion drew pretty strongly behind the princess, as I remember it,” explains Gristwood. “After Prince Charles’s  interview with Jonathan Dimbleby there were mixed opinions. The public by and large did seem to feel somewhat supportive of him, despite the admission of infidelity. I think with Diana’s interview, there was a very strong feeling – rightly or wrongly – that Diana was the victim of this marriage, that she had gone into it expecting a marriage of love. And, possibly unfairly, there was a feeling that Charles was much older, more experienced, and should have known what he was doing. I do feel that at the time, the Panorama interview did the job the princess wanted it to.”
The explosive interview was watched by nearly 23 million people in the UK, and as the montage towards the end of the episode shows, made headlines around the world.
“The interview was a genuine bombshell moment,” Dr Ed Owens told HistoryExtra. “Of course, the infidelity that had defined the Waleses’ unhappy marriage was public knowledge by this point (it had been since 1992). The princess’s accusation were all the more powerful because this was the first time she spoke publicly and, of course, she did so very movingly.”
“There was a great sense of public support for Diana following the interview, with more than 80% of respondents to a special phone-in poll reporting that they took Diana’s side in the ‘war’,” adds Owens. “It was in this moment that public discussion around whether the succession after Elizabeth II might skip a generation really got going. However, it is interesting that while Prince Charles’s poll ratings slumped, those of the queen herself remained resilient – perhaps because she continued to embody the family values of an older generation at a time when younger royals were seen misbehaving so spectacularly.”
What happened in the BBC after the Panorama interview?
The resignation that Lord Hussey offered the Queen in this episode is also real. ‘Duke’ retired as chairman 1996, a contributing factor reportedly that Birt failed to inform him of the contents of the Panorama interview.
Martin Bashir went on to win a Bafta TV award and the Royal Television Society's title of journalist of the year, 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 Panorama interview with Diana.
The BBC has since made an "unconditional apology" over the way it obtained the interview, with John Birt calling Bashir’s deceit “one of the biggest crimes in the history of broadcasting”.
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