It’s that time of year again. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, of jam-making, bonfires, fireworks, parkin pigs – and the latest and final season of The Crown on Netflix.


Time, too, for all those royal anoraks to dust off their notebooks – Prince Harry declared on an American chat show that even he is part of the brigade – and look for factual faults.

The annual harrumphing and "why, oh why"-ing has become part of this autumnal TV ritual. There is a furious controversy before each series, followed by a collective, "Eh, was that it?" when we’ve actually sat down to watch the show.

Last year, two former prime ministers, Tony Blair and John Major, turbocharged publicity surrounding The Crown when they took issue with the dramatic assertion that the then Prince Charles, now King, had discussed the possible abdication of the Queen with them.

When the dust had settled, Prince Charles (played by Dominic West) turned out to be quite a decent cove. The two PMs made the classic mistake of commenting on a TV show before they had seen it.

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This time around, the material is much more gamey, dealing as it does with the events leading up to Diana’s death after a car accident in Paris in August 1997.

For many of us who lived through those dramatic days, it’s going to stir up the settled silt of remembrance and loss. Which is why The Crown team has been at pains to emphasise how sensitively the princess’s untimely death has been handled.

Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Diana with an uncanny empathy, has been quoted as saying: "It’s a really unique challenge as an actor, to portray those days… because, obviously, it’s devastating and it’s fraught and we can never know."

Like millions around the world, I vividly remember that fateful day. I was staying with friends for the Edinburgh Festival and was woken by my host with the news.

Disbelieving at first, when it gradually began to sink in, I booked the last seat on the morning flight to London.

During the journey, a Frenchman came over and handed me a note that said in effect: "I would like to apologise on behalf of the French nation." At the time, the French paparazzi, rather than a drunk driver, were being blamed for the crash.

What struck me then was the waste of a luminous life. In the months before her death, she had really got into her stride, visiting Angola and Bosnia as part of her work towards banning land mines. The princess was finally seeing the light at the end of her personal tunnel. Tragically, those lights turned out to be the flashguns of the paparazzi.

The four episodes leading to her death also follow her relationship with Dodi Fayed, whose father, Harrods owner Mohamed, orchestrated their summer tryst.

After her death, the image of her in the now famous black turtleneck sweater was displayed in the ritzy store. The relaxed pictures of Diana, dressed in said sweater and black leggings, conjure a gamine Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

They were taken by her then favourite photographer Patrick Demarchelier, whose skill, in her opinion, was to "bring one alive". Photographs from that shoot, as recreated by Debicki for The Crown and on the cover of this week’s Radio Times, were first used in my biography, Diana: Her True Story.

Andrew Morton holding a copy of his book in front of Windsor Castle
Andrew Morton. Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Behind the scenes, these pictures almost didn’t make it. But for a slice of luck and perseverance, they would have vanished, consigned to a desk drawer.

Let me take you back to November 1991. The princess was secretly cooperating with me on her biography. She had given a number of taped interviews about her unhappy, lonely life at Kensington Palace. During what was almost a confessional, she spoke about her marriage, her wedding, the presence of a woman called Camilla Parker Bowles (now Queen Camilla), her depression and frequent cries for help.

It was shocking material, a story that would have the palace and the British establishment frothing at the mouth. In the weeks before Christmas, Diana had read my chapters and given them her seal of approval. This was vital for such a controversial project.

My publisher Michael O’Mara and I realised that if the manuscript were to be unique, then so must the pictures be. This book had to stand proud beyond the run of the mill biographies of Diana.

So Dr James Colthurst, the intermediary in this venture, asking the princess questions I’d written, was deputed to speak to her at Kensington Palace and request use in the book of her family albums.

She pointed out that her father, Earl Spencer, had taken the majority of her childhood pictures, so she had to speak with him. He was travelling, Diana was busy, the weeks ticked by. No pictures. Nerves started to fray.

In the end, the princess wrote to her father outlining the project and asked to use his pictures. He agreed, and one Saturday morning a number of red leather-bound albums arrived at my publisher’s offices in Clapham, containing around 40 pictures mainly from her schooldays and teenage years.

