From the Balmoral tests to Diana roller-skating in the palace hallways, we explore any embellishment in the royal drama's new episodes.

By Ruth Kinane
November 17, 2020 at 06:28 PM EST
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Roller skates! Break-ins! Ibble Dibble! How much is fact and how much is fiction in season 4 of The Crown?

When it comes to Netflix's lavish royal drama, there's rarely a dull moment. Between affairs, abdications, and assassinations, there are few scandals the royals haven't weathered. While that makes it tempting to believe ever story line the show peddles, there are — understandably — flourishes added here and there to keep things bingeable.

We watched all 10 episodes of season 4 — which introduce Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher, and see the return of Olivia Colman as queen Elizabeth, Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, and Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles — and picked out some of the moments we couldn't believe were entirely true. (Spoiler: A lot of them actually turned out to be factual!). Basically, we did the research to separate fact from fiction so you don't have to.

Did Mountbatten send a letter to Charles about settling down right before his death?

In the season 4 premiere, right before his death, Lord Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten (Charles Dance) pens a letter to his great-nephew/honorary great-grandson encouraging him to settle down. "The choice of a woman was the issue around which the last Prince of Wales came to grief, and it's astonishing to me that 40 years after the abdication, you are making so little attempt to conceal your infatuation for another man's wife," writes Mountbatten, referencing Charles' ongoing relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, in a letter in episode. The note goes on to remind the Prince of the importance of building his destiny with some "sweet and innocent well-tempered girl with no past who knows the rules and will follow the rules," and that this is his duty and "most important task." While we can't know for sure if such a specifically timed or themed letter ever existed, it's not too much of stretch to assume communication on that matter did take place between the two men, since Mountbatten was in frequent contact with his great nephew, offering advice on such things.

Was Diana really her sister's cleaning lady?

We're introduced to Prince Charles' future wife — and eventual ex-wife — during the season premiere, and learn from the soon-to-be-Princess Diana in episode 2 that, among other things, she works as a cleaning lady for her older sister Lady Sarah (Isobel Eadie). According to royal biographer Andrew Morton's book Diana: In Her Own Words, this is quite true. The biography claims that Diana did the washing, vacuuming, dusting, and ironing at her sister Sarah Spencer's Chelsea flat. Indeed, Morton even goes so far as to share that Diana found a "quiet satisfaction" in her work.

Did the royals really put their guests through the wringer when invited to visit the queen at Balmoral Castle?

"Apparently, the royal family routinely subject all their guests to secret tests to find out whether someone is acceptable or unacceptable," Denis Thatcher (Stephen Boxer) warns his wife, Prime Margaret Minster Thatcher, of the so-called Balmoral tests en route to the Scottish estate to spend time with the queen & Co. On the show, the Thatchers seemingly fail at every turn — packing the wrong shoes, coming down to dinner far too early, etc. — whereas when Diana shows up for her stint on the estate, she wows the family, helping stalk the stag and making jokes at dinner that are met with trilling laughter. According to royal journalists, these make-or-break showdowns absolutely take place. Planning a weekend at the Highland castle? Better be sure to pack an outfit for every occasion and eventuality, and brush up on your manners and royal protocol. And yes, according to reports, Thatcher really did have to borrow a pair of wellies when she showed up with nothing but indoor shoes.

Okay, but does the royal family really play the parlor game Ibble Dibble?

Also during season 4's Balmoral expedition, the royals are seen enjoying a rousing drinking game in which the phrase "Ibble Dibble" flies around at haste and blackened corks are pressed against faces as a forfeit. It's all fun and hilarity until it's the Iron Lady's turn and she pretty much kills the game with her slow-paced attempt at partaking. We can all agree it'd be fabulous to imagine the royals playing this ridiculous game at family get-togethers, and while most of creator Peter Morgan's plot points come from sources close to the royals, there's no concrete evidence out there that this game is a family fave. Go on, imagine it anyway.

Did Charles really say "whatever 'in love' means" during his and Diana's engagement press conference?

Ugh, yes. Prince Charles really did share that romantic notion during an on-camera interview with Di when asked by a reporter if he and his bride-to-be would describe their current emotional state as "in love." Very reassuring, and not at all ominous.

Tell me Diana and Camilla really did meet at a restaurant named Ménage à Trois?!

Credit: Des Willie/Netflix

Early in the season, ahead of the royal wedding, Diana and Camilla (played by Emerald Fennell) meet up to have a chat, on Prince Charles' suggestion. Getting your ex and fiancée together in the same room to discuss you? Wild. The two ladies meeting at an establishment named Ménage à Trois? Implausible — and yet, according to newspaper reports from the time, this is in fact true! Whether Camilla actually uttered the line "I'm all for sharing" during the unbearably awkward meal, we'll never know, but at least we can bask in the knowledge of knowing they met at such a ridiculously aptly titled restaurant.

Did Diana find out about Charles and Camilla still being together because of the Gladys and Fred bangle?

There's some speculation over this one. According to taped interviews biographer Andrew Morton conducted with the late Princess, Diana was in the office of one of Charles' members of staff when she opened a parcel to find a bracelet engraved with the initials G and F. (The show opts to depict this moment as Diana discovering a drawing of the piece of jewelry rather than the bracelet itself). Some say that the letters stood for Gladys and Fred, Camilla and Charles' nicknames for one another, and that Diana then realized her husband-to-be and ex-girlfriend were at the very least having an emotional affair. However, another royal insider, Penny Junor, claims that although Charles did gift such a bracelet to Camilla, the initials actually stood for Girl Friday, meaning a reliable female assistant, and that Charles sent similar items to other women he'd been close to perviously, as a means of thanking them before embarking on life as a married man. Is one slightly better than the other? You decide.

