Not since Mad Men’s Megan purred “Zou Bisous Bisous” down a microphone to Don Draper has a man looked more uncomfortable with a performance than The Crown’s Prince Charles; dying in the box at the Royal Opera House.
In a testament to Josh O’Connor’s acting, in episode nine of the new series he manages to portray a man who’s outwardly appearance is that of, “Well, isn’t this jolly?’, while his internal organs are collapsing due to the horror of what he’s witnessing.
Charles’s wife, Diana, is dancing on stage. But this is no Nutcracker. Not only is she dancing on stage, she’s frolicking around to Uptown Girl, a pop banger by Billy Joel, with the diminutive ballet lead, Wayne Sleep.
The audience in the venue love it, of course. A dancing princess! In a one-off performance, never caught on video camera! But the one person the routine was actually meant for loathes it: the would-be king of Great Britain.
“What were you thinking?” he demands in the chauffeur-driven car home, and brands her routine a “grotesque, mortifying display”. Maybe he just preferred Billy Joel’s earlier work?
This is just another case of art imitating life, as has so often been the case in arguably the most controversial series of The Crown to date. Despite it appearing to be a plot device to dial up the “attention-seeking” antics of Diana, it turns out the Princess really did pull on a pair of jazz shoes for a public bop to Billy in real life. And If there’s one person who absolutely lives to re-tell the tale, it’s her dance partner from that evening.
Sleep, an OBE (though not for that dance with Diana, we presume), is one of the UK’s most celebrated ballet dancers and choreographers. And despite the performance taking place more than 35 years ago in December 1985, he’s still just as excited about every high kick in this incredibly endearing video footage from CBS News in 2017.
Sleep first met Diana around 1980, when she asked him for dance lessons, but he was “too busy”, so he sent a colleague to teach her instead. After the pair had tripped the light fantastic together for a few years, he told Vulture that he had a call from Diana asking to meet up so they could practise a very special duet together.
Diana apparently came to the rehearsal in full Jane Fonda gear - “a headband, pink leotard, tights, leg warmers, and jazz shoes” - and told him that her choice of song to perform was Uptown Girl, the 19th biggest-selling single of the ‘80s.
After Sleep gave her a secret signal from the stage on the night, the annual Friends of Covent Garden show, Diana slipped away from the Royal box and went backstage, through to the side of the stage.
Sleep started dancing and the audience started applauding (“You just wait!” he tells CBS News), then Diana walked out on stage in a floaty white dress and posed as if to say, “yes, it’s me”. “There was a gasp from the audience of 2,500 people,” Sleep said. “They were speechless...and she was on fire”.
While not quite a hip-hop battle, the three-minute routine was a jokey, “one-upman-ship” competitive jive, with pirouettes, lifts, jazz hip rolls and even a risque high kick over Sleep’s head that probably had Charles shrivelling even more into his seat.
Sleep told The Guardian: “I remember thinking, “Don’t drop the future Queen of England.”
After eight curtain calls, Diana was buzzing, and wanted to do an encore. Sleep told her no, that his mantra was “always leave them wanting more”. She then refused to bow to Prince Charles. According to Vulture, Sleep said: “You’ve got to bow to the prince. And she said, ‘No, I’m not bowing to him, he’s my hubby.’”
If Charles was seething, he kept it hidden - as we’ve learned on the Netflix series, seems to be the Royal way. Sleep said that at the afterparty: “He had a raised eyebrow, you might say. It didn’t go any further than that.”
Author of The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown, said Charles felt “frigid disapproval of Diana’s lapse in royal etiquette”, while Royal correspondent Richard Kay said: “It was a present which slightly backfired. She did it as a tribute to Charles. Charles wasn’t terribly impressed. He thought she was showing off.”
While there were no video cameras to record the performance, there was just one person who took a couple of photos and swore he’d never release them. Until 1995, that is, when the tabloid cheque books came calling, and the whole world got a glimpse of Diana’s love for performing arts - and Billy Joel.
Sleep added: “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’.”
Was it a light-hearted skit that allowed Diana to express herself on stage? Or was she riling Charles, showing off again how much the public preferred her to him? The Crown seems to imply it’s a bit of both.
One thing’s for sure: she would have been a shoo-in to lift the glitterball trophy on Strictly Come Dancing now.
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