After news broke that Elizabeth Debicki had been cast as The Crown’s next Princess Diana, the first thing I did was cry “of course!” and send a silent thanks to the Netflix show’s inspired casting directors. But I must confess, the second thing I did was go straight to Google and fire off a search for “Elizabeth Debicki height”, closely followed by “Princess Diana height”.
This brilliant example of investigative journalism revealed that, at least according to the search engine, The Night Manager actress Debicki is 6’3″ tall. Princess Diana was, apparently, 5’10” tall. Now I’m no maths genius, but I reckon that’s almost half a foot’s height difference. Which is a lot. Also, season four’s Princess Diana actress Emma Corrin is (unreliably) said to be 5’8″, so that’s going to be even more of a leap!
I was not the only person wondering about this. Here’s what happened to Google searches the moment the news broke:
But the funny thing is, the whole thing came with a sense of déjà vu. We’ve been here before with The Crown – and we’ve already established something crucial: it ultimately doesn’t matter whether the person looks exactly like the person they’re playing or not.
Height-wise, The Crown set a precedent by starting off with Vanessa Kirby (5’7″) as Princess Margaret (5’1″); it didn’t matter, because Kirby turned out to be brilliant. Then, when the cast changed for season three, Margaret shrunk back down dramatically towards her true height as Helena Bonham Carter (5’2″) took over the role. This was jarring for all of five minutes before we quickly adjusted and moved on.
Winston Churchill was 5’6″, but American actor John Lithgow (6’4″) earned huge critical acclaim for playing the British Prime Minister. There was some resemblance in the face, but in his physical build he was clearly much, much taller than the man he played. And lo – we got over it.
Similarly, there have already been plenty of comments about Jonathan Pryce – the new Prince Philip for seasons five and six – and how he doesn’t look like the real-life person he’ll play. They are correct. But none of that will matter if his performance is good enough, and The Crown’s casting directors haven’t failed us yet (even if I was really rooting for them to cast Jeremy Irons in this particular role).
Sometimes, of course, a physical feature helps capture the character.
Josh O’Connor has been pretty sporting about being “reliably informed I have the ears for the part” to play Prince Charles. The kid actors who played Young Charles in seasons one and two were also required to have suitably distinctive ears (no offence intended). It remains to be seen whether the actor who takes over the role of the heir to the Throne for seasons five and six will have big ears of his own. (I’m also keen to see how he will measure up, literally, to Elizabeth Debicki. The real Charles was actually the same height as his first wife.)
And sure, the main cast will always be closely scrutinised for a resemblance (or lack thereof) to the people they play in real life: do Claire Foy and her successor Olivia Colman look like the Queen? Do Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies look like Prince Philip? How about the actors playing Anne, or Camilla Parker-Bowles, or Margaret Thatcher? Some of them do, some of them don’t.
But then again, many of the real-life people featured in The Crown are known more by name, and less by face – or not widely known to the public at all. How many of us have a picture in our mind’s eye of Lord Mountbatten, so ably played on screen by Charles Dance? Or Peter Townsend (Ben Miles)? Or Tommy Lascelles (Pip Torrens)? Can many people in the year 2020 remember the face of King George VI – and does it matter that Jared Harris hardly looks like him at all?
Perhaps the scrutiny will increase as The Crown moves relentlessly towards the present and we’re able to do a more direct comparison with what the Royals look like today and the pictures we see of them in the newspapers. In seasons five and six, the new Queen (Imelda Staunton) and Margaret (Lesley Manville) and Philip (Jonathan Pryce) will take us through some events from very recent memory, and it’s possible that the juxtaposition with the real-life royal family will get weirder as we get closer to the present day.
But from the very beginning, The Crown has cast more for talent and less for physical resemblance – and it has worked. That takes a certain confidence, especially when you’ve made the decision to swap out the entire cast every two seasons and replace them with actors who a) don’t have to look exactly like the person they play, and b) don’t even have to look like the actor who previously played the same role. It’s bold.
So bring on Elizabeth Debicki and bring on Jonathan Pryce and Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville and more. This isn’t a documentary; it’s a drama – and The Crown’s casting team knows exactly what it’s doing.
The Crown season four is expected (but not yet confirmed) to air on Netflix in late 2020. While you’re waiting visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.