In season four of The Crown, Helena Bonham Carter makes a return as Princess Margaret who, already struggling to find a sense of meaning in life, unearths a dark family secret. Through her therapist, she learns for the first time about her cousins, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon—two sisters abandoned in a mental hospital by their parents at the ages of 15 and 22 respectively. More appallingly, on further investigation, Margaret and her sister, the Queen, (Olivia Colman) pull out from the palace library what is presumably an edition of Burke’s Peerage, which claimed both women had died in 1961. In fact they were still very much alive.
A horrified Margaret confronts the Queen Mother, played by Marion Bailey, identifying a parallel in her own story with that of Katherine’s and Nerissa’s. Margaret may have started out as a young girl so gregarious and confident that even by her sister’s admission she would be more suited to the role of Queen. But over the course of the series she has been forced to sacrifice love with married RAF officer Peter Townsend in an effort to protect the fragile post-abdication monarchy. She has embarked on a tempestuous marriage with the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones—ending in divorce and with her family siding with her ex-husband. Now, accepting that perhaps there is no “right man” for her and ready to immerse herself in royal duties, as Prince Edward turns 21 she is forced to relinquish her role as counsellor of state. Margaret, as she sees it, was born into a ruthless family that will “spit out” anyone who has an individual character or needs.
It’s safe to say that Margaret suffered from depression, which perhaps she inherited from her father.
These are of course screenwriter Peter Morgan’s interpretations of events rather than historical fact. While Margaret undoubtedly knew about Katherine (c. 1927 to 2014) and Nerissa (1919 to 1986), as did the rest of the world when their story was plastered across the newspapers in 1987, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know how she truly felt about them spending most of their lives in institutions.
To capture the essence of the princess’s character, Bonham Carter set off on a voyage to better understand her. She may be acquainted with the Windsors after her Oscar-nominated role as the Queen Mother in The King’s Speech (2010), but it was no easy feat, as Morgan put it to her: “You could play Margaret 10 different ways and they’d all be her.” The 54-year-old actor spoke to the late royal’s closest confidantes, such as Colin and Anne Tennant, with whom Margaret would revel and later recuperate with on the Caribbean island of Mustique; delved into dozens of biographies and even consulted her astrologer, amassing several crates of research along the way. Here she shares the story of how she became Princess Margaret through her own words and pictures.
“Margaret called her corset ‘my armour’—it shielded her heart”
What does Princess Margaret represent to you having played her now for two seasons of The Crown?
In many ways Margaret is about loneliness. She’s divorced, I’ve gone through that myself and I know you have to make huge adjustments to your own identity, you have to reconstruct yourself because you are no longer part of a married couple.
Margaret wasn’t someone to be pitied though, and she probably was tired of being seen as tragic. She was formidably intelligent—according to her hairdresser Josef Braunschweig she could do a crossword puzzle in around 11 minutes—and she had a huge capacity for fun. I spoke to her friend Derek Deane, a former principal dancer at the Royal Ballet (Margaret was the company’s first president). He recalled at some point in the evening she would turn to him and say ‘Can I go up?’ and this was a cue to put her on his shoulders like in a ballet move. One time she disappeared over the back!
Following encouragement from Princess Anne and Prince Charles, Margaret sees a therapist in season four. Do you hope increased visibility through series like The Crown can help open up a more consistent dialogue about mental health?
When you’re playing someone real there’s a line of respect that you must observe. The Crown never professes to be a documentary but a drama inspired by real people. It’s safe to say that Margaret suffered from depression, which perhaps she inherited from her father. She was very much her father’s daughter, and she never really recovered from losing him.
Anyone who is alive can suffer some kind of mental illness. The brain is so complicated it’s not surprising that it gets ill, just like any other organ. My mother worked as a psychotherapist and I was brought up to talk about it and that’s key. A lot of people turn away, because it’s not visible perhaps they think if you don’t talk about it won’t exist, or in admitting vulnerability you’re weak, when in fact the opposite is true. Sadly for Margaret she lived in a time when depression was taboo—so much of her life would have been easier had she been born later.
Has your mother’s training as a psychotherapist informed the way you develop characters in any way?
My mum trained when I was young so her schooling went alongside my own. I’ve always involved a psychoanalytical approach; Bellatrix [Lestrange] who I played in the Harry Potter films is a sociopath, and even though it’s a work of fantasy you have to understand her to the point that what you are saying becomes inevitable. You invent a backstory—usually childhood profile to explain the ensuing behaviour.
