Ever since The Crown first launched on Netflix seven years ago, there have been few shows that have sparked such intense fascination and scrutiny.
Of all the curiosity surrounding the Royal cast of characters, it is Princess Diana – as initially portrayed by Emma Corrin and presently by Australia’s own Elizabeth Debicki – who most captures the public’s imagination.
And as The Crown hurtles towards its sixth and final season – split into two halves – it is Diana who fully absorbs the spotlight as the series takes us through her final weeks and improbable romance with Dodi Fayed, through to the couple’s fateful trip to Paris and tragic ending, forever intertwined in death.
Even though Debicki, 33, was only seven years old when Diana died on 31 August 1997, it is a memory that still haunts her.
“I have memories of seeing her face in the supermarket checkout line on women’s magazines, which were so big in the ‘90s and actually have specific memories of standing there even though I was probably head height – just looking at pictures of this woman, who was this princess; this magical being from another land and an incredibly beautiful person,” recalls the actress.
“Of course, I had no idea of the politics to do with any of that coverage. She was just this magical princess lady and then my first really imprinted memories are actually my mother watching the funeral procession. I was sat on the floor watching her watch the screen and she was devastated. Really, really moved – and I didn’t understand, and she explained. I can’t remember exactly what she said to me, something like she was just a very beautiful lady or that we will miss her and it was kind of that thing as a child when your parent is upset and you’re trying to understand the significance of the event; why it’s upset them so much,” she says.
“So, I paid attention to the funeral, and I specifically remember watching the boys in that funeral. It’s remarkable that I should have that so clearly in my memory, but they were so sad and so young – and I was a kid too. It’s a strong core memory for me.”
Created and written by Peter Morgan for six glorious seasons, here is a showrunner who knows a few things about the Royals, considering his award-winning scripts about Queen Elizabeth II for The Audience (2013) and The Queen (2006).
It’s a testimony to Morgan’s skills that audiences still hold their breath as they anticipate Diana’s final days – even though everyone knows what’s coming.
With Khalid Abdalla portraying Dodi, we watch the couple being set up by Dodi’s meddlesome father – Salim Daw reprising his role as late Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed, who had famously owned Hotel Ritz Paris and London’s Harrods, spending most of his adult life feeling slighted by the royal family.
While Al-Fayed died in August this year, aged 94, Abdalla hopes this season will perhaps help him rest in peace by shining a sympathetic light on his beloved son.
“Everything is a surprise with Dodi,” says Abdalla. “He is this person who has been in the public eye and consciousness and supermarket shelves for 26 years now – and yet no one really knows anything about him. And then you ask them what he sounded like, and they don’t know. Maybe they know about his father and that’s about it.
“When you start to unravel the core dynamics around the one word that existed around him, ‘playboy’, you discover he was someone who clearly was very good at falling in love, but not very good at maintaining relationships through the difficult stuff.
“And probably anyone who is like that, has attachment issues. He clearly had a deeply loving but complex relationship with his father. And as I searched for my understanding of who he was, and spoke to the people who knew him, you start to hear about how gentle and shy he was; how there was a vulnerability,” says the actor who viewed CCTV footage of Dodi and Diana as they held hands behind The Ritz, waiting for their driver on that fateful night.
“There were simple caresses between them, or images of his hand on her cheek that give you a sense of what to explore. One of the things that makes me incredibly proud to do this portrayal is that finally – after 26 years – we get to know Dodi a little, we possibly get to love him a little and so therefore, after 26 years, we finally get to mourn him,” he says.
While Debicki understands that audiences will naturally feel sad to re-live Diana’s ending, she hopes that they will focus more on her life and message.
“During my research, the one thing that people felt very strongly to impart was the joy in this human; the playfulness and the humour was so important to them. Their fondest memories were the snatches of this cheekiness and very quick humour. Just self-deprecating, very self-aware and savvy.
“So many of their stories genuinely cracked me up. I remember thinking that it’s so important that I thread this intelligence and emotional intelligence through the performance.
“And the other thing that really surprised me – and I say this out of my own ignorance – is the extent of her humanitarian work. I think the way that Princess Diana used her platform was so progressive at the time – to stand up, and be so brave. I mean, the amount of vulnerability that she must have experienced in discussing mental health issues that pertain to her knowing that she could touch an enormous audience of people who were experiencing the same thing. I mean, that just wasn’t being done, and watching those speeches and then of course, everything she did for AIDS and for landmine awareness.
“What I learned in researching Season 6 too was just how little of the world’s attention was on that subject, and she absolutely grabbed that spotlight and just shone it right on there. And she put her body on the line too, and that was remarkable to me,” she says.
Debicki believes that Diana’s life is perhaps a cautionary tale about extreme celebrity.
“I guess, albeit the most extreme and tragic version of that,” she says thoughtfully. “Celebrity is such a strange concept because it becomes a physical reality for people. It can be horrendous for people, and I think that fame is something that seems really misunderstood – it looks from the outside like something that might be desirable because it seems to open up access to things that we think we want.
“And it’s going to sound cliche, but the most precious things in life are privacy, so that you can love the people you love in privacy. Privacy is the wellspring of sanity. You have to have it so that you can feel sane and so you can also evolve. One of the things that struck me as I was playing this part, is just how difficult it is for a human being to be denied the rites of passage that are necessary – making mistakes, doing the wrong things. I mean, if you’re constantly in the public eye, you don’t get the chance to evolve or make mistakes. I think it is incredibly difficult and isolating for people who experience that level and I strongly believe there should be some way that people can protect themselves against that invasion of their privacy,” she asserts.
And you can’t disagree with her. If there wasn’t such a high premium paid for an exclusive photo of Diana – especially with her new boyfriend Dodi – then perhaps that car crash would never have happened.
The Crown: Season 6 is streaming now