In the wake of an inquiry’s conclusion that Martin Bashir used “deceitful behaviour” to secure his infamous Panorama interview with Diana, Prince of Wales, The Crown’s portrayal of the disgraced journalist is likely to be one of the most scrutinised episodes in the forthcoming series of the hit Netflix show.
So it is perhaps no surprise that when casting the role of Bashir, the producers of the royal drama turned to Prasanna Puwanarajah, who appeared as the journalist eight years ago opposite Naomi Watts when she played the late Princess of Wales in the film Diana.
However, his portrayal this time will be rather different from when Puwanarajah first played Bashir and the latter was still lauded for landing a huge BBC scoop. It later emerged that the journalist commissioned fake bank statements in order to secure his notorious 1995 interview with the royal.
Nevertheless, the decision to cast the former University of Oxford-educated NHS doctor and writer, whose credits include Line of Duty, Doctor Foster and Patrick Melrose, is a signal that the team behind The Crown are keen to cover the episode as accurately as possible.
Last year, on the 25th anniversary of the interview, Channel 4 and ITV aired documentaries which explored allegations that Bashir ordered the forged documents to show to Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, to help gain his trust and access to his sister for Panorama.
After the exclusive aired, concerns were raised and the BBC held an investigation, but a whistleblower was sidelined while Bashir went on to a lucrative career.
In response to the documentaries’ revelations, in November 2020 the BBC director general, Tim Davie, commissioned a report from the former supreme court judge John Dyson.
Lord Dyson revealed in May that in 1995 the BBC “covered up in its press logs” what it knew about Bashir’s behaviour and conducted a “woefully ineffective” internal investigation into the issue, despite the then head of BBC News, Tony Hall, being aware Bashir had told “serious and unexplained lies”.
It is understood The Crown will dramatise the background leading up to the Panorama episode, parts of the interview and its aftermath. Spencer is also due to be portrayed, although it is not yet known who will play him.
The award-winning Puwanarajah is in demand as an actor and has just finished filming a lead part in the hit Netflix series Call My Agent. He is also a director and writer: he wrote a film starring Timothy Spall for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, as well as the National Theatre play Nightwatchman, and has co-written a novel called Sleeper with the Line of Duty writer Jed Mercurio.
The Crown’s producer, Left Bank Pictures, and the writer Peter Morgan are no strangers to the controversy that comes with dramatising the royal family, particularly as the show has progressed to the modern day.
But the recent revelations about Bashir turn up the spotlight on the series.
With the aftermath of the Panorama episode still being felt today it would have been difficult for The Crown not to cover it. However, sources say Morgan wrote the scenes covering the interview after Dyson’s report and is keen to ensure it is factually accurate and handled sensitively.
Although a letter from Diana in 1995 said she had no regrets concerning the interview, after Dyson’s report the Duke of Cambridge and the Duke of Sussex said the Panorama broadcast was part of a “culture of exploitation and unethical practices that ultimately took her life”.
They said it fuelled her “fear, paranoia and isolation” and Prince William said it “should never be aired again” as it “effectively established a false narrative”.
“This settled narrative now needs to be addressed by the BBC and anyone else who has written or intends to write about these events.”