Editor’s note: Deadline’s It Starts on the Page features 10 standout drama series scripts in 2023 Emmy contention. It showcases the critical role writers’ work plays in a show’s success. All materials (the script and writers intro) were submitted before the WGA strike began on May 2.
It would have been easy for Netflix’s Emmy-winning The Crown to recreate Princess Diana’s infamous BBC interview with Martin Bashir by simply having Elizabeth Debicki, as Her Royal Highness, deliver the entire transcript from a makeshift Kensington Palace. But series creator Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), was more interested in showing the drama behind the scenes, like how executives at the BBC wrestled over airing the interview and how Diana had doubts about Bashir and whether she could actually trust him.
Named after England’s notorious Gunpowder Plot of 1605 — which was the failed attempt to assassinate King James I during the Opening of Parliament — the episode even draws upon the history by comparing Diana’s hesitation over doing the interview to how 13 members of the plot “almost pulled out at the last minute and it took the ringleader to encourage them to stick with it,” says Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah).
“Well maybe he shouldn’t have,” Diana responded. “Not only were they were unsuccessful, they were hung, drawn and quartered.”
As history dictates, Diana certainly wasn’t hung, drawn and quartered — but she did finally get that divorce.
“Gunpowder” was directed by Erik Richter Strand and penned by Morgan, who won an Emmy for writing The Crown‘s Season 4 finale “War.”
Here is the script for Episode 508 with an introduction by Morgan, in which he discusses how he turned one of the most famous TV interviews into what he describes as a “heist.”
There was never any question of omitting Diana’s Panorama interview. It was a seminal event: the climax of a bitter war waged over the airwaves; the trigger for Princess Diana’s divorce and her swift ejection from the Palace apparatus; and, of course, the subject of one of the most notorious broadcasting controversies of our time. However, the interview presents a significant challenge to a writer. How do you put a fresh spin on a broadcast that has been raked over so thoroughly and which was watched by almost 40% of the British population?
One of the aspects of The Crown that I most relish is that we look for the unusual angle on a familiar story. Fortunately, we have an incredible script and research team who work round the clock to help. Our trawl dredged up three improbable facts. First, that the Chairman of the BBC at the time, the wonderfully named Marmaduke Hussey, was married to the Queen’s close friend and lady-in-waiting Lady Susan Hussey – a direct link to the Household. Second, that the interview was recorded on 5 November, Guy Fawkes Night: a backdrop too good not to exploit. And finally, the fact that, around this very time, the Queen had satellite dishes installed in royal palaces – the competition from satellite channels posing a major threat to the venerable, state-funded BBC. Once we’d discovered these, the elements fell rapidly into place.
As I read more about the making of the interview, I became struck by its resemblance to a heist. In any heist story, you have the set-up, the execution and the fallout. You have the secrecy of the plotting and the fear of being discovered. You have an expansive canvas, following those on both sides of the law and charting ripple effects that we didn’t see coming.
The clandestine way Bashir and his team entered Kensington Palace for the recording – under the guise of installing a new hi-fi system – added to this sense. It was the broadcasting heist of the century and we are still dissecting the consequences. I hope ‘Gunpowder’ conveys a sense of the audacity of the operation as well as the far-reaching repercussions: institutionally, constitutionally but also intimately in its effect on the family.
There were very little changed between the shooting script and the final cut. It’s not always the way – but the story of Diana and Panorama provided a very clear and compelling proposition for the episode. Minor cuts were made – scenes not involving this core story were trimmed to keep up the thriller momentum.
In the edit it became clear that some of scenes that built up to Bonfire’s Night from different characters’ POVs were simply not needed – the barebone facts of Diana and Bashir’s clandestine movements that night provided enough drama and tension. The fateful events of that night had a propulsive quality so it was about stripping back anything that slowed that down.
Click below to read the script.