Diana, Thatcher are central to ‘Crown’
So are their roles as mothers in Season 4
“First and foremost, I’m a wife and a mother,” Diana, Princess of Wales, says halfway through the newest season of “The Crown.” And while Diana, a fascinating figure in the British royal family, is one of several new characters introduced in the fourth installment of Netflix’s critically acclaimed drama, it is motherhood itself that plays a central role.
The show, which follows Queen Elizabeth II’s life through the eyes of creator Peter Morgan, is given new dimension as Season 4, which spans 1979 to 1990, furthers a story line that has carried through “The Crown”: the queen’s children reconciling the mother they had with the adults they have become.
Elizabeth’s eldest children — Charles, Prince of Wales, and Anne, Princess Royal — harbor feelings of abandonment, as seen through the eyes of the season’s most prominent new characters, eventual princess Diana Spencer, played by relative newcomer Emma Corrin, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, portrayed by veteran Gillian Anderson. The stories of these two figures are well-known, to say the least, but “The Crown” takes us deeper into the lives we imagined they lived and the women they were behind closed doors.
“I think Diana comes into her own as a mother, as a woman in such a big way” in the sixth episode, Corrin says, when Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana tour Australia with their new son, William, whom Diana was strongly advised to leave at home for six weeks — just as Queen Elizabeth (played in this season and last by Olivia Colman) had for five months with her children nearly 30 years earlier.
“The greatest act of service I can give to the crown as princess is not to be some meek little wife,” spews the usually quiet Diana as they fly to Australia, “but to be a living, breathing, present mother, bringing up this child in the hopes that the boy who will one day be king still has a vestige of humanity in him, because God knows he’s not going to be getting it from any of his courtiers.”
Corrin says this moment was pivotal for the young princess. “It showed a real change, a real strength and also marked a huge turning point for the royal family as a whole, [showing that] her connection to her child was more important than anything else she was doing.”
While the royal family is portrayed as welcoming to Diana at first, finding her a perfect match for Charles, they very quickly grow to despise her. At one point, Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) callously notes Diana’s beauty, charm and motherhood as the source of the world’s admiration — something that would normally be a compliment, but is delivered as a clear insult. Though it speaks to the wider resentment of Diana by the family, it’s also an indicator of the trauma that Queen Elizabeth’s children feel from being ignored by their own mother.
“We’ve seen it with Charles in Season 3,” Corrin says, “when all he wants is his mother’s support, [and a] normal maternal relationship. None of the children have that, and I think Diana’s determination to give her children a normal relationship and to be with them and to support them and adore them wholeheartedly inevitably ruffled feathers, because it was not the usual way of doing things.”
Thatcher, on the other hand, lived for being a politician. Her main goal in life was to be professionally successful, according to Anderson, and yet most mornings she heard quips from reporters asking if she’d cooked the bacon or poured the coffee. As the first female British prime minister, it was difficult for people to imagine a woman, a wife, a mother and leading politician inhabiting the same body — and that was indeed the bane of Thatcher’s career.
As the grocer’s daughter rose to prominence, she almost appeared to be fulfilling her societal duty by having children, too, Anderson says. “You certainly get a sense of what she was determined to accomplish no matter what,” she notes, along with the belief that having twins, Carol and Mark, in 1953 was perceived as an interruption in Thatcher’s early career as a barrister.
“I don’t see Thatcher as a mother,” says Anderson, who read the late politician’s autobiography and several books about her to prepare for the role. “It was definitely a way in for the writers to [explore] both the similarities and differences between the queen and Thatcher. But . . . my taking on the part wasn’t because I wanted to play Thatcher the mother.”
However, the chance to explore both the queen and the Iron Lady as matriarchs was one of Morgan’s proudest moments. “Writing Thatcher and the queen as mothers was probably an angle that no one has explored before and probably never will again,” yielding one of his favorite episodes of the season, he says in the show’s production notes. In it, we see Thatcher in moments of fervent motherhood and homemaking. In more than one scene, she prepares dinner, apron and all, for her chiefs of staff or cabinet members while discussing policy. And when her son — her favorite, as she tells the queen — goes missing during the Paris-Dakar Rally, Thatcher becomes paralyzed.
“Apparently,” Anderson says, “she could not run the country.”
During her audience with the queen in that episode, Thatcher cries and chastises herself for doing so, balking at “the very idea that the first time a prime minister should break down in this room and it be a woman.” The queen quickly corrects her, saying many a prime minister has broken down in front of her.
“In that reveal, we see a lot,” Anderson says. “We see the vulnerability . . . Her eyes are filled with tears and she looks desperate. And I felt like it was important that we see an element of that desperation.”
Indeed, Morgan’s modus operandi for the entire series has been to show the vulnerabilities of the royal family and those around them. Mothering has always played a part in Elizabeth’s portrayal on “The Crown” and is certainly a part of her the public has never been especially privy to before the show aired.
With the entrance of Thatcher and Diana to the story, these three women expand and contort in our minds as we learn that Thatcher spoiled her son while rebuking her daughter, or that Diana fought to be a connected parent. The show satisfies us, it seems, and we hold on to the stories, despite whatever artistic license may be involved, because deep down, we want these untouchables to be just like our own parents: flawed.
TOP: Princess Diana is played by newcomer Emma Corrin in Season 4 of “The Crown.” ABOVE: Veteran actress Gillian Anderson takes on the role of Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in the latest installment of the Netflix drama.