The fourth season of Netflix ‘s royal drama saw newcomer Emma Corrin portray Princess Diana as a royal breaking with convention and receiving adoration for it – particularly with her approach to the issue of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday illnesses, while AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a group of life-threatening illnesses and infections that can occur following infection with HIV.
During The Crown season 4’s finale, the fictionalised Prince Charles, Prince of Wales (Josh O’Connor) slams Diana’s hugging of a young AIDS patient while on her solo visit to a hospital in Harlem, New York in 1990.
The show’s Charles derides Diana for the “calculated vulgarity of the antics, knowing full well the headlines they would get” and refers to her behaviour as “grandstanding”.
He also says the other members of the Royal Family could “theatrically hug the dispossessed” and “cover themselves in glory on the front pages”, but they choose not to.
So, did the Royal Family take issue with Diana’s charitable causes and did the Princess of Wales really break the mould?
The Royal Family’s response
According to The Telegraph, Diana’s former bodyguard Ken Wharfe said at the inquest into her death in 2008 that the Princess of Wales did not feel supported in her work around AIDS by her mother-in-law, the Queen.
Wharfe said: “Once she returned (from the Queen) and was distressed. I asked her, ‘What’s the matter?’”
He claimed Diana said: “The Queen doesn’t like me getting involved with AIDS”.
The former bodyguard told the inquest that Diana claimed the Queen asked: “Why don’t you get involved with something more pleasant?”
Wharfe added: “Diana was angry the Queen could not see what she was doing. She felt a member of the Royal Family should be involved with campaigns to find a cure for AIDS.”
He described how Diana felt the family resented the press attention she was receiving.
However, Dickie Arbiter, the Queen’s former press secretary from 1988 to 2000, told The Mirror that there was no opposition to Diana’s choice to tackle the issue of AIDS from the royals.
Arbiter said: “As far as Diana is concerned, charities approached her, and she looked at them and decided whether she wanted to adopt them or not.
“I mean, 50 years ago, cancer was whispered about nobody talked about cancer, but royals took on cancer charities. And the same can be said for AIDS during the 1980s.”
He added: “So, there was no sort of looking down their noses at the sort of charities that she took on.”
Arbiter argued: “They’ll say, ‘Well, of course. She was taking umbrage at all the focus of attention.’ And that is nonsense. I mean, what you have got to realise is that a royal brings a charity a lot of attention. And it’s important that the charity gets attention, because that’s the only way they make their money.”
The portrayal of Anne’s resentment was also dismissed by Ingrid Seward, a royal biographer and author of the recent book Prince Philip Revealed.
“I don’t think Anne particularly, you know, gave a stuff. Frankly, she’s not that sort of person,” claimed Seward. “Obviously, Diana was younger and more glamorous and different. So, of course, people are gonna focus on her. I don’t think that came as any surprise to [Anne].”
Did Diana revolutionise the royals’ approach to charities?
Both Arbiter and Seward are also dismissive of the notion that Diana was responsible for revolutionising the way the Royal Family handled charities and particular issues.
Arbiter responded to such suggestions: “No, not necessarily. The Royal Family has evolved over 1000 years. It doesn’t change, it evolves with the day. The Queen once said to me that she doesn’t change, she moves with the times.”
Yet, he did note that Diana “blew up the ‘Do not touch’ myth” when it came to AIDS.
Meanwhile, Seward opined of her impact on the royals’ approach to such issues: “I don’t think she did revolutionise it. I think what she did was she brought a kind of empathy to it that they hadn’t had before. Because if you think back, Princess Anne did amazing things for her Save the Children fund and she went to all sorts of tricky and unattractive places to support her charity and at one time got quite a lot of press, but people have forgotten all that.
“So there is nothing new, in a way, in what Diana did, it’s just perhaps some new things in the way she did it.. And of course, you know, because so much attention was focused on her and she had this brilliant and quite unique way of connecting with people who were very, very, very much less fortunate than ourselves.”
This gift with people is most certainly clear in the portrayal of Diana in The Crown as she embraces a young child with AIDS who has been “abandoned” and struggles to find foster parents due to the stigma surrounding the virus and the fear of catching it through touch – a myth we see Diana dispel on-screen when she embraces him in front of the cameras.