I discussed Margaret with mum as well as my own therapist. She was famously rude, and Peter Morgan gave Vanessa [Kirby] a great note when she was playing her: ‘act as if there’s something pinching your foot inside your shoe.’ If a person is in pain, if they’re feeling vulnerable, that’s when they’re most likely to attack someone.
“Margaret also relates to Prince Charles’ situation—having one’s marital life determined by the institution and not one’s heart.”
The way we feel is sometimes manifested in the way we dress. What did Princess Margaret’s sartorial decisions say about her?
As part of my research, I spoke to Anne Tennant and Jane Stevens, who were both ladies-in-waiting for Margaret. She would wear a corset all the time, long after it was fashionable, she even had one sewn into her swimming costume. Anne would tell her she didn’t need to, but Margaret called her corset ‘my armour’—it shielded her heart. Being vulnerable and in the public eye all the time isn’t a good combination. She was very brave I think.
Margaret also had a complex about being tiny. She amounted to around 5ft and she maximised every inch; from styling her hair to ridiculous heights to the [four inch tall Poltimore] tiara she bought for her wedding [to Armstrong-Jones in 1960]; her chunky heels and bolt upright posture. She even had her car seat raised so the public could see her.
Will you be assimilating any of Princess Margaret’s looks into your own wardrobe?
They cast The Crown very well because the Queen doesn’t seem fussed with what she wears and I don’t think Olivia [Colman] is either. But I love clothes, and I love Margaret’s love for them. There are so many royal rules about what to wear and not, but she still found ways to express herself, whether it be through her jewellery or nail varnish or long cigarette holders.
I like what I wear in private—the long flowing silk negligee—but the public-facing outfits are very conservative; everything is to the knee and you can’t show any cleavage. My neck is too short for that.
How did you learn all the royal rules?
We were given royal protocol lessons. My main take away, which I still use in real life, is that you can’t ask for something. For instance, if we were sitting at dinner, I couldn’t say ‘Can I have the butter please’. Instead I’d ask the person who was nearest the butter ‘Would you like some butter?’ and hope they get the drift.
Margaret enjoyed enforcing rules as much as she loved breaking them herself. It was her only way of serving the monarchy—this was somebody who had no control trying to exert control.
There’s a scene where the Queen asks what will happen to Diana if she doesn’t, as the Queen Mother puts it, “bend” to the wishes of the monarchy. To which you respond “she’ll break”. Do you think Margaret saw something of her younger self in Diana?
In The Crown Margaret definitely recognises an emotional vulnerability in Diana that isn’t going to make it easy for her to be in the royal family. They don’t really do vulnerability, it’s a centuries old institution and a job first and foremost. The Queen is primarily a queen, and then a mother and everyone else has to go by that too.
Margaret also relates to Prince Charles’ situation—having one’s marital life determined by the institution and not one’s heart. In real life I believe they were close.
How did your astrologer help you to better understand Margaret?
I don’t know how astrology works and frankly I don’t care. Darby, my astrologer friend, is laser-beam perceptive about people. Whether I’m playing Margaret or Elizabeth Taylor in Burton & Taylor  or Eleanor Riese in 55 Steps . I could spend 10 days reading about one of those people, or spend 30 minutes with Darby and walk away with all their determining characteristics.
Margaret was a vivid Leo. She wasn’t able to edit herself, she would say whatever came into her head and that was corroborated in my astrology sessions.
“You have to be careful what you say yes to when you’re a parent. There is an emotional absence in the run-up to a job because your head is somewhere else.”
Do you find seeing an astrologer helpful in your life outside of acting?
Yes, as do a lot of friends and family. When people are at a crossroads and they are struggling to make a decision, she helps you listen to your intuition.
Did you leave Margaret at the door when you came home during shooting, or did she come with you?
She definitely came home with me and it really annoyed my children Billy (16) and Nell (12), because I’d put on a peculiar voice—not just for the fun of it, but because I want it to be part of my muscle memory so I don’t have to think about it when I’m acting.
You have to be careful what you say yes to when you’re a parent. There is an emotional absence in the run-up to a job because your head is somewhere else. I’m old enough to feel less torn about the jobs that are off the cards because they’d involve being away for months at a time. If I was at a different stage of my career, if I felt lots of sacrifices were being made, I might not feel the same. But I can recognise that motherhood is more important at this stage. Their childhood is running out, I must kiss the joy as it flies.
Season four of The Crown is now streaming on Netflix.