By: Kim Bond.
Warning: this article touches on subject matter that some readers may find distressing.
The critically-acclaimed Spencer has finally hit cinemas, after months of anticipation. Pablo Larraín’s stiflingly intimate look at Christmastime in Sandringham shows an increasingly troubled Diana try and survive three days under the stifling environment the Royal Family has fostered.
While Larraín has described his take on these three agonising days as “a fable from a true story”, the embellishments Spencer takes with its subject matter are based on broad brushstrokes from history, with writer Stephen Knight informing his intricate story of the fragile princess by thorough research and numerous discussions with confidantes, and people who knew Diana best.
Here’s exactly what is true, and what is the work of poetic licence.
Diana and Charles separated in 1992
The film suggests that it’s this Christmas weekend that prompted Princess Diana and Prince Charles to split. Stewart’s depiction of a fragile Diana shows that things are fraught and icy between herself and Charles, with the scene in the pool room seeing Charles urging her to pull herself together.
As well as becoming fixated on the pearls she received from her husband, the same set he also gave to then-mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles, Diana becomes obsessed with the story of Anne Boleyn, inviting the audience to draw parallels between the two women’s lives.
While the film ends with Diana interrupting the grouse shooting to take Harry and William away for the day - implying this is the moment Charles and Diana split - the pair actually parted ways in 1992, shortly after explicit messages between Charles and Camilla were made public.
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Spencer suggests Diana initiated the split, but according to Diana herself, it was Charles who first mentioned the idea of a break-up.
In the now infamous Panorama interview, Diana said she “supported” Charles’ request for a separation, but it caused her “deep, profound sadness”.
“I come from a divorced background,” she said. “I didn’t want to go into that one again.”
Spencer implies that, despite the glacial relations between Diana and Charles, the heir to the throne did show a modicum of care for her as he requests a close confidant to return to Diana when it is clear she isn’t coping. It is not clear whether the pair ever did foster genuine feelings for one another, and Charles certainly raised eyebrows when he was asked whether the pair were in love. His infamous answer, “Whatever in love means”, suggests chilly relations – particularly as his long-standing affair with Camilla had been ongoing since the mid-80s.
The Royal family really does weigh itself before and after Christmas
Many of the Royal family’s strange, eccentric – and very real – traditions made it into Spencer – several of which Diana feels palpably uncomfortable with.
As someone clearly having issues with their weight, one of the most painful traditions is when she is forced to weigh herself on a pair of antique scales when she arrives at Sandringham. Royals are thought to weigh themselves before and after Christmas to ensure they are “well fed” throughout the festive period.
The tradition dates back to King Edward VII's reign in the early 1900s, who was reportedly concerned the family wasn’t eating enough over the holidays (despite being served a full Christmas dinner and an afternoon tea on the day), according to editor of Majesty magazine Ingrid Seward.
Diana was also thought to be “disorientated” by the repeated costume changes throughout the three days, something that we see the snobbier servants take issue with, in Spencer.
Speaking on Channel 4 programme, A Very Royal Christmas: Sandringham Secrets, royal expert Richard Kay said: “It can be quite exhausting. It was one of the unbending rituals that both Princess Diana and the Duchess of York found quite hard to adjust to.”
We also see Princess Diana giving sons William and Harry quite silly, jokey gifts for the holidays – something that is also royal tradition. However, the real Diana made what was considered to excruciating faux-pas on her first Christmas with the family, handing Princess Anne a cashmere sweater.
The Queen and Prince Philip did not dislike Diana
The only interaction between Queen Elizabeth II and Diana in Spencer is ice cold, but the pair were actually fairly cordial to one another in real life.
According to royal biographer Andrew Morton, in his book Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words, the pair started off on more formal terms.
“In the early days, Diana was quite simply terrified of her mother-in-law,” he wrote. “She kept the formal obsequies – dropping a deep curtsy each time they met – but otherwise kept her distance.”
However, Diana found the Queen an unlikely ally when her marriage with Prince Charles hit the rocks.
“The queen whose understanding and helpful attitude did much to encourage Diana to soldier on,” Morton wrote.
Meanwhile, Diana and Prince Philip shared a close bond. In letters written to the late Duke of Edinburgh, Diana called him ‘Dearest Pa’. His responses, according to Tobias Menzies, who played Prince Philip in The Crown, showed he was similarly fond of her.
“I was really struck by the kind of balanced, calm, quite tender kind of atmosphere to those letters,” he said.
“He clearly, behind the scenes, worked quite hard to mend that relationship. And if those letters are anything to go by, he does seem to have been a keen supporter of hers.”
Diana hated being at Sandringham
As Diana’s first few words in Spencer are an expletive, it very much shows what Diana makes of Christmas with the royals.
It’s something that stems from the real Diana’s feelings about the festive season with the family.
A friend of the Princess told the Daily Mail: “Diana didn’t feel welcome at all. She could see how her being there just made everyone so tense and uneasy. She’d joined them for the sake of the boys, but it wasn’t really working.”
While she was at the royal residence, Diana instead spent a lot of time with the servants, who she felt more of an affinity towards.
Former royal chef, Darren McGrady, said Diana regularly wandered around the kitchen, “coming in for a chat” and to see “what was going on.”
Diana spent Christmas close to her childhood home
In Spencer, Diana heads to Sandringham, the Norfolk estate where the royals traditionally spend Christmas. It was an area that the Princess of Wales knew well, as she was raised on the wider Sandringham estate until she was 14, in a house called the Park House that belonged to her father.
In Spencer, we see Diana desperately try to break into her former home in a bid to reconnect with her sense of self, only to find it empty, dilapidated, and boarded up. However, in the real life, the estate had been turned into a hospital for disabled men at that point.
Diana suffered with bulimia
Diana’s bulimia serves as an undercurrent throughout Spencer, as we see her repeatedly make herself vomit after eating, or during times where she feels she’s under pressure.
The Princess of Wales repeatedly spoke about her eating disorder publicly, something she suffered with for over a decade.
Her battle with bulimia was documented in her biography, and was exacerbated after the wedding.
In 1981, Prince Charles allegedly commented on Diana's weight which sent her spiralling.
“My husband put his hand on my waistline and said: ‘Oh, a bit chubby here, aren’t we?’” she said “And that triggered off something in me. And the Camilla thing.”
In her Panorama interview, Diana went on to describe her bulimia as a “symptom of what was going on in [her] marriage”.
“I didn’t like myself, I was ashamed because I couldn’t cope with the pressures,” she said. “I had bulimia for a number of years, and that's like a secret disease... It's a repetitive pattern which is very destructive to yourself.”
Diana did like to take her children for fast food
At the very end of Spencer, Princess Diana escapes from Sandringham with Harry and William in tow, taking her boys to KFC in London. A
It doesn’t seem the most royal of restaurants, but in real life, Princess Diana reportedly loved treating her sons to junk food – worlds apart from the usual grand banquets they enjoyed.
Darren McGrady told Marie Claire that Princess Diana once came into the kitchen to say she was taking the boys out for a McDonald’s.
“And I said, 'Oh my god—your Royal Highness, I can do that, I can do burgers.' And she said, 'No, it's the toy they want.'"
It’s something butler Paul Burrell has also claimed the three would do.
“The three of them would nip to McDonald's for a Big Mac and fries before coming back to watch Blind Date,” he told The Mirror.
It’s thought to be one of the many efforts that Diana made to give William and Harry a ‘normal’ life away from royal duties and traditions. The Princess famously took her sons to Thorpe Park in 1993 for a joyful day out.
For information and support on matters raised within this article, visit www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/.