As comprehensive and unique as these were, we still lacked pictures of the princess as an adult – mother, wife and princess.

Once again, Dr Colthurst cycled up the drive to Kensington Palace for a picture pow wow. Diana, who had thoroughly enjoyed helping to supply caption information for the family pictures, barely broke step before she opened her desk drawer and handed him a bundle of pictures by Demarchelier, most of which were taken for her private collection.

Here were the black turtleneck shots, as well as Diana in a gown and tiara fit for a future queen.

The pictures were duly inserted and the book made ready for printing. We had forgotten one thing. Just because the princess said we could use pictures taken of her, that did not constitute permission. The photographer had to give the thumbs-up.

Earl Spencer had agreed, but we also needed the consent of Demarchelier. He wasn’t at his New York or his London office. Finally, we discovered that he was somewhere in the Caribbean, home to more than 700 islands, reefs and cays, shooting for a magazine. At the time, it seemed we were searching for a needle in the seaweed.

Knowing Demarchelier, we narrowed it down to five-star hotels in fashionable resorts. After several hours hitting the phones, we finally tracked him and Diana’s hairdresser Sam McKnight down to somewhere like St Barts, home of the billionaire yachting set. He was as good as gold and readily gave his permission. Without it, those pictures might never have seen the light of day.

The making of my book, Diana: Her True Story, was the subject of an episode in the last season. Then Elizabeth Debicki stole the show as she inhabited the voice, mannerisms and character of the late princess. Though the episode described a wild ride ranging from an office break-in to suspected bugging devices, it wasn’t as nerve-shredding as the real thing.

When the book was published in June 1992, I faced a barrage of criticism and disbelief. It’s one of the ironies of the whole drama that a book written and produced with the enthusiastic cooperation of its subject became the most banned book in Britain in the 1990s, as numerous booksellers and supermarkets refused to sell it.

In the first few days it was attacked by, among others, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, newspaper editors and a loose box of MPs who wanted me incarcerated in the Tower of London.

Royal journalist Andrew Morton posing after the publication of his book Diana, Her True Story
Royal journalist Andrew Morton. Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

The irony is that it wasn’t these West End establishment figures that caused us as much concern as an East End lad, the award-winning photographer Terence Donovan.

On 8th June, the day after the first extract was serialised in The Sunday Times, Donovan called my publisher and bluntly informed him that the picture used on the front page of the paper was taken by him, not Demarchelier. Alongside the Demarchelier pictures from her desk drawer, Diana had inadvertently also included the Donovan tiara shot.

The fact that Diana had given permission for its use, thinking it was the Frenchman’s, cut no ice with the East Ender. He wanted £70,000 in payment, at a time when the going rate was £500 for a cover shot. Donovan had us by the crown jewels. He told us that if the price wasn’t met, he would tell the world that Diana was involved in the book, as she was the only person to have been given a copy of the shot.

All our attempts to camouflage her involvement would have come to naught. She’d no longer have "wiggle room" to work out her future arrangements with her husband and the royal family. After some bareknuckle negotiation, a price that ensured Donovan’s silence was settled upon.

Looking back, it seems that so much of Diana’s short life was smothered in controversy. The Donovan affair was just another passing drama. Hers was a tangled life, often buffeted by forces outside her sway, a woman searching for herself when everyone wanted a piece of her.

I’m intrigued to see how showrunner Peter Morgan tackles her last night when she bounced around Paris like a pinball, driving from the Ritz hotel to Dodi’s apartment and back again, always surrounded by paparazzi, always out of control.

There was a brooding menace about that last night, a rancid tension in the suffocating summer heat. Only days before the world had seen pictures of her at ease with herself, finally happy. Then she was gone, leaving us with only memories, photographs, dresses and, yes, that black turtleneck. The images and artefacts of a life cut short.

The Crown season 6 part 1 is streaming on Netflix from Thursday 16th November 2023. Sign up for Netflix from £4.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.

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