If following the universe’s most stressful election wasn’t your thing, there is another blockbuster event involving a dynastic family to get involved in this week: the return of The Crown.
Three official teasers and trailers of season four have been forensically dissected, while shots of the shoot were gobbled up more than a year ago. This is in part because this season focuses on the 1980s, a time many of its core viewing demographic remember well; and in part because this season features the looming figure of Margaret Thatcher, played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson.
But mostly, it comes down to the anticipation of seeing Emma Corrin as the young Diana. And while the series continues to revolve around the life of Queen Elizabeth, in this season – which lands on 15 November – she’s eclipsed by Diana. On Netflix, as in real life.
The Crown is not a documentary, of course: it’s the fictionalisation of what feels like the world’s longest running soap opera, compressed and magnified for maximum drama.
And this season – The Windsors: Dynasty edition – has it all: the drama behind the royal engagement and that unforgettable wedding in 1981; the revelations of some disturbing Windsor family secrets; conflict between the Queen and Thatcher, and the brutal implications on British society – and the world – as Thatcherism unfolds.
But if you’re after the really good stuff, skip ahead to episode six, Terra Nullis, which focuses on Charles and Diana’s 1983 six-week tour of Australia and New Zealand.
It was a pivotal moment in real life, just as in the series. For the royals, the tour was to be all about Charles as heir apparent in a Commonwealth country with which he had strong links, and a show of strength to Australians who had begun to question the need for a monarchy. The Whitlam dismissal by the Queen’s representative, Sir John Kerr, had taken place eight years earlier (a move Charles had privately endorsed), and the then recently elected prime minister, Bob Hawke, was pushing for a republic.
For the couple, it was their first official overseas tour together. They’d been married for two years, baby Prince William was on his first public outing (at Diana’s insistence, and against royal protocol), and the strain between them had well and truly set in.
For Australians who were there for it, episode six is great nostalgia. See the royal couple wilting in the Northern Territory heat; mobbed by crowds in Brisbane, and at the Sydney Opera House; joking around at a charity dinner in Tasmania. Spot Diana’s iconic 80s outfits and recall the bullish Hawke – played by veteran Hawke actor Richard Roxburgh with collar-tugging, smirking gusto – scoffing at their appeal.
It’s also a sweet reminder that this couple were once enamoured with each other – when he twirled her awkwardly across the dance floor at a charity ball at the Sheraton Wentworth Hotel, when they held hands and laughed happily together in public, against an Australian backdrop. Things might have been fraying behind the scenes, but it’s lovely to remember that on this tour they were the dream team trying to make it work while letting us indulge in our happily ever after fantasies. Before the carefully spun fairytale was dashed, and reality tragically intervened.
As the episode shows, the 1983 Australian tour was the making of the then 21-year-old Diana: a demonstration of her star power, as well as her own realisation of that strength. This was apparently a surprise for the other royals, not least Charles who was both proud and perplexed when he realised that his wife was outshining him. According to Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles, when Charles turned up to a tour function alone, he told crowds: “It’s not fair is it? You’d better ask for your money back!” Even Hawke realised he would have to shelve his republican plans when he saw the Australian public’s devotion to Diana.
It also shows that the seeds of destruction of their marriage had already taken root: Prince Charles’ much reported jealousy at being eclipsed by his young wife, the heartless way he treated her as she struggled, and their mismatch as a couple. We see the immense pressure Diana was under to live up to the public’s image of her as “a fairytale princess”, and the toll this took on her mental health and in her battle with bulimia, the illness that she would later help to de-stigmatise by speaking out about it.
So come for the drama, the 80s fashion, the recreation of so many unforgettable moments – but stay for the reminder that no one really knows what’s going on behind closed doors for public figures, that scrutiny takes its toll, and that ultimately fairytales are complete nonsense.
The Crown’s fourth season arrives on Netflix on Sunday 15 November. The Guardian’s full review will run Sunday in the UK, Monday in Australia.