The story of The Little Mermaid concluded the Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey. “Oh my God,” said Meghan, recalling her thoughts when she re-watched the Disney cartoon. “She falls in love with the prince and because of that she loses her voice.”
The Little Mermaid was a neat reference for another reason, though. The 1989 Disney adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairytale glossed over the original’s dark themes of murder, deceit and eventual suicide. And a glossing over of a dark reality seems to be the theme du jour.
When the most recent series of The Crown was released, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, suggested it should carry a fiction warning. Did the drama unfold exactly as it did in the Netflix show? No. Conversations and events were certainly embellished for dramatic effect, but the general theme – of a family bolstered by privilege, riven with tension and rivalries, and beholden to outdated tradition and protocol – all rang true.
In 1995, Princess Diana pulled back the curtain on her own story. Speaking to Martin Bashir, she described the dissolution of her marriage to the Prince of Wales, saying, “The fairytale had come to an end.” She looked wide-eyed and traumatised, sitting in her Kensington Palace quarters where she had been sequestered during the three years or so after separating from her husband.
Diana’s clandestine meeting with the BBC journalist resulted in media uproar. She spoke of a “crowded marriage”, postnatal depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and an eating disorder.
The now legendary Panorama appearance had been in response to Charles’s interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, in which the heir to the throne had said that he had tried to remain faithful to Diana until the marriage “became irretrievably broken down”. Diana’s interview exposed, just like that remarkable Oprah interview, that sometimes the truth can be far worse than the rumours.
When Bashir asked Diana if the royal family supported her during her mental health struggles, Diana replied: “Maybe I was the first person ever to be in this family who had had a depression and obviously that was daunting because if you’ve never seen it before, how do you support it?”
That may have been an excuse at the end of the last century, but it doesn’t fly now. William and Kate have made it their personal brand to discuss mental health, and yet there Meghan sat, bathed in the glow of the Californian sun, reflecting on an institution that repeatedly let her down while she was, in her own words, “begging for help”.
She told of how her keys, driving licence and passport were handed over when she joined the royal fold, how she left the house just twice in four months, and yet was advised not to see friends due to overexposure: “I am everywhere but I am nowhere”. The same picture of loneliness was painted in The Crown, where Diana lives behind closed doors, away from friends and family.
“The Firm”, as the royal family sometimes calls itself, has form in dismissing press reports, as well as drama and historical accounts, as fictitious. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it quashed rumours of difficulties within Charles and Diana’s marriage, even approaching the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in 1993 to dismiss the coverage as “prurient reporting”. Two years later, the couple filed for divorce. Soon after, the truth of that hellish marriage was exposed. It had been far worse than what Fleet Street had reported. And the source of the so-called rumours? Diana herself. Perhaps it is the monarchy that should come with an accuracy disclaimer.
A similar pattern of spin could be seen in the disintegration of other royal marriages – that of Princess Anne to Mark Phillips and Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson. And we are still awaiting credible insight regarding the nature of the latter royal’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. No amount of spin could clean this family’s dirty laundry.
The institution’s perpetual fear that they might be dismissed as irrelevant forms a central theme of each series of The Crown. And now, Harry has confirmed it was so, speaking boldly about the symbiotic relationship – the “invisible contract” – between the press and the royal family. He begged them to “call the dogs off” and dismiss tabloid lies about Meghan. They chose not to.
Much of what the couple said was shocking – but anyone who was surprised by it hasn’t been paying attention. It was only in 2019 that Meghan, at the time still a working member of the royal family, admitted that she was “not OK” in an interview with ITV’s Tom Bradbury.
Just two months later and the couple – the one we had all desperately hoped would modernise the monarchy – stepped back, pulling the pin and dropping an Instagram statement like a grenade, as Buckingham Palace scrambled desperately to catch up.
A public facade may be able to conceal terrible tensions, but in the end, the truth will out. It took many years for Diana to tell her side of the story. Meghan, fuelled by the additional horror of racism and with the all-important support of her husband, took just four.
Buckingham Palace has issued their statement, the tone of which implies that, for now at least, they are staying tight-lipped. It is short and businesslike, with one line that seems a little barbed: “some recollections may vary”. That doesn’t go as far as Piers Morgan did on Good Morning Britain when he said he believed Meghan had made up most of her story during the Oprah interview, but it certainly appears intended to stoke scepticism in her and Harry’s account. Clearly, the public is not on the side of the palace on this one, however: after over 41,000 complaints to Ofcom following his outburst about Meghan, Piers parted ways with the ITV show this evening.
Among the social media controversy and the high-profile resignations, what has become clear is that Meghan is determined to wrest back control of the narrative and reclaim that voice she almost lost. Just as Diana said of herself to Bashir 30 years ago: "She won’t go quietly; she’ll fight to the end."