The Crown S5 E3 real history: exiled royals and the al-Fayeds
In episode three, ‘Mou Mou’, we are introduced to the al-Fayed dynasty, whose story became inextricably linked with that of the royal family in the 1990s. Elsewhere, the episode harks back to an earlier era of royal tensions, as the legacies of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor remind senior royals of past grief…
We open this episode on a dusty football pitch in Alexandria, Egypt, 1946. As young men run and jostle for the ball, two dignitaries arrive in car. They emerge, and we’re on more familiar footing for The Crown; the passengers are the Duke of Windsor – formerly king Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne in 1936 – and his wife Wallis (played by Alex Jennings and Geraldine Chaplin respectively).
We don’t linger long on the exiled royals though, instead turning to a local young man, who introduces himself as Mohamed Fayed.
Who is Mohamed al-Fayed?
The real Mohammed Fayed is said to have been born in Alexandria in 1929 (this year is often disputed) and was the eldest son of a primary school teacher. Egypt had been a British protectorate between 1882 and 1922, and while his father is depicted in The Crown as resentful of the colonisers, and eyes those who had ‘accepted’ their rule with disdain, the drama depicts young Mohamed instead expressing admiration. “I want to match them… to have power like them”, he says. His zeal sets the scene for Fayed’s relationship with the British establishment, which, in reality, continues to be complex and contentious.
As shown in the drama, the real Fayed worked as a salesman of Coca Cola and sewing machines, later marrying Samira Khashoggi, the sister of Saudi Arabian businessman and international arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, in 1954. Mohamed named their son, born in 1955, Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Mena'em Fayed: Dodi. Though Fayed and Samira divorced in 1956, Mohamed went on to make his name in Khashoggi’s company before founding his own shipping business.
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In the drama, we then fast-forward to 1979, with an older Mohamed (played by Salim Daw) having made his fortune and proposing to buy the Paris Ritz, accompanied by his now adult son, Dodi (played by Khalid Abdalla). In reality, Fayed had moved to Britain in 1974, adding the al- to his name, and by the late seventies had already amounted huge wealth in European holdings.
The woman with whom he spars in The Crown is Monique Ritz (played by Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), the widow of hotelier Charles Ritz. Following Charles’s death in 1976, Monique – then in her mid-50s – took over the Ritz Paris, and the hotel entered a period of decline, which led to her decision to sell it three years later.
Though al-Fayed succeeded in this prestige purchase in 1979, in the drama he is still rebuffed by the social echelons he is so keen to emulate and join. In reality, moments of establishment rejection in his life are evident; in the 1970s, British satirical magazine Private Eye nicknamed al-Fayed “the Phoney Pharaoh” for his ‘wheeler dealer’ persona, and when al-Fayed applied for a British passport in 1995, he was turned down by the Conservative government – further fuel for the notion of al-Fayed as an ‘outsider’.
During a celebration of al-Fayed’s purchase of the Ritz, we find another tie to the exiled Windsors, as Mohamed meets Sydney Johnson. As we saw earlier in the episode, Johnson had joined the household staff of the exiled Windsors in 1940 as a 16-year-old, during the duke’s governorship of the Bahamas between 1940–45. Historian Andrew Lownie, author of Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Bonnier Books, 2021), told the HistoryExtra podcast how installing the duke as governor was in part a manoeuvre by the British government and royal family to absent the former king from wartime Britain. Edward and Wallis needed, explains Lownie, to be removed from Nazi agents of influence, due to concerns about the couple’s perceived lack of discretion and fascist sympathies.
“His royal highness was never one to restrain his pen,” one aide later says in this episode, referring to the period when the exiled royals were “frequently in the company of Nazis, who hoped to install him as a possible puppet king.”
Edward VIII, “the puppet king”?
There is evidence during the summer of 1940, explains Lownie, of a plan called Operation Willi, during which the Germans tried to recruit Edward as “a British Petain”. The plan involved an offer to take care of the duke’s possessions and house in Paris, and letters and diaries from royal courtiers and Mi5 agents show that Edward did engage with these offers.
The Duke of Windsor “was much more concerned with the threat of communism than he was with fascism. And he thought that the fascists would act as bulwark against communists, and that would save the empire,” explains Lownie. “He was very open about it. And what shocked me was that he continued to hold these views, not just after his abdication, but right through to, and during, the Second World War.”
