The Crown S5 E5 real history: ‘Camillagate’ tapes and a “war council” for the monarchy’s survival
Episode five sees Charles and Diana’s relationship crumble, as the scandalous tapes dubbed ‘Camillagate’ shock the world. The drama also has Charles rebelling against what he perceives to be the royal family’s lack of vision, setting up his own rival court…
This episode opens with a dejected Charles (played by Dominic West) reflecting on his position as the Prince of Wales, declaring: “I’m just a useless ornament stuck in a waiting room, gathering dust.”
The theme of his growing dissatisfaction with his long stint as heir runs throughout the episode, as he repeatedly maligns what he perceives to be the monarchy’s paltry attempts to modernise itself. As the on-screen Charles tells Camilla that “allowing the public into the royal box at Albert Hall from time to time” isn’t going to cut it.
- Previous episode | The Crown S5 E4 real history: the Queen’s “annus horribilis” and Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend
What was the Way Ahead Group?
In this episode, The Crown shows this idea being mooted at a meeting of the newly formed Way Ahead Group. Described by the Lord Chamberlain as an “informal council of war”, this group of senior royals and officials that was formed in the 1990s aimed to chart a new path for the monarchy, so it can survive “in a rapidly changing world”.
But in the drama, Charles is unimpressed by the suggestions put on the table, railing against his fellow attendees – including his mother, the Queen (Imelda Staunton) – as he thunders: “We should be thinking of something much more radical… I say why not abolish the Civil List [a yearly sum paid by Parliament, to cover the royal family’s working expenses] altogether? Have the monarchy fund itself?”
In reality, the Way Ahead Group did agree to some more radical reforms. According to the Financial Times, the Civil List was slashed so it only provided for the Queen, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother – the Queen agreed to fund the other royals’ working expenses herself. The royal family also chose to cover the costs of restoring the fire-damaged Windsor Castle themselves (as covered in our guide for episode four) rather than asking taxpayers to step in.
Charles’ rival court?
Later in the episode, Charles goes as far as to set up a “rival court”, having cited it as a tradition dating back to the 18th-century. Afterwards, Princess Anne relays this to a shocked group including the Queen: “Charles has been slowly but surely setting up his own court at St James’s,” she says, “his own Camelot.”
Historian and royal commentator Dr Ed Owens told HistoryExtra: “The court set up by Charles at St James’s palace was not so much designed to rival that at Buckingham Palace but instead to give the Prince of Wales greater freedom in terms of running his everyday activities.”
He continued: “Charles had carved out a new, independent role for himself as Prince of Wales and this was essentially his way of assembling a team of trusted advisors who could help him carry out his work, free from the oversight of Buckingham Palace.”
Likewise, The Crown’s portrayal of a Charles who was chafing at the bit to become king doesn’t reflect the nuances of the situation. Although in 2004 Charles himself apparently revealed “nobody knows what utter hell it is to be Prince of Wales”, he also said, according to this 2018 BBC article, that: “It’s vital to remember there’s only room for one sovereign at a time, not two.”
Royal biographer Penny Junor has also weighed in on his feelings surrounding the ascension. When discussing Charles’ attitude to ascending the throne at the start of 2022, she said: “This is a moment that he has been dreading all his life really, because his achieving the top job – the job he’s been training for and preparing for all these years – does inevitably mean the death of his mother, and he loves his mother very dearly.”
As part of his earlier preparation for becoming king, Charles threw himself into charity efforts, supporting more than 400 organisations. The Crown focuses particularly on his work with The Prince’s Trust, as we see him deliver a rousing speech to an audience of young people, telling them that “I want to reach those that are being overlooked, rejected; to make sure that you’re being given a chance.” The prince seems to relish his involvement, even good-naturedly being pulled in to a breakdance circle at the end of the episode.