Did Princess Margaret really speak out against Charles and Diana's marriage?

This one is fiction — as far as we know. In episode 3, Princess Margaret takes it upon herself to object to what's clearly going to be an exceedingly unhappy union between her nephew and Diana. Fans of the series and the royals in general will know that Margaret herself was prevented from marrying the man she truly loved by her sister, and had a pretty miserable life as a result. It, therefore, does check out that Margaret might have had something to say when she saw history repeating itself. However, the way it plays out on the show was all Helena Bonham Carter's idea. "I like to credit myself with an idea. I said, 'Hang on, I'm not really part of this.' They all looked at me," the actress said during a press conference. "Maybe I've totally imagined this, but I said, 'Well, I'm not going to be encouraging an interference with a marriage when — back when I was Vanessa Kirby back in season 1 — my whole life was destroyed by my sister interfering with a marriage.'"

Did Diana really roller-skate around the palace?

Credit: Des Willie/Netflix

Seeing the soon-to-be Princess gliding around the great halls and rooms of Buckingham Palace is one of the thrills of season 4, where Diana's youth and innocence really comes through — she was only 19 at the time! As the show's producers point out in an interview, Diana's wheeled escapades really did take place. Corrin also believes it to be true. "I think she [really] did do that," she told Sky News. "Do you know what, it was that kind of thing, it was the roller-skating, the sense of fun that she obviously had before she became royal and that she kind of maintained, that I think was quite rare." Apparently Diana would also cycle around the London residence, but the producers couldn't quite fit that into the episode. Four wheels are better than two, anyway, right?

Did a man really break into the palace and have an early-a.m. chat with the queen?

Better believe it — though it's likely some details were amplified for dramatic effect. In the summer of 1982, Michael Fagan, an unemployed labor worker in his 30s, broke into Buckingham Palace — not once, but twice. As is accurately depicted in episode 5, he only reached the queen's sleeping quarters on his second visit. Astoundingly, Fagan (Tom Brooke) had no real plan on how to bypass what we'd assume is stringent security, but nonetheless managed to scale a 14-foot wall topped with barbed wire and shimmy up a drainpipe undetected. What The Crown neglected to include was that Fagan was pretty high on mushrooms at the time, or so he tells it. While the Netflix drama (and many accounts of the incident reported at the time) shows Fagan enjoy a sit-down convo with Her Royal Highness before he is escorted from the premises, Fagan himself claims he was barely with her for more than a minute. "Nah! She went past me and ran out of the room; her little bare feet running across the floor," he told the Independent.

Did the royals really have secret relatives they hid away in a mental institution?

Sadly, yes. In episode 7, we discover that two of the queen's first cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, were secretly admitted to the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Mental Defectives back in 1941. Their parents, the older brother and sister-in-law of the queen Mother, did so because at that time children with disabilities were thought to bring shame upon the family. On the show, the queen and Princess Margaret consult the 200-year-old royal reference book Burke's Peerage, which includes inaccurate information that declares that Nerissa had died in 1940, and later that Katherine had died in 1961. The book did in fact contain that incorrect information in real life. While in The Crown Margaret embarks on a mission to uncover the truth about what happened to her relatives with the help of pal/priest-in-training Derek "Dazzle" Jennings, in reality it's unlikely she even knew they weren't dead until many years later.

Did Diana really perform "Uptown Girl" at London Opera House… and then make a Phantom of the Opera home video?

Diana certainly did play the uptown girl on stage for one night only. In December 1985, after secretly rehearsing with ballet star Wayne Sleep and working with him to choreograph a routine as a surprise for her husband, Diana and Sleep took the stage to perform a dance to the Billy Joel number. Who knows for sure how Prince Charles reacted in real life, but let's hope it was with slightly less mortification than in the Netflix series. Whether Diana later made a home video of herself singing a song from Phantom is less clear. "Diana went to the West End, had the set [to herself], and we know Andrew Lloyd Webber was there, but no one knew exactly what she did because no one's seen [the video]," the show's head of research, Annie Sulzberger told Vogue. What The Crown's producers did know for sure was that Corrin could sing, so decided to get creative and include her potentially fictional second performance as well.

Did the queen and Margaret Thatcher really have a rift, and did Michael Shea become the fall guy?

It seems factual enough that the two women disagreed over many matters, including the sanctions against apartheid in South Africa (Thatcher was opposed to sanctions, the queen supported them), and in 1986 the Sunday Times really did run a front-page story in which the queen was said to be upset by Thatcher's "lack of compassion" and privately thought Thatcher's approach to be "uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive." At the time, palace press secretary Michael Shea was thought to be the source, though in the Netflix series it is implied he was actually unfairly blamed for the leak. In real life, Shea did leave the palace a few months later, but it's unknown if this was because of his role in the scandal or because he was made into a scapegoat for it. Happily, he did go on to write more than 20 books, one of which was a memoir about working at the palace.

The Crown season 4 is available to stream on Netflix now.

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The Crown

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