Meghan is nothing like Diana but The Crown effect is changing all that

On Monday afternoon (Auckland time), the world was presented with two not unrelated televisual events. In the first, CBS, the US television network that will broadcast Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, released a tantalising trailer of its big tell-all released next weekend – in which Prince Harry noted that his biggest fear has been “history repeating itself”. Lest his message be insufficiently clear, he added: “I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for her going through this process by herself all those years ago,” while the screen revealed a picture of a toddler Harry with his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

In Monday’s second televisual moment, the 78th Golden Globes ceremony was dominated by wins for Netflix’s The Crown. Peter Morgan’s royal soap opera won the award for best television drama series, along with a fleet of other prizes, including gongs for Emma Corrin’s Diana and Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles, the tormented heroine and tormentor villain of series four.

The relationship between these moments is no coincidence. The Winfrey interview (available in America next Sunday evening) in which Meghan will principally be telling her story before being joined by Harry, seems designed to reinforce the idea of the persecuted princess – one that viewers of The Crown are by now well familiar with.

Harry even gave us his view on The Crown last Friday, in an interview with James Corden. At first, he toed the corporate line, as well he might, being in possession of a megabucks, multi-year deal with the company. “They don’t pretend to be news. It’s fictional. But it’s loosely based on the truth…,” leaving much of the world wondering whether they had just witnessed the sixth in line to the throne pledging his allegiance to a different firm: Netflix, with a sideline in CBS.

In the process, the Prince revealed himself as apparently being far happier with artful make-believe than with the reporting of a free press. And what his family will only think of his approval of the show, which has reportedly left senior royals fuming – to the point of describing it as “trolling on a Hollywood budget” – appears not to have factored in at all. “I am way more comfortable with The Crown than I am seeing the stories written about my family, my wife, or myself… that is obviously fiction, take it how you will, but this is being reported on as fact, because you are supposedly news. I have a real issue with that.” Of course he has an issue, because Harry and Meghan arguably have their own narrative to uphold – one more in keeping with sensationalism of the hit programme than mere fact.

For Harry, Meghan is Diana: the glamorous, philanthropic, older thirtysomething he sought to idolise and save from the media, as he was unable to save his mother. Meghan herself has always seemed eager to establish a connection to her late mother-in-law. Despite claiming to know little about Harry when set up on a blind date with him (coyly inquiring: “Is he nice?”), we have a photograph of her outside Buckingham Palace aged 15 in 1996. Friends have claimed that she harboured a childhood desire to be “Diana 2.0”, sobbed over her icon’s 1997 funeral, and regarded her as a humanitarian role model.

For the Winfrey interview, she can be seen sporting Diana’s bracelet, just as she donned her aquamarine ring for her wedding reception in 2018. She also bears her heroine’s emphatic, ringed-right-round eyeliner, which – as in Diana’s notorious 1995 Martin Bashir interview – highlights eyes forever swimming with tears. Said kohl is paired with a take on Diana’s palely pearlised “erased” mouth. “Were you silent, or were you silenced?” demands Meghan’s interrogator.

Diana was an amateur performer. Her daughter-in-law is a professional. In the Winfrey trailer, we see her playing princess as beautifully as she has always done: face caught in sensitive-listening mode; one hand clasping her husband’s, the other in the stomach-shielding Madonna guise she adopted for her first pregnancy. Where Diana always professed to model herself on the Queen, with duty firmly first, Meghan’s ambitions lie an ocean away from Windsor.

Unfortunately, in striving to become Diana 2.0, what Meghan did not take on board was that there was no vacancy to be filled. She married the spare, not the heir. Protocol dictates that Catherine Middleton – that shy, slow-burn “civilian” only now coming into her own – will one day be Queen, not the starry glamour puss who deemed herself better suited to the task. (As a symbol of this, Harry, who originally inherited Diana’s sapphire engagement ring, felt obliged to give it up to William when he married Kate.) Alas, second fiddle was never a role Meghan, an actress forever searching for centre stage, would be prepared to play. Meanwhile, if there is a character that some have begun to associate with her, it is not hunted divorcée Diana, but divisive divorcée Wallis Simpson, splitting the House of Windsor into competing factions.

Many now take a dim view of the pair. However, this was by no means always the case, whatever Harry’s conspiracy theories about the “powerful forces” behind the British media. In the main, the British people – and press – were terribly excited about their new duchess, welcoming her with ecstatically open arms. Harry was a much-loved war hero, he and his wife giving us a wedding that reflected Britain’s best vision of itself: modern, multicultural, loving. We too had learnt the lessons of Diana – who was the subject of global intrigue for almost two decades, as opposed to the Sussexes’ two years – and Meghan was, by and large, treated with caution. Online trolls may have been vicious in their comments, often racially motivated, which was rightly called out by the Sussexes. However, the rest of us celebrated their longed-for firstborn. In their focus on how they have been wronged, has this victim complex blinded them to the fanfare and calls of their being a ‘breath of fresh air’ that enveloped them in those early days?

Winfrey’s American audience, less acquainted with the fictions of both The Crown and the Sussexes, may imagine that the “persecuted princess” theme is entirely accurate. As may legions of younger British viewers, for whom The Crown’s Diana *is* Diana; the Sussexes’ Hollywood platitudes (Harry’s “What if every single one of us was a raindrop?” chief among them) more resonant than the stodgy old royals.

The irony is that Harry and Meghan have ended up living a version of the vaguely humanitarian, global celebrity life that Diana appeared destined for before her death. As described to Corden, the Sussexes’ existence amounts to little more than uncertain career prospects, television viewing, and takeaway meals. The couple have transformed themselves into not The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as Corden proposed, but the Prince and Princess of Nowhere: forever turning the spotlight towards themselves. Netflix has assured us that The Crown will cease before it reaches current times. With Harry and Meghan on board, always primed for their close-ups, the company surely knows there will be no shortage of royal drama on its screens for years to come.

– By Hannah Betts

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