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23 November 2020, 09:23 | Updated: 23 November 2020, 09:25
An extraordinary scene in season four of ‘The Crown’ on Netflix reminds us of Lady Diana’s real-life love for ballet, pianistic talents, and unlikely friendship with Pavarotti.
A scene in the penultimate episode of season four of The Crown shows Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) surprising her husband, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), with a duet to ‘Uptown Girl’ alongside dancer Wayne Sleep at the Royal Opera House.
While the royal Netflix drama has moments of self-confessed embellishment, it turns out this moment actually happened. And what’s more, Diana’s musical interests went a lot further than just a one-off gimmick at the opera.
She did! It happened in December 1985 at a real-life VIP event, at London’s Royal Opera House. The annual show, for Friends of Covent Garden only, usually featured a surprise appearance from a celebrity guest – in this case, little did Charles know, it was Diana.
As a surprise for her husband, she appeared on stage with Wayne Sleep, a well-known British dancer who performed for some years with the Royal Ballet, played in The Crown by dancer Jay Webb.
Sleep jokingly recalled the moment the Royal approached him about the idea in a piece for The Telegraph. “I said to Princess Diana – this will never work, Ma’am. You’re so much taller than me.” Sleep is 5’2”, while Diana was 5’10”.
The pair danced a short contemporary sequence to Billy Joel’s 80s hit ‘Uptown Girl’, to uproarious applause and countless curtain calls from the audience.
Years after the dance, Sleep wrote in The Guardian: “She loved the freedom dancing gave her. A few days later, I got a letter. She wrote: ‘Now I understand the buzz you get from performing.’”
No video footage exists of the now stuff-of-legend moment, so we have mostly Webb and Corrin’s elegant re-creation to rely on. But there is a series of photos which you can see in the video below, narrated by Sleep.
The episode in question starts with the suggestion that Charles feels embarrassed, and perhaps a little envious, of the press attention given to Diana.
During the scene, he appears sullen and deeply focused on the music. As soon as Diana makes her surprises appearance on stage, Charles is tense. Afterwards, he becomes cold, asking his wife “What were you thinking?” and calling the surprise a “grotesque, mortifying display”.
According to royal biographer Tina Brown, despite eight curtain calls from the audience, Charles did not stand. His reaction was interpreted, Brown says, as “frigid disapproval of Diana’s lapse in royal etiquette”. But Sleep told her that he believed Charles was offended at having been left out. The previous year, they had actually performed a ‘bit’ together.
It is also unclear whether the performance was actually for Charles’s birthday, being a month earlier in real life.
Friends of HRH The Prince of Wales have reportedly criticised the new season for “dragging his name through the mud”. His Royal Highness has said he will not be watching the show.
As Sleep attested to, ballet was one of Diana’s great loves. As a child, she took ballet and tap lessons.
“She was very good and very musical,” Sleep says, recalling how Diana prepared for her on-stage appearance in 1985. “She had been taking dance classes somewhere off the Talgarth Road [in west London].”
After marrying Charles, Diana became a patron of the English National Ballet, supporting the company both as a private dancer and through fundraising, and attending a number of performances.
It happened during a royal tour to Australia, when Charles and Diana were visiting a school. Charles bumped into an old friend who knew he once played the cello, and he agreed to play a few notes.
Moments later, Diana was asked if she might tickle the ivories. After some persuasion, the princess walked over to the keys and a segment from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 flowed from her fingertips, much to the surprise of the room.
After the performance, the broadcaster at the time recalled, “She almost ran for cover, clearly embarrassed at her musical debut.”
Diana shared an unlikely, wonderful bond with the late great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.
The pair reportedly shared a wicked sense of humour and it was Diana’s charitable efforts that persuaded the tenor to give more benefit concerts.
At a rain-soaked 1991 charity concert in Hyde Park, Pavarotti dedicated the aria ‘Donna non vidi mai’ (‘I Have Never Seen a Woman Like That’) to Lady Diana.
Footage of the dedication – an extraordinary moment, at which everyone in the audience led by the Princess lowered their umbrellas, so others could enjoy the concert – was unearthed for the recent Pavarotti biopic directed by Ron Howard.