fact vs fiction

Is Sally Hawkins’s Spencer Character Based on a Real Person?

Photo: NEON/YouTube

Spencer, the latest anti-biopic from Jackie director Pablo Larraín, pushes past the broad historical strokes of The Crown to speculate on three fretful days in Princess Diana’s life. The film’s Diana tries to will herself to participate in the British royal family’s airless 1991 Christmas festivities while a coterie of attendants police her whereabouts. Most staff members present at Sandringham House, Queen Elizabeth II’s countryside estate, remain decorous at best toward Diana; the head page is outright dictatorial in his attempts to surveil her. But not Maggie, the royal dresser tasked with preparing Diana for events. Aside from Diana’s children, Maggie is her sole confidant, the one person who doesn’t treat her like a renegade meant to be kept in line.

Their fascinating kinship provides a lot of Spencer’s narrative heart. Maggie (Sally Hawkins) is to Diana (Kristen Stewart) what White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) was to Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in Larraín’s Jackie. But with Maggie, there’s a twist. (Spoilers for Spencer ahead.) At the end of the film, while helping Diana to flee Sandringham with young William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), she confesses that she is in love with her. Diana is charmed by this revelation, and the two share an exhilarating laugh that demonstrates Diana’s inherent warmth.

But is Maggie based on a real person? What were Diana’s relationships with the royal family’s staff like?

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises), whom Larraín recruited to pen the Spencer script, said Sandringham personnel shared with him their intimate Diana memories. Those anecdotes were Knight’s primary source material. “I have to tread very carefully when talking about specifics because I got the information from people who were there on the understanding that there was no specific identification of anyone,” Knight recently told Vulture when asked whether Maggie has a real-life analog. “I will also say that those things that seem the most obvious are true.”

The film’s Diana feels content only in the company of Maggie or her sons. When she encounters Maggie at Sandringham House, it’s as if a guardian angel has arrived. Maggie is steering a rack of Diana’s outfits, each marked for a different occasion: Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas Day lunch, departure. “They gave me to you because I insisted,” Maggie tells her, making clear that this isn’t the first time she has been assigned to Diana. Over the course of the film, Maggie counsels Diana in her chamber, lending a sympathetic ear as Diana vents about the scrutiny she faces from her in-laws, the staff, and the public.

I called up Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based historian who has written extensively about the British monarchy, to ask whether there was a Maggie in Diana’s life. Because most information about Diana’s precise relationships with palace staff isn’t widely known, Harris can’t be sure. But there are a few details that illuminate what we see in Spencer. “Diana did sometimes speak informally with the staff,” Harris said. “She became increasingly concerned that her movements were being monitored, for instance, so she liked to be surrounded by people she could trust.”

The real Diana would wander off to the kitchen to visit the cooks or to make conversation with the sailors aboard the royal yachts, or play the piano in the staff quarters, Harris explained. And while she clashed with some attendants, particularly nannies caring for William and Harry, Diana’s friendly disposition could very well have revealed emotional insights she didn’t share with the press as time went on.

The very fact that people wait on Diana hand and foot yields a certain claustrophobia in Spencer, heightened by Larraín’s use of intense close-ups. When the long-faced page Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) attempts to corral Diana via long lectures and stern mandates, she seethes with resentment. But when Maggie arrives, she is happy to open her door.

The sources Knight spoke to while writing the script had often “been working in the same positions” on the royal staff “for a long time, so they had a great deal of empathy with her,” he said. “It’s as if someone from the real world has stepped into this unreal world, so therefore they’re rooting for her. When Diana first entered that world, she had a project to change it, to modernize it. We join her at the moment when it becomes apparent that’s not going to happen. Nothing will change.” From staffers’ eyes, “they’re looking at someone who, I think, they identify with. She’s a warrior without any weapons. She’s going into battle with nothing to protect herself.”

Still, Knight said, he hopes “the film itself sympathizes with everyone concerned, including those in the family who are sort of obliged to repeat every day and know that tomorrow will be the same.”

In the film’s final moments, Maggie says Charles (Jack Farthing) has asked her to suggest Diana see a doctor to address her bulimia and self-harm. “Fuck doctors, what you need is love,” Maggie says — a sentiment that mirrors what Stewart Pearce told me about his experiences with Diana. Pearce is a British voice and presentation coach whom Diana sought out after thinking she seemed “submissive” and “breathy” during her infamous 1995 interview with TV journalist Martin Bashir. Pearce said they met confidentially for two years, finessing Diana’s speech and posture.

“She was just a darling — sweet, funny, extraordinary, highly intuitive, not academic or intellectual, all based on pure feeling,” Pearce said. “She would walk into a room and read a room immediately. Diana was so aware of love that she would have picked up any form of someone being overly disposed in their loving of her.”

So if Maggie is loosely based on someone real, did that someone truly harbor romantic inclinations for Diana? “Maybe. I can’t really say,” Knight said. But he added a crucial appendix, almost like a parting wink: “Anything is possible.”

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Is Sally Hawkins’s Spencer Character Based on a Real Person?