Of the many cringe-inducing things that happen in the fourth season of the crown — Elizabeth tries to decide whom her favorite child is; Thatcher destabilizes much of the British economy and government — one of the more painful to watch comes in the form of an anniversary present. In the episode “Avalanche,” Diana surprises Charles with a VHS recording of herself singing, of all things, “All I Ask of You,” from The Phantom of the Opera, in Christine Daaé drag in front of a full orchestra. Charles, who has already established that he hated Diana’s previous birthday present of a public dance to “Uptown Girl,” by Billy “Jo-el” (as the queen pronounces it), is quite displeased by this gift, even as Diana insists that she loves to perform in order to show what she really feels, and felt the gift would be fine if just between the two of them. Unlike the Phantom, though, Charles really would prefer if she did not sing. “It was monstrous! A video of Diana singing some dreadful song in some dreadful musical,” He later tells his sister, Anne, like a true snob. “Phantom of the Opera, imagine!”
The scene is such a wild collision of royal restraint and ’80s excess you might assume that The Crown invented it whole cloth in order to underline some thematic beats. But no! Diana really did give Charles a tape of a Phantom performance as her seventh-wedding-anniversary present. As Chuck Conconi wrote in a 1988 Washington Post column, Diana decided to give Charles a taste of her in her “current favorite musical.” “She did this simply by renting the show’s set at the theater in London’s West End where it is playing and having her movements directed by the show’s choreographer, Gillian Lynne,” he adds. “Diana didn’t settle for second best. The show’s composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, was there to oversee her performance.”
According to a producer on The Crown, the idea of Diana singing “All I Ask of You” may be an exaggeration — records indicate that Diana at least gave Charles a present of her dancing to the song, but the tape itself is unavailable to the public — but the show decided to run with the idea. The series’ producers brought up the story with Emma Corrin, who plays Diana, during her auditions. Corrin surprised the producers by saying the song was one of her favorites, and they pulled up a YouTube karaoke track of “All I Ask of You” during the audition for her to perform over. Corrin, who has a background in musical performance as well as acting, blew them away.
The actual act of taping the performance for the show, however, ended up being much more difficult. The Crown brought in the real West End Phantom set to film the performance we see over VHS alongside the actual Phantom cast members and orchestra. “I had a complete panic attack, which was actually not very fun on the day,” Corrin told Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk. “I trained as a singer, but it was weird because I had to sing like Diana and also worse than I can, which was very strange, because she wasn’t trained.” Corrin had worked with a vocal coach to unlearn her own technique and do an approximation of Diana’s singing voice but also found herself stymied on the day by the fact that the conductor launched into a different tempo than she had practiced. “I did about two [takes] and I had a complete panic attack, had a nosebleed. I had a proper, like, a proper breakdown,” Corrin said. “I went downstairs and they were so sweet. They were like, ‘You don’t have to do it. You can do it tomorrow.’ And I was like, ‘You can’t do it tomorrow! We’ve hired a theater!’ They were very lovely, but I did it. I did it a lot of times.”
In a way that’s typical of The Crown, all that expense and effort only amounts to just a bit of screen time (Peter Morgan, release the full tape!) but does do a lot to establish the characters’ backstories, personalities, and historical context. Diana really was a big fan of public performance. The Billy Joel dance at the Royal Ballet we see earlier in the episode did ruffle a lot of feathers. Diana was indeed a big fan of the Andrew Lloyd Webber megamusicals that were sweeping the theater world at the time. She showed up to the 1986 London premiere of The Phantom of the Opera in the navy dress, pink glove, and choker combo you can see above, which The Crown rudely does not re-create on the show. Her musical-loving antics even make an appearance in Lloyd Webber’s memoir, Unmasked, though that leaves out the Diana Phantom tape (material for part two!). There, he mentions that Diana and Charles went backstage after a performance of Cats. “I think Charles said, ‘I can’t believe how these dancers do these sorts of things,’ and [Diana] said, ‘Well, it goes this way …’ and she did the splits,” he writes. “A little bit of the royal personage, more than you normally would have seen, was revealed.” So, imagine a scene in another universe in which Diana decides to go with Cats instead of Phantom for her anniversary gift, and Charles sits stone-faced as she does a whole routine to “Skimbleshanks: the Railway Cat.”