Finally, Princess Margaret Is Absolutely Centre Stage

As the new series of The Crown puts Princess Margaret in the spotlight, Polly Dunbar speaks to those who knew the royal who rocked the Palace.

Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret

by Polly Dunbar |
Updated on

In the second episode of the third season of The Crown, Princess Margaret takes on US president Lyndon B Johnsonin a drinking and limerick-reciting contest. ‘They found her vagina in North Carolina,’ is the winner from the Queen’s rebel sister – ‘and her arsehole in Buckingham Palace.’

It’s a delicious moment, played with the perfect blend of naughtiness and hauteur by Helena Bonham Carter, who takes over from Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret. But we will also see her portray perhaps the most difficult moments in the late royal’s life.

As Helena told Grazia, ‘Margaret has so many facets. Olivia [Colman, playing the Queen] and I both feel the pressure: the standard is high.’ At last week’s season premiere, reflecting on the research involved, she told us, ‘By the end we could have done the royal family as our Mastermind subject.’ Helped, no doubt, by the fact Helena had met the princess. ‘Isn’t that extraordinary? She was very small but forthright.’

Helena Bonham Carter
Helena Bonham Carter at the premiere of The Crown ©Getty

‘We see the rise and fall of Princess Margaret this season,’ says Robert Lacey, the series’ official historian and author of The Crown: The Inside History 1956 – 1977. ‘When it opens, she’s flying high with her husband Tony, but it’s not long before their relationship starts going downhill.’

Margaret married photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon) in 1960, five years after succumbing to pressure to give up her relationship with divorcé Group Captain Peter Townsend. ‘She and Tony were head over heels in love at the start,’ says Christopher Warwick, author of Princess Margaret: A Life Of Contrasts, who knew her well. ‘He could be utterly charming and the royal family liked him, but he could also be foul. He was cruel to her.’

The volatility of their relationship was infamous. At one point, we see Snowdon grab Margaret’s face and pin her against a wall during a row. He left her notes detailing ‘reasons why I hate you’ and mocked her behind her back while she talked.

Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon
Princess Margaret with her husband, born Antony Armstrong-Jones, photographer Lord Snowdon attend Badminton Horse Trials on April 18, 1970 ©Getty

Lady Anne Glenconner was Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting for three decades and enjoyed a friendship with her that began when they were toddlers. Both had turbulent marriages and sought solace in each other. ‘Once, I went to spend three weeks with her at Kensington Palace while my flat was being done and in the end I stayed a year,’ she tells Grazia. ‘We had such a good time and we agreed that it was much easier living together than it was with our difficult husbands.’

Lady Anne plays a pivotal role in The Crown, as she introduces Margaret to aristocratic landscape gardener Roddy Llewellyn, with whom she had a scandalous affair. The pair met at Edinburgh’s Café Royal in 1973, ahead of a party at Anne’s house, and hit it off immediately, despite their 17-year age difference. ‘She’d never have met him if it hadn’t been for me,’ Anne says.

Nancy Carroll plays Anne, and met her before embarking on the role. ‘I felt she was sizing me up,’ she laughs. Helena also spent three hours with Anne, ‘asking how Princess Margaret smoked and how she walked. I knew she’d make a wonderful Margaret.’

The princess’s affair with Llewellyn was revealed in the press in February 1976, with photos of the swimwear-clad pair on Mustique. She and Snowdon separated, sparking a huge royal scandal. ‘It marked a breakdown in press deference towards the royal family,’ says Robert.

Roddy Llewellyn and Princess Margaret
Princess Margaret and her companion Roddy Llewellyn on their way to Heathrow Airport before departing for a holiday in the Caribbean ©Getty

It also caused a rift between Margaret and her sister. ‘Her family tended to put the blame for the breakdown of her marriage at Margaret’s door, which was very unfair,’ says Christopher. ‘When Roddy came on the scene, the Queen apparently said words to the effect of, “What are we going to do about my sister’s guttersnipe life?”’

But, as he points out, Margaret was the victim of a double standard. ‘Tony was a serial adulterer who was already involved with Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, who later became his wife. And if Margaret had been male and Roddy female, the public reaction would have been very different. Actually, Roddy gave her back her self-esteem, which the disintegration of her marriage had robbed her of.’ Lady Anne agrees. ‘Roddy was wonderful, very kind and everything Tony wasn’t.’

People complain about her being grand, but her father was king and emperor of half the world – she was grand.

For viewers who fell in love with Princess Margaret’s waspishness, glamour and penchant for a stiff drink (or three) during The Crown’s first two seasons, this season offers plenty more. Christopher says, ‘If she felt someone had overstepped the mark, her beautiful blue eyes turned to ice.’ But there was also a vulnerability few saw: ‘Part of her lacked confidence.’

‘People complain about her being grand, but her father was king and emperor of half the world – she was grand,’ says Lady Anne, who always addressed her friend as ‘Ma’am’.

‘I didn’t find her spoilt. She’d stay with me and do the fires because she’d been a girl scout. We’d go on engagements together and wait until we were by ourselves to roar with laughter. She was a wonderful friend who never gave the advice you expected – she was much more interesting than that.’

‘Lady In Waiting’ by Anne Glenconner is out now; ‘The Crown’ series three is on Netflix now.

READ MORE: The Crown: What’s The Truth About Princess Margaret’s US Trip?

READ MORE: The Crown: The True Story Behind Princess Margaret's Scandalous Portrait

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