In episode four of The Crown season four, the Queen (Olivia Colman) sets out on a mission to discover whether she has a favourite child – so, accordingly, she invites each of them in turn to lunch. And it is during her tête-à-tête with second son Prince Andrew (Tom Byrne) that a very interesting conversation takes place – one which has huge contemporary significance, and which is certain to raise a few eyebrows amongst viewers.
The talk turns quickly to Andrew’s latest love interest Koo Stark, described half-teasingly and half-disapprovingly by the Queen as “a young, racy American actress”. With evident delight and a desire to scandalise his mother, Andrew sets out the plot of his girlfriend’s 1976 movie, The Awakening of Emily: “It’s really not blue at all. It’s set in the 1920s, it follows an impressionable, nubile 17-year-old girl, Koo.”
The Queen objects, “Seventeen? I’m not sure I want to know more,” but Andrew continues: “Don’t be such a prude, Mummy. The story is that she returns home from finishing school in Switzerland to her mother’s country house in the English countryside… there she meets several twisted and perverted older predators who seduce the vulnerable, helpless young Emily as we follow her induction into sensual pleasures.”
“Yes, you’re right, it doesn’t sound blue at all,” says the Queen, sarcastically. “Are you sure it was even legal?” And to that, a laughing Andrew says: “Who cares?” But as he takes up his knife and fork and tucks into his salmon lunch, his mother responds: “It might come as a shock to you that I care.”
(It must be said that Koo was actually 20 when she played 17-year-old Emily.)
Later, the Queen discusses the lunch with her husband Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) and starts a sentence she doesn’t finish: “As for Andrew, I was shocked. If he doesn’t change…”
The actor taking on this scene is Tom Byrne, and it is a performance which will surely launch his career onto its next level. The 26-year-old has previously appeared in Black Mirror and A Discovery of Witches – but like fellow The Crown star Emma Corrin (Princess Diana), he is a relative newcomer to the TV industry who was selected for a breakout role by producers of The Crown.
We’ve all been waiting with interest to see how season four would handle a grown-up Prince Andrew – especially since his disastrous Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis in November 2019 about the Epstein scandal.
Questions have been raised over the past decade about Andrew’s history of friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. After the Newsnight appearance, Buckingham Palace announced that the Prince was stepping down from his public duties “for the foreseeable future”. Prince Andrew denies any wrongdoing.
But as Byrne reveals, he was already filming his own scenes as Prince Andrew when that interview aired.
“I didn’t realise that was going to happen,” he tells RadioTimes.com. “I kind of stumbled across it when it came on. I made a very, very… I made a real decision not to watch it until I’d finished filming, because I didn’t want it to influence me in any way.”
Production on season four was already well underway by November 2019. Musing over how they filmed that lunchtime scene with his on-screen mum, Byrne says: “I think the thing is, at the time of filming it wasn’t that public, what Andrew has since been attached to. It wasn’t as public as it is now. I guess there wasn’t the problem of having to think about how it would be received in the same way as – you know, if I was filming it now, there might be more of an anxiety attached to that.”
Playing the younger version of a real-life person who is currently part of a scandal was, Byrne says, “definitely interesting” – but “the thing that I kept hold of as an actor was that all of the interesting stuff that’s happening now is actually kind of not really relevant to the work I was doing on the show. It’s only in retrospect that I’m kind of thinking about it in those terms.”
He adds: “There was definitely a flirtation with danger, then, that I thought was kind of twinkle-in-the-eye kind of stuff. I guess I just played it for what it was… I just thought about the scene from his perspective, and I tried not to bring myself to it too much.”
Byrne’s version of Andrew combines charisma and bravado with callousness and conceitedness. His performance was shaped, in part, by watching old documentaries to glean clues about what Andrew could be like in private.
“There were some really, really cool titbits of information that I picked up,” he says. “Because, of course, the public image of Prince Andrew as a young man – I didn’t want to go for that because that existed anyway, and also, I’m not playing him in a public context. I’m playing him amongst the people he’s closest to.
“They were talking about how although he has this very confident and open and fun good-time guy demeanour in the public eye, apparently he could be quite cold and quite reserved and quite haughty.
“So I wanted to capture the kind of cooler and colder elements of him, while also keeping hold of something that felt familiar, and was a bit ‘Top Gun’.” (The Top Gun element comes in when Prince Andrew arrives to see his mother by chopper, nearly giving Palace officials a heart attack.)
In The Crown, Andrew spends much of his time complaining about his older brother Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) being heir to the throne despite the fact that he, Andrew, knows he would do a much better job of it.
And funnily enough, Byrne reveals that he previously auditioned for the role of Prince Charles before season three – not that there’s any ill-feeling towards O’Connor for bagging the job.
“I auditioned the year previous for Prince Charles, and it had gone quite well,” he says. At the time, he was definitely on the young side of the age-range for Charles: “Nothing had come of it, really, but I felt like I’d done a good job. So when Prince Andrew came through, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ It kind of suggested to me that I was kind of on the right track with the last audition.
“So I did a self-tape for that, and it went down really, really well. I was really very excited.”
Then things went unexpectedly wrong. “What ended up happening was, they wanted to get me straight back in, and I got so, so nervous and massively stuck in my head. They said something along the lines of, ‘Yeah, just do what you did in the self-tape’… but I got so panicky and in my head that I took it upon myself to literally do exactly what I did in the self-tape. So I was, like, C3PO-ing my way through this recall, trying to robotically recreate this thing. It was a nightmare.”
The producers said no to Byrne, and kept looking. But then they came back. Byrne received a call from his agent with bad news: “They said they don’t want to get you back in for the role of Andrew…” and good news: “…because they want to give you the job.”
Byrne recalls: “It was mad. I just couldn’t believe it. That was the overriding feeling; I actually physically couldn’t really process it. It was crazy.”
Filming for season four got underway as soon as the shoot for season three was over, and continued right through until March 2020 – when production company Left Bank Pictures just about managed to get The Crown over the line before COVID shut everything down. Only a handful of scenes had to be scrapped as the shoot quickly wrapped.
“We were really, really lucky,” Byrne says. “We all wrapped on exactly the same day apart from Josh [O’Connor] and Emma [Corrin], who I think were going off to Spain. I don’t think they got to finish everything. But, yeah, it was really, really lucky.
“I remember how unfazed I was at the time. I just didn’t realise that COVID would be what it was. I think 5th of March was my last day, and two weeks on it was total lockdown.”
When we speak on the phone, Byrne is 90 per cent of the way through his first post-Crown filming job – although he’s also confined to his hotel room in the Outer Hebrides as a member of the production team has tested positive for COVID. Such are the perils of filming in 2020, though as the actor says, he’s “fortunate to be working now”.
Has his role in The Crown already opened doors? “To be honest, I don’t really know,” Byrne says, sounding as if it’s only just occurred to him that might be a possibility. “I don’t know. I think the director knew I was doing the job, so I guess in that sense, probably a bit!”
One role he won’t be able to return to is that of Prince Andrew – unless showrunner Peter Morgan calls him back in for a flashback scene.
As has always been Morgan’s plan, the entire cast will be replace for seasons five and six; Imelda Staunton will lead as Queen Elizabeth II, and another actor will take on the role of Prince Andrew.
“I would have loved to have stuck around and carried that journey forward,” Byrne says. “But I’m really excited to see who they have playing him in the ’90s. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do with it!”
The Crown is available on Netflix now. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, visit our TV Guide, or find out about upcoming new TV shows 2020.