The timeline of Diana’s work with AIDS
However, the show shifts a very similar real-life event in 1989 to 1990 for the show’s structural reasons, but also shows Diana being explained the issues surrounding AIDS during this event when she was actually actively working to remove the stigma much earlier and in the UK.
The Princess of Wales made international headlines on April 19, 1987 when she opened the UK’s first unit dedicated to treating people with HIV and AIDS and went on to shake hands with an AIDS patient there. She later went on to open the Landmark Aids Centre in London in 1989.
Diana worked with a number of AIDS organisations, including the National AIDS Trust, and also hugged a patient with AIDS on a visit to London Middlesex Hospital in 1991.
Ian Green, Chief Executive of leading HIV and sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust told The Mirror that he was pleased the issue was portrayed in The Crown and described her as “an incredible activist around HIV and AIDS and did a huge amount to tackle the stigma of HIV.”
In contrast to the fictionalised Prince Charles’ suggestion of “theatricality” in Diana’s activism shown in The Crown, Green argues that Diana’s passion for the issue went far beyond the public sphere.
Ian said: “I know from my colleagues, she would regularly come to The Lighthouse, the HIV hospice that we ran, unannounced, in order to just talk to people and chat to them. So there’s the public side of her work, but also the private personal side of her work and the two married up.
“What I noticed about her was how genuine she was and that she would pin people in authority into making commitments but in a really disarming way. And I certainly see that within [her son] Prince Harry as well.”
In fact, the legacy of Diana’s charity work being carried on by her sons Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex is something that the managing editor of Majesty Magazine, Joe Little, agrees with.
“You know, she was quite hands on with people suffering from AIDS at a time when not much was known about the disease, so she was a pioneer in many ways,” Little told The Mirror.
He added: “What she started then we are still seeing nowadays in her sons.”
Little also cited the work Prince William does for the Royal Marsden Trust and Prince Harry’s previous work regarding landmines as continuing what their mother did before her death in 1997, a stance that both Arbiter and Seward are also in agreement on.
Green noted: “So much has changed in terms of the science around HIV, but the stigma hasn’t changed. And she stood out and fought against stigma, then I’m delighted to say her son, Prince Harry, is doing exactly the same now.
“And we’ve worked with him very closely over the last couple of years, and I see much of his mother in Harry.”
Did The Crown show enough of Diana’s impact on the AIDS crisis?
Considering the impact of Diana’s methods of de-stigmatising HIV and AIDS and the breadth of her work even in the 1980s, could The Crown have gone further in its portrayal of her activism?
“I’m sure it could, it would have been nice to see a bit more. I was delighted it was mentioned, because that’s really important,” commented Green.
Of the people she helped, who were often LGBTQ+ people facing prejudice for their sexuality, he noted: “Often they were dying on their own because they’ve been ostracised, ostracised by their families, and they were trying to come to terms with perhaps not only their sexual orientation, but also the fact that they had a disease, a highly stigmatised disease that at that point in time was likely to lead to their death.
“So she did a huge amount, both publicly and privately.”
Diana’s work also occurred in a political climate where Margaret Thatcher’s government had overseen the Section 28 law being enacted in 1988. This law prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, including the education of acceptability for homosexuality in schools as a “pretended family relationship”.
The series does not portray the introduction of Section 28, which would later be fully repealed across the United Kingdom in 2003.
In a survey conducted by The Mirror into audience views on The Crown season 4, viewers were asked if they were pleased with Princess Diana’s portrayal in the series, with the majority confirming that they were, as 69% answered ‘Yes’ versus 26% who answered ‘No’, while 4% answered ‘Don’t Know’.
The majority also felt that Diana’s activism and charity work were portrayed well, however, this was by a slimmer margin with those answering ‘Yes’ at 49% and ‘No’ at 41%, while 11% said that they ‘Don’t Know’.
Green remains hopeful that the upcoming fifth run featuring Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki as a more mature Diana will continue to show her groundbreaking work.
He concluded: “Obviously, there’s another series coming in a couple of years time. So hopefully that will be covered then because in the latter part of her life, she remained active, she remained a patron of the National AIDS Trust until her death and she remained interested in the cause, even after she ceased to be Her Royal Highness.
“So hopefully there’s still time for that to have a bigger profile in the next series of The Crown.”
The Crown season 4 is available now on Netflix.
For more information on HIV and AIDS visit the Terrence Higgins Trust website here or call 0808 802 1221 to speak to an adviser.
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