Can any outsider really fit into the British royal family?
That’s the question “The Balmoral Test” poses, and while the short-term answer seems to be a resounding “yes” by the end of the episode, with Lady Diana Spencer now the apple of the Windsors’ collective eye, 40 years on, I think the Duke and Duchess of Sussex may beg to differ.
The royal family’s arcane nature is closely examined in this episode via the unspoken methods used to weed out those who are “acceptable or not acceptable” — specifically, guests to Balmoral Castle. In one corner, we have Margaret Thatcher, now approximately a year into her tenure as prime minister and proving unpopular with her current cabinet. She’s clueless to appropriate stalking footwear and the Ibble-Dibble drinking game. In the other corner, we have Diana, who can count on one hand the number of dates she’s had with Prince Charles. But, hey, she’s got looks, breeding, and she only brought outdoor shoes to the Scottish Highlands.
Thatcher’s faux pas-riddled visit to Balmoral may have put her more at odds with the queen, but at least the prime minister came away from this period of history with a greater understanding of what she was up against. Diana — despite winning over the royal family — not so much. Wearing the right clothes and saying all the right things means very little if the prize of one triumphant weekend means, to paraphrase Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell), being willing to give up her whole life for someone she barely knows.
“The Balmoral Test” takes place around summer 1980, which, per Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story — In Her Own Words, is when Charles and Diana attended a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem — and Diana subsequently made her life-changing Balmoral visit (the Morton book also confirms the existence of “the Balmoral test”). As for Diana’s extraordinary knack for judging wind direction, allowing Prince Philip the single shot needed to put a wounded stag out of its misery, thus endearing her to the royal family? Gonna go with fictional there.
Down in London, the so-called “romance” between the Prince of Wales and the 19-year-old kindergarten assistant is heating up. That is, if you call attending the opera with a chaperone — Diana’s grandmother, Ruth, Lady Fermoy, played by Call the Midwife’s Georgie Glen — sitting between them foreplay. And a handshake, followed by a curtsy, the orgasm. But never mind their lack of physical intimacy, or the fact that Charles is barely putting in the effort to see Diana, because she’s smitten.
Over at Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher announces a new era of austerity to her appalled cabinet. She’s warned her measures will cause her own party to turn against her, but the prime minister is undeterred. What better time for her to abscond to Balmoral Castle with her husband, Denis (Stephen Boxer), at the Queen’s request?
According to Elizabeth, the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, Balmoral wasn’t exactly Margaret Thatcher’s, well, cup of tea: “One obligation the prime minister regarded as burdensome was the annual autumn pilgrimage to Balmoral,” writes author Sally Bedell Smith, who goes on to say Thatcher arrived “utterly ill-equipped for country life.” From those passages alone, The Crown’s fictional portrayal of the Thatchers’ gaffe-filled stay at the royal estate doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Though I am curious if the prime minister did work while sitting in Queen Victoria’s chair, which, as she’s informed by Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), is a big no-no. Or had the audacity to refer to the queen as “your sister” when addressing the princess.
While out of town, Thatcher is being dragged by the press for her austerity measures, and spending time with the royal family only convinces her to double down on her divisive approach, because she sees little difference between the privileged Windsors and the “patronizing bullies within my own cabinet.” Claiming a “crisis” back in London, the Thatchers depart Balmoral — just as another car pulls up to the castle.
Diana Spencer, come on down! You’re the next contestant on “The Balmoral Test!” But this isn’t just a round of Plinko, young lady. Using far more genteel words, Lady Fermoy sternly warns her upon arrival: Don’t fuck this up.
And guess who you have to thank for your invitation? No, not your indifferent boyfriend, silly! His mistress, Camilla! In an attempt to keep her lovelorn prince at arm’s length, Camilla rejects his plea to join him at Balmoral and encourages him to introduce Diana to the family instead.
The last thing anyone expected is that Charles’s guest would be a hit, making all the right lively dinner conversation, getting into the parlor-game spirit — and winning over Philip during their successful stag-stalking mission. In truth, Diana wasn’t a fan of Balmoral life, but given her aristocratic upbringing, she knew how to get into the royal family’s good graces. Enough for Philip to give his son a “take her seriously, you buffoon” look.
Following Diana’s departure — receiving a chilly pat on the arm and a “good sport” distinction from Charles — the prince unloads onto Camilla over the phone, informing her that her plan worked all too well. Likening himself to the “strung up and skinned” stag, he announces his fate: The family is demanding he marry Diana.
Meanwhile, there’s a bloodbath going down at 10 Downing Street, with Thatcher firing most of her old-guard cabinet members. But it wasn’t as cutthroat as The Crown made it appear, and this first major “reshuffle” of her cabinet didn’t happen until late 1981. It’s more of a setup for the frosty post-Balmoral tête-à-tête between the Queen and her prime minister that further establishes their strained relationship.
The two are worthy adversaries, with both quick to counter each other’s rational arguments: While it’s understandable that Thatcher wanted to remove “privileged” and “entitled” cabinet members, the queen makes a strong rebuttal by suggesting it’s always a mistake to assume “just because people are privileged, they lack grit.”
True that, but Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor isn’t eligible to stand for Parliament, is she?
Thatcher even has a solid response to the queen’s sensible advice against making enemies: Her recitation of the poem “No Enemies” by Charles McKay is a more eloquent version of Austin Powers telling Number Two, “I also like to live dangerously.”
Maybe if Charles had lived a little more “dangerously” he would’ve saved three people from a decade of misery. Watching him be coerced into proposing to Diana has me — I’m sorry for all the Austin Powers references here — screaming this at the screen. But the relationship is a fait accompli at this point: Even the most practical member of his family, Princess Anne, is pushing her brooding brother to get on with it.
That familiar aria from Verdi’s La Traviata at the close of the episode may sound like love is in the air, but don’t let yourself be fooled. Like I said in the last recap, Charles isn’t climbing up the tower to rescue Diana, and she’s not about to rescue him right back.
• I cannot wait to say, “Tippity-toppity, down with the Nazis” the next time I take a drink.
• How is it that Princess Margaret is advising Margaret Thatcher on the benefits of vacation time? She’s not wrong, but wouldn’t the party-girl princess be the “What is a weekend?” type?
• I am going to miss the Charles/Anne scenes between Josh O’Connor and Erin Doherty so much after this season. They’ve got some of the best chemistry on this show.