Set Design

The Crown Season Four Is a Tale of Three Women: Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher, and Princess Diana

How production designer Martin Childs and his team re-created some of the most iconic moments of the 20th century
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For season four of The Crown, Olivia Coleman reprises her role as Queen Elizabeth II (left), alongside Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles (center). Emma Corrin joins the cast as Princess Diana (right).Photo: Des Willie

Apartheid, an assassination, an avalanche, the Falklands War, and a palace break-in are just a few of the historical storylines in season four of Netflix Emmy-winning series The Crown—not to mention the long-awaited introduction of Princess Diana and the U.K.’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The Crown’s original production designer Martin Childs creates his magic once again for this installment spanning from the late 1970s through 1990, turning soundstages and country estates into Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral, Mustique, and the HMY Royal Britannia. The Oscar- and Emmy-winning designer and his set decorators Sophie Coombes, Alison Harvey, and Carolyn Boult also designed the Prime Minister’s digs at 10 Downing Street, the Spencer family estate Althorp House, and a royal tour through Australia and New Zealand. The production team worked on some 400 sets for the 10 new episodes (on Netflix now) and found it essential they did not all look the same. “Designing the historical sets is more of an interpretation because you have to make them all look very different from each other; that is the aim. If you follow the research, they will all look alike,” Childs tells AD.

The Buckingham Palace sets stay the same stylistically, and the designer says the other sets don’t necessarily keep up with the times. “Just as the ’60s didn’t suddenly go Austin Powers, we didn’t go Dynasty,” he says.

Below, Childs walks us through a few historic moments in this season’s The Crown.

Charles and Diana's First Meeting

While this scene wasn't filmed at the actual Spencer family home, where it happened, “ours went one better because the Great Hall inspired a kind of courtship dance” between Prince Charles (pictured) and the future Princess Diana, says Childs.

Photo: Des Willie

The Great Hall of the Spencer family estate, known as Althorp House, sets the scene for Prince Charles’s (John O’Connor) impromptu meeting with a 16-year-old Diana (Emma Corrin) while he is courting her sister Lady Sarah. Hiding behind a large potted plant and dressed as a tree (she was in rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream), she captures the prince’s attention, and the rest is history.

“[The house we used for Althorp] was a bull’s-eye with both its fantastic interior and exterior, and looked like the real thing. I walked into the Great Hall and saw it needed almost no dressing, and all we added was four pedestals in each corner and filled it with flower arrangements that looked like Diana’s tree costume,” explains Childs. “Outside, all the house needed was a more emphatic sense of arrival, so we created a stonework gateway out of plaster for Charles to drive through.”

The Iron Lady Meets the Queen

Gillian Anderson joins the cast as Margaret Thatcher this season.

Photo: Des Willie

Two formidable women meet for the first time at Buckingham Palace when the controversial first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), and Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) size each other up in one of the spectacular drawing rooms. Built at London’s Elstree Studios, copious amounts of research and a treasure trove of antiques sourced from markets around the U.K. went into the re-creation of one of the world’s most iconic residences.

The Proposal

Charles and Diana became engaged in 1981.

Photo: Des Willie

After Prince Charles pops the question (prompting a rather unusual response, “Yes. Please.”), a timid Diana is thrust into the harsh media spotlight at a Palace press conference. The scene is faithfully re-created right down to her royal blue suit and Charles's infamous comment when asked if he was in love: “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”

Diana's New Life

Goldsmiths Hall serves as a stand-in for Kensington Palace in the show. 

Photo: Des Willie

Prince Charles takes off for several weeks on royal duties during the engagement, leaving Diana to fend for herself at her new private quarters in Kensington Palace, where she spends her days roller skating to Duran Duran in the hallways and answering fan mail. Creating the dark isolated interiors made her “feel as uncomfortable as the second Mrs. de Winters in the film Rebecca,” details Childs. “I had a little eureka moment where I am able to say in a short sequence this is what this set is all about. The story we wanted to tell was to imagine this is the room where they have been putting all the brides-to-be for the past 200 years.”

The Wedding of the Century

Diana's real dress was designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, and costume designer Amy Roberts spoke with David before creating her version.

Photo: Des Willie

Viewers may be disappointed to find that a re-enactment of the royal marriage is quite brief on the screen. The interior of Winchester Cathedral is substituted for St. Paul’s Cathedral and is the scene for the tension-filled rehearsal; the bride is shown here at Chelsea House before the nuptials. Much like the interiors, the gown, designed by Emmy Award–winning costume designer Amy Roberts, is a version of Diana’s original wedding dress with a 25-foot train.

Fun and Games at Balmoral

 Shown here is a massive mahogany dining table at Balmoral.

Courtesy of Netflix

Prime Minister Thatcher and her husband Dennis are weekend guests at the Queen’s favorite country estate, Balmoral, in the Scottish Highlands, where the royals indulge in hunting, shooting, fishing, and the occasional parlor game. Woefully overdressed for the stag hunts and completely out of place, the couple fail what is known as the “Balmoral Test” and cut their weekend short. Balmoral, which was filmed at several different estates, is also where Diana and Charles spent the last leg of their honeymoon.

The Royal Tour

A familiar shooting location for the series in season three, the architecture, light, and topography of Spain made it the perfect stand-in location for Australia. 

Photo: Des Willie

The Prince and Princess of Wales embark on a much-needed six-week tour, working on their marriage (with Prince William in tow) while visiting dignitaries in Australia and New Zealand. A series of polo matches, charity balls, receptions, public appearances, and arguments ensues. 

Princess Margaret’s Mustique

 While it’s not a faithful re-creation of Princess Margaret's (Helena Bonham-Carter) Oliver Messel–designed villa, the set decorators sourced furnishings to create a similar aesthetic.

Photo: Des Willie

The “second sister” Princess Margaret’s idyllic hideaway Les Jolies Eaux in Mustique was a wedding gift from friend and island developer Colin Tennant. (Spain is also used for the Caribbean Island.) As the princess spends more time alone there in her later years, Childs reflects, “I realized so much of The Crown is about women being lonely. To emphasize the isolation, I found the perfect location with few neighbors and erased them with CGI,” says the designer.

Childs was careful not to make the house indicative of the ’80s, noting, “We found similar details but did not re-create moments. I think of the metaphor as I think of costume design—I look at the way an audience sees it and you have to reduce the shoulder pads—otherwise no one is going to believe it. I reduced the shoulder pads and made it fit for a princess!”