- On the podcast | The Windsors in exile
It’s little wonder, as portrayed in The Crown, that senior members of the royal family would have been keen to recover the duke’s papers and diaries from this period.
Who was Sydney Johnson?
Eagle-eyed viewers of The Crown might remember Sydney Johnson from season three, episode eight. When the Duke of Windsor (then played by Derek Jacobi) falls ill, Wallis instructs “Sydney”, present in full red and gold livery, to call a doctor, and Johnson later announces an imminent visit of the Queen to the couple’s Le Bois mansion.
Johnson really was a personal valet to the duke until Edward’s death in 1972 of throat cancer, and continued to serve the duchess until 1973 (Wallis reportedly wouldn’t allow Johnson to leave daily service early enough to collect his children, so Johnson resigned). As shown in the drama, Wallis’s final years were isolated, and she died in 1986 aged 89 after a long period of declining health. She was buried at Frogmore alongside her husband, and the Queen and other senior royals did attend her funeral.
In this episode, Sydney Johnson (played by Jude Akuwudike, with Joshua Kekana as the younger Sydney) returns as a teacher to al-Fayed, instructing the tycoon in the ways of the establishment, which he had learned in the service of the Windsors. Al-Fayed really did enlist Johnson’s help in buying and curating the former home of the exiled couple, referring to Johnson as “a dictionary” in 1986. “He's a very cultured man,” said al-Fayed. “He got all these things out of boxes and safes and storage rooms, and he knows their history.”
Upon his purchase and restoration of Le Bois, al-Fayed intended the site to become a museum, renamed Villa Windsor, to be visited only by “historians, members of the British royal family, personalities, friends and important guests of the Ritz.” Johnson was pivotal in curating the former possessions of the duke and duchess in al-Fayed’s vision, and when Johnson died in January 1990 aged 69, the businessman paid tribute, calling Johnson a “gentleman’s gentleman”.
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The mansion continues to be leased by al-Fayed today and is not open to the public.
Harrods, Dodi & Princess Diana
In the drama, the royals’ snub of Villa Windsor only serves to heighten al-Fayed’s sense as an outsider, a feeling which is played upon by his son Dodi in his role as a producer on the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. In reality, the pair did stake nearly £2m for the film to be made, setting up a film production company called Allied Stars. (The younger al-Fayed was later a producer on the and 1986 thriller F/X and the 1991 blockbuster Hook.) During this period, Dodi also developed somewhat of a reputation as a playboy, living between Paris and Egypt and dating several high-profile women such as Brooke Shields, Cathy Lee Crosby, and Joanne Whalley.
It was clear that the success of Chariots became another feather in Mohamed’s cap. In contrast to the depiction in The Crown, which has Dodi petitioning his unwilling father for the film’s financing, Mohamed in 2016 said: “I didn’t hesitate when Dodi asked me to finance the production… It was a British film but, let us be honest, it would not have been made without Egyptian money.”
But it wasn’t the only venture that Mohamed found attractive. Grand department stores had been part of London’s landscape since the mid 19th century, and as Mohamed sees in The Crown, ownership of such sites brought prestige and access into a particular sort of society. His purchase of the Knightsbridge department store Harrods was not without controversy, with claims that al-Fayed had ‘misrepresented his wealth’ during the purchase. But ultimately, he became the owner of the famed site in 1985. This in turn afforded entry into rarefied events that included the royals, such as the Harrods Polo Cups in the late 1980s.
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In this episode, though he hopes to court the attentions of the Queen, Mohamed is joined instead at the polo cup by Diana. In reality, Diana met al-Fayed through her stepmother Raine Spencer (referenced in the episode) who was on the Harrods board, though would have also socialised with Mohamed at polo and charity events.
Diana’s famously open nature is portrayed as she chats informally with ‘Mou Mou’ about her own tribulations as an ‘outsider’ member of the royal family (feelings which viewers have already seen her disclose to journalist Andrew Morton in episode two). The pair in reality formed a bond. “Diana is so easy-going with Mohamed,” Michael Cole, then director of public affairs at Harrods, told Vanity Fair in 1995. “Mohamed is not one of those who's overwhelmed by her. They spark off each other very well.”
The episode ends with a brief, yet key, meeting between Diana and Dodi, which did happen at a polo match in 1986. Many viewers surely won’t help but see the episode’s final moments as a tragic foreshadowing of the event that led to Dodi and Diana’s deaths in a car crash in Paris, just eleven years later.