According to The Prince’s Trust website, Charles set up the charity in 1976 (following on the heels of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award which Prince Philip had launched in 1956), to help young people overcome their disadvantages. Over the decades, the trust has continued to grow, forming high-profile partnerships with groups like the Premier League, and by 2020 it had helped one million young people.
What happened in the Camillagate tapes?
Aside from Charles’ gripes over his position as heir, his relationships also dominate the episode. Although still married to Diana, their relationship has broken down, and Charles is embroiled in a relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles (who is married to Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles).
The episode chooses to depict how one late-night phone conversation between the pair is recorded by an amateur radio enthusiast, who stumbles across their call by chance. The conversation quickly turns from one of Charles’ upcoming speeches to more intimate topics, with the prince admitting: “God, I wish I could just live inside your trousers or something”. When Camilla asks, “What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers?” Charles replies: “Or, God forbid, a Tampax – just my luck.”
- Read more | Charles and Camilla: a history of their romance
The steamy conversation is sold to The Daily Mirror. In The Crown’s portrayal the editor refuses to run it immediately, due to the fear of “being responsible for breaking up a royal marriage”, so the tapes are put on ice. That is, however, until Diana and Charles announce their formal separation three years later, when the papers view the tapes as fair game.
We then see the royal family’s horrified reaction to the scandal play out on screen, with Philip coming down particularly hard on Charles – in the episode, he berates him in front of his family, telling his son how “ashamed” he is.
While the content of the tapes might seem like The Crown’s creators have taken some artistic license, the audio is lifted almost word-for-word from the real-life transcript (although we see a shortened version of the conversation play out on our screens). When the tapes were published in People in 1993, they did cause widespread uproar.
Ed Owens told HistoryExtra: “A large section of the British population seem to have been interested in what was simply the latest instalment of ‘royal sleaze’ (there were several such royal sex scandals in the early 1990s). Thousands more readers than usual purchased the Sunday newspaper The People in order to get their hands on a copy of the full transcript of the conversation.”
In terms of how the Queen and Philip felt about the tapes, Owens says: “Little is known about how Elizabeth II and Prince Philip reacted to the Camillagate tapes. But one can speculate that the Queen would have been horrified that such a lewd, private conversation had been made public.”
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Was Charles interviewed by Jonathan Dimbleby?
The Crown depicts Charles, still reeling from the fallout of the tapes, being persuaded by some of his advisors to reveal a different side of himself to the nation. They suggest he takes part in a TV special, where he would be interviewed by Jonathan Dimbleby. “There is an element of risk,” Charles’ private secretary Richard Aylard tells him, “as the interview was bound to touch on his marriage, but there’s a far greater prospect of reward.”
As The Crown shows, Charles was indeed interviewed by Dimbleby in a TV special, Charles: The Private Man, The Public Role, which aired in June 1994. As Sarah Gristwood told HistoryExtra, during the two-and-a-half hour special Charles “admitted infidelity and revealed both a lack of sympathy for Diana… and a worrying distance from his family”.
- Read more | Free-spirited drama or fake news? How The Crown morphed from 'safe' territory to controversy
In the interview he also positioned himself as defender of ‘faith’ in a more abstract sense, rather than solely as the defender of the Church of England. At the time, this latter comment was criticised by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
When did Diana wear her revenge dress?
In the episode, it’s implied that Diana steps out in her iconic ‘revenge dress’ after watching Charles’ interview. In reality, Diana wore the dress on the same night that the interview aired, 29 June 1994. She was attending an event at London’s Serpentine Gallery, and the revealing asymmetrical black dress soon made its way into the headlines.
Owens told HistoryExtra: “Some voices in the British press celebrated Diana’s ‘revenge dress’ as an act of defiance on her part, challenging her husband’s admission of infidelity through a powerful statement of female sexuality. Of course, by wearing the dress she was also challenging Charles for space on the front pages of the newspapers the morning after his famous interview with Jonathan Dimbleby was aired.” The so-called ‘War of the Waleses’ had truly begun.
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