Why this Crown star is thrilled for Prince Harry

Joanna Hunkin,
Publish Date
Wednesday, 6 December 2017, 5:02PM

As news of Prince Harry's engagement to Meghan Markle broke last week, people the world over celebrated. But for actress Vanessa Kirby, the moment was especially sweet, standing in stark contrast to Princess Margaret's story.

Fifty-five years ago Margaret, the Queen's younger sister, was forbidden to marry the love of her life, Peter Townsend, due to his divorced status.

"Thank God that's there's more freedom now," exclaims Kirby, who plays Margaret in The Crown, which returns to Netflix tomorrow.

"To marry for love is a very simple dream, I think, and Margaret and Peter Townsend's tragedy really highlighted that. It broke my heart learning about that. It's great that Harry's allowed to be with whoever he wants."

Margaret's tragic love story dominated news headlines around the world when it happened but had been forgotten until The Crown returned it to the fore last year.

Princess Margaret dominated news headlines in the 1950s but her tragic love story became largely forgotten.

Kirby herself knew nothing about it and only had the most basic of knowledge about Princess Margaret.

"I knew nothing. I knew she was an old lady and she was the Queen's sister. I didn't know anything about her personality. The only stories I'd heard were that she was quite outspoken and difficult. It was such a privilege to go back and learn what she was like as a girl. I completely fell in love with her, I loved her so much. It was an honour," she says humbly.

"I didn't know anything about the Peter Townsend thing and I was so glad that it was brought back into public consciousness because it was the most tragic love story of the century. At the time, it was on all the front pages and completely gripped the nation and the world - but I don't think it was remembered."

For many, Kirby's portrayal of Margaret has been a revelation. Her Margaret is charismatic, glamorous and vibrant - a world away from the rather cross, obstreperous older woman most remember.

Princess Margaret was a style icon of her generation.

Kirby demurs when asked how accurate she thinks her version is, saying she simply doesn't know. "I hope I got part of it right," she laughs. "It was always quite daunting the prospect of it. There was a big team of researchers and I did as much as I possibly could. But we had to just jump off and hope for the best really.

"I read as many books as I could, I got a stack of books because I was so nervous. Loads of traditional royalist ones and then some more raunchy ones, which were the most useful actually. "I listened to her favourite music and just tried to immerse myself in what her personality was like."

And while the royal household has never officially commented on the series, one of Margaret's ladies-in-waiting was glowing with praise when she met Kirby.

"She was really lovely. She might have been lying but she was very positive about it," laughs Kirby. As season two returns, Margaret's love affair with Townsend has been shut down by the establishment, leaving the princess bereft.

"She spirals really. She's drinking and she's out late. She didn't really have much to hold on to," says Kirby sadly.

"Then she falls head first into this romance with Tony Armstrong-Jones, who's the antithesis to her whole family and represents everything that she's been looking for ... this whole new bohemian lifestyle that's not royal at all. There's a massive part of Margaret that would have loved to have been immersed in that culture. She was very artistic and loved going out to the jazz clubs. She really gets into that new 60s scene with Tony. It's an exciting season and I was delighted really that I got to keep growing up with her."

Season two of The Crown sees Princess Margaret embark on a new romance with Tony Armstrong-Jones.

But Kirby - and the entire cast - will farewell their royal alter-egos at the end of this season, as a new cast replaces them to play older versions of the royal family.

"We always knew," explains Kirby. "When we signed up to the series, we knew it was for two seasons. It wasn't a surprise. We knew we had two seasons and then we were going to pass it on." And while she will be sad to leave Margaret behind, The Crown's legacy will stay with Kirby forever. Predominantly a theatre actress, Kirby will star in her first Hollywood feature next year, opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 6.

"The big difference now is that instead of asking people to watch things you've done, they've already seen it. They like the series. Which is a really wonderful thing. You go into meetings and they know who you are. It's lovely to know what people like watching it," says Kirby.

Princess Margaret and Tony Armstong-Jones at Clarence House.

"Chris McQuarrie cast me in Mission Impossible because he'd seen The Crown and loved it. It's definitely opened things up for everybody. Claire's a movie star now [Claire Foy, who plays Queen Elizabeth in The Crown]. She's just the best person ever, so she deserves it."

LOWDOWN: Who: Vanessa Kirby What: The Crown, season 2 Where: Netflix When: From tomorrow