In ‘The Crown,’ the Lonely Final Days of a Naughty Princess

On the day that Queen Elizabeth II died, Lesley Manville was in hospital.

The actor was filming an episode of the final season of “The Crown” in which her character,Princess Margaret, is visited at her sickbed by her older sister Elizabeth, played by Imelda Staunton. When the two actors were briefed that the real queen “may well pass today,” Manville recalled in a recent interview, they told the crew they’d like to carry on filming the emotional scene.

They wrapped at 4 p.m., Manville said, “which we later found out was around the time she died.”

In the sixth and final season of “The Crown,” it is Manville’s character that is approaching the end. Margaret was one Windsor family’s more rebellious members, and as a young woman, she fell in love with the divorced air force officer Peter Townsend, though she was not allowed to marry him. In the show, this heartbreak casts a shadow over the rest of her life.

Still, that pain never dulled Margaret’s sparkle. Manville, 67, who speaks with the command of a seasoned stage actor, described Margaret as glamorous and alluring, “a woman who was never off the front pages of the newspaper in the ’50s and ’60s — the Diana of that generation.”

On “The Crown,” Vanessa Kirby initially played Margaret (Seasons 1 and 2), followed by Helena Bonham Carter (Seasons 3 and 4), and by the time Manville took up the role for Season 5, the princess was in her 60s. Over the decades, the show presents Margaret’s glitzy lifestyle in stark contrast with Elizabeth’s years of quiet duty.

Princess Margaret was portrayed by three different actresses in “The Crown”: Vanessa Kirby in Seasons 1 and 2, Helena Bonham Carter in Season 3 and 4 and Manville in Season 5 and 6. Credit…Netflix

But much of Margaret’s earlier glamour was stripped away after she suffered three strokes between 1998 and 2001. Manville was drawn to the knottiness of portraying Margaret “in this difficult and lonely time of her life,” she said. When the character’s illness also takes away her looks, her identity is shaken, too. “She doesn’t know how to function,” Manville said.

“Ritz,” the eighth episode of the new season, depicts the strokes and Margaret’s decline. The princess defies her doctor’s orders and continues drinking and partying on the Caribbean island of Mustique, where she suffers a second stroke. Ahead of filming, Manville met with several stroke victims, she said, to accurately show the physical and psychological aftereffects. The challenge was to balance the realism of a drooping mouth and slurred speech with “speaking coherently enough,” she added.

During this period of ill health, Margaret’s planner was no longer full — “She didn’t like that,” Manville said — and her royal engagements were less frequent. “When you had all of that, and then you just see it ebbing away, that’s fascinating to play,” Manville said.

Meriel Sheibani-Clare, who co-wrote Episode 8, said that in this episode, the show’s creators wanted to reframe Margaret by celebrating her support for her sister. Manville played her as “brittle and spiky,” Sheibani-Clare said, while still conveying vulnerability so “she sometimes feels like a little girl.”

Manville said “the uniqueness of the series” was that it allowed her “to do my Margaret,” quite separate from Kirby and Bonham Carter’s performances. But running through all three performances, Manville noted, has been a thread of naughtiness. In one comedic vignette from Episode 8, Manville’s Margaret, banned from smoking by her doctor, ransacks the palace in search of a cigarette and takes a hungry, exalted puff. If she had played Margaret without a sense of humor, Manville said, “that would not be picking up the baton very successfully.”

Manville described Margaret as glamorous and alluring, “a woman who was never off the front pages of the newspaper in the ’50s and ’60s — the Diana of that generation.”Credit…Sophie Stafford for The New York Times

Manville, who has been a fixture of British stage and screen since the mid-1970s, said she has never wanted to be “a personality actress who just plays themselves all the time.” When she accepted the role of Margaret in 2020, she was about to portray a ’50s cleaning lady in the feature “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.” The contrast between playing that role and a “real blue blood aristocrat” was “too tempting for words,” Manville said.

Staunton, another British actor with a long résumé, said she and Manville were “old friends” and had bonded during “a hilarious time flying around on harnesses” while making Disney’s 2014 live-action film “Maleficent.”

In “The Crown,” the actors channel their offscreen relationship through gentle sisterly banter. But in Episode 8, an intimate scene in which Elizabeth reads to the ailing Margaret in bed at home is a rare opportunity to see the queen’s stiff upper lip quiver. Elizabeth softens and grows wistful, while Margaret’s wit crackles in the face of her own mortality.

In her last episodes of “The Crown,” Manville said she wanted to amplify “the pain of life without a partner” and Margaret’s loneliness, which she said was present even when Kirby played her as a young woman.

But the show’s creators didn’t want to define Margaret by her love life. “There had been so much out there by the tabloids and biographers about poor, sad, tragic Margaret,” Sheibani-Clare said.

“But right to the end,” she added, she spoke to her sister on the phone every day.”

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