If you only watch one episode of The Crown season 5, make it this one

Warning: this article contains spoilers for No Woman’s Land, aka episode seven of Netflix’s The Crown season five.      

The Crown has finally returned to Netflix this week, bringing the series – which, of course, offers up an addictive (albeit largely dramatised) retelling of the British royal family’s reign – forward through time into the 90s.

This means, firstly, that we have a whole new cast: Imelda Staunton is taking over from Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II; Jonathan Pryce stars as her husband Prince Philip; Lesley Manville is Princess Margaret; Dominic West is Prince Charles; and Elizabeth Debicki stars as the late Princess Diana.

Secondly, though, it also means that the series is treading ground that’s far closer to home, as it digs over events from recent history. Which means that, yes, it shines a spotlight on Martin Bashir, the BBC journalist who landed the scoop of the decade in sitting down with Princess Diana for her only solo feature-length interview, in which she famously said, “There were three in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded” and admitted to her own infidelity. 

Watch the trailer for The Crown season five below:

As many will no doubt remember, an inquiry held in May 2021 found that the journalist acted in a “deceitful” way and faked documents to obtain the interview, mocking up fake bank statements which suggested that people were being paid to keep Diana under surveillance.

The now-disgraced reporter showed the fake documents to Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, to gain his trust so he would introduce Bashir to the princess. And it was this revelation that prompted a televised statement last year from Prince William, who insisted: “This Panorama programme holds no legitimacy and should never be aired again.

“It effectively established a false narrative which, for over a quarter of a century, has been commercialised by the BBC and others.”

Dominic West as Prince Charles and Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in season five of The Crown

It might seem somewhat shocking, then, that The Crown’s writers have included a reenactment of the interview in the royal drama’s newest season. Indeed, the whole saga plays out across two episodes, offering up more than just a meticulous recreation of that iconic TV moment; it also takes a deeper look into the machinations and politics of the BBC.

Indeed, it is No Woman’s Land, the season’s seventh episode, which might prove to be of the most interest for viewers – largely because it takes us behind the scenes and examines the extraordinary lengths Bashir goes to in order to secure that first meeting with Diana.

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In the process, it has created an unlikely new villain… albeit a sympathetic one.

How does Martin Bashir secure his first meeting with Princess Diana in The Crown season 5?

Portrayed by Prasanna Puwanarajah, The Crown’s version of Bashir is shown becoming obsessed by the idea of speaking to Diana ahead of the American networks.

“Their view is that with Charles having done his interview with Dimbleby, Diana should be given a chance to respond,” he tells his editor excitedly.

“Apparently, she’s thinking of talking.”

Noting that the BBC is the “national church” and “trustworthy”, he insists that they should be the ones to talk to “the wife of our future king” and break the story. Cue the scene cutting to Bashir doing something incredibly untrustworthy, painstakingly drafting up a “normal bank statement” – late at night, obviously, to underline the nefariousness of it all – and including false payments from News International. 

Prasanna Puwanarajah as Martin Bashir.

During his meeting with Diana, Bashir is shown to be something of a master manipulator. He adopts a very different persona to the one we saw back at the BBC offices; more humble, more unassuming. He smiles at Diana, mouths reassuring sentiments at her. He promises, too, that she will have absolute control over the interview, he bashfully offers up his home number, and he swears that she will be protected by the “best brand name in the world when it comes to journalistic integrity: the BBC”.

Later, the old success-driven Bashir is back, telling his editor: “I tell you she’s desperate to talk. Desperate. She opens her mouth and hand grenades come out. She wants to tear down the temple.

Martin Bashir and Princess Diana’s alleged “special connection”

“I think she’s got a thing for me,” The Crown’s Bashir says at one point. “The fact I’m Pakistani.”

“I thought you’re always telling everyone how British you are?” his colleague responds confusedly.

“I am, but with her it was like this special connection,” he adds. “The importance she attached to it. It was strange.”

What we witness next on our screens is almost a form of coercive control; Bashir (described in real life by Diana’s former lover Hasnat Khan as a “cunning” and “dangerous” man) works to cut Diana off from some of her most trusted confidants, claiming that many of them are being used as spies by the royal family and the press.

“I’d be careful about approaching your friends,” he tells her during one late-night meeting. “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s to trust no one.”

Was Martin Bashir a villain… or a victim?

In one memorable scene from The Crown, Bashir can be seen telling Diana: “I’m so sorry, but I do know in some small way how it feels to have forces arrayed against you. I grew up on a council estate.” 

His voice as gentle as his words are sharp, he continues: “For my first nine months in a homeless shelter, I’ve had to work twice as hard as my peers to get my foot in the door at the whiter-than-white BBC. And the more I succeed, the more I’m resented. They don’t say it, but you feel it in the looks. The euphemisms. I know what it’s like to be disparaged and persecuted.

“I know what it feels like to be an outsider in one of Britain’s most cherished institutions.”

Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana, Will Powell as Prince Harry, Senan West as Prince William, and Dominic West as Prince Charles in The Crown.

Of course, no one can ever begin to assume that these intimate one-on-one conversations accurately reflect true events; only Bashir and the late Diana can tell us that. There is no denying, though, that they make for an intensely emotional drama, as well as an interesting new take on the Panorama journalist (and the BBC), presenting both as the sort of villainous masterminds that might feel more at home in an episode of Line Of Duty

Puwanarajah, however, has told The Observer newspaper he believes that the man he portrays so effectively on screen wasn’t solely a villain in this scenario; that he, too, was a victim in some sense himself.

“There was a wariness of outsiders in the BBC that is part of what happened,” he tells the publication.

“Bashir’s ambitious actions are part of a documented lineage of ethical malpractice in journalism, but the subterfuge was detected in his case. Despite apparent progressive strides, problems around race persist in our institutions.”

The actor also defended the decision to bring to screen the Panorama interview in the fifth season, stating: “The whole programme is now part of the fabric of our collective knowledge, our history, and not to do it properly would have been to bump the audience out of an important dramatic moment.”

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What has the real Martin Bashir said about his controversial Panorama interview?

In a statement released via the BBC last year, the real Bashir (who no longer works for the BBC) famously apologised for mocking up the documents, but said he remained “immensely proud” of the interview.

“The bank statements had no bearing whatsoever on the personal choice by Princess Diana to take part in the interview,” he said.

“Evidence handed to the inquiry in her own handwriting unequivocally confirms this, and other compelling evidence presented to Lord Dyson reinforces it.”

A note written by Diana after the interview was broadcast, too, was published as part of the inquiry.

In it, she wrote: “Martin Bashir did not show me any documents, nor give me any information that I was not previously aware of.”

How have the royal family responded to The Crown season 5?

Both the royal family and Earl Spencer, the late Princess Diana’s brother, have stated that viewers should remember The Crown is a work of fiction.

Speaking on Love Your Weekend With Alan Titchmarsh, Earl Spencer noted: “The worry for me is that people see a programme like that and they forget that it is fiction. They assume, especially foreigners…

“I find Americans tell me they have watched The Crown as if they have taken a history lesson. Well, they haven’t.”

The Crown season five is available to stream now on Netflix.

Images: Netflix

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