In the early days of Princess Diana’s marriage to the man who became king, Dr. James Colthurst knew something most of the world did not yet know: the Princess of Wales was miserable. Colthurst, an old friend from her days as a blushing London socialite, shared her stately pedigree; as the second son of an Irish baronet, his family home was a literal castle. More importantly, they shared a confidence—one of the few in the late princess’s short life that was challenged but never outright betrayed.
In the latest season of the Netflix drama The crown, Colthurst is portrayed in only one episode by actor Oliver Chris. True, his scenes with Elizabeth Debicki’s Diana are hardly the finest piece of acting in a series filled with high-caliber performances. And yet, there’s still a niggling sense of loss after the Season 5 finale; many of Diana’s most important moments and relationships are relegated to a handful of scenes. Her friendship with Colthurst is one of them.
I am not unsympathetic towards The crown‘s need to cover entire decades in a few hours. But denying Chris’ Colthurst just an extra appearance feels like a missed opportunity. Showrunner Peter Morgan takes a measured approach to his portrayal of the princess, refusing to commit to either her side or Prince Charles’ and further refusing to allow The crown to become The Diana Show. But the errors of omission seem to appear more frequently in Diana’s camp. Further integration of Colthurst would have contextualized Diana’s involvement in her own implosion.
17-year-old Lady Diana Spencer first met the would-be radiologist while still a medical student in a chalet in the French Alps, sleeping on her Etonian friends’ sofa bed after injuring her ankle skiing. The two struck up a friendship which they maintained until the princess’s tragic car accident in 1997. When we meet him in The crown, he is already a doctor at St. Thomas’ Hospital, and while he clearly has some sort of pre-established closeness to the princess, his primary role is to serve as a go-between for what would become the explosive book Diana: Her True Story.
Much of what The crown images here are accurate. Journalist Andrew Morton, whom Debicki’s Diana refers to as “one of the kind,” struck up a good rapport with a 35-year-old Colthurst over lunches and squash games, journalist Tina Brown wrote in her 2007 book The Diana Chronicles: “Morton picked up on Colthurst’s message not to fish for information about the princess, but he made sure to water his well against the day he could.” Their camaraderie returned to Diana, and she agreed to tape-record her answers to Morton’s interview questions, with Colthurst running the tapes back and forth from writer to source.
IN The crown, Chris’ Colthurst expresses some shock at the revelations in these interviews, but the real Colthurst already knew much of what was going on in Diana’s marriage. As Brown outlines, he knew she had bulimia nervosa; he knew that bodyguard Barry Mannakee was her first extramarital affair; he even knew that the Welsh had problems in bed, and Diana admitted to Colthurst that the problems were of a “geographical” nature.
Diana trusted Colthurst with surprisingly intimate secrets, although their own relationship never became romantic. Brown enters The Diana Chronicles“Colthurst’s ability to retain Diana’s esteem over time most likely depended on their not becoming sexually involved…His qualification for consigliere was not only his intelligence but also the protective love he felt for the captive princess that he had known as girl.”
The doctor believed Diana: Her True Story because Diana needed him. phe needed to believe in it so she could believe in her marriage. The crown also gets it right : When Chris’ Colthurst asks why Diana has agreed to record her answers for Morton, she tells him it’s because she’s already “tried everything” else. The real Diana felt the same way. If she opened her diary, poured out her soul for the world to consume, it might convince her husband—and his parents—of their hand in her misery.
Brown puts it this way:
“Diana’s friends cooperated [with the Morton book] because they believed she was faced with a choice – explode or implode. Unfortunately, they were right. There is a vitality of survival in Diana’s reckless action that eclipses its folly. Her insane courage blasted the palace out of its frozen assumptions and institutionalized lies. She told the truth when she saw it. Her own lies of exaggeration were still not as great as their withholding.”
By the end of season 5’s second episode, Morton’s book is out in the world, making its namesake her headlines and its author her money. Chris’ Colthurst is never seen or heard from again – a shame given what we know about his continued involvement in Diana’s life behind the scenes. Brown writes that he remained one of her confidants until late 1995, when her self-destructiveness in relationships finally damaged theirs. “She banished everyone associated with helping her produce the Morton book,” Brown wrote, adding:
“So shaken was she by the controversy that she now denied her involvement even to herself… James Colthurst survived until late 1995, finally throwing in the towel after an argument with Diana over William, who had signed up to Eton in September. He told Diana that she showed up too much at school and embarrassed her thirteen-year-old son, which was hard for a mother to hear. “Unless a mother was a widow, it wasn’t done for them to go up without fathers or instead of fathers,” Colthurst told me. I was at Eton myself, and I told her not to go up there so much as three times a week. She got very angry with me and hung up. And then I thought that’s it, that’s enough. I’d been inundated with calls for three years and it was too much.'”
Colthurst, who still lives in Berkshire, England, today, later revealed that he and Diana had ironed out their difficulties by the time she died. He wrote a column for Telegraph in 2021, who revealed that his last conversation with her was over the phone, “not long before her death.” He continued:
“What stays with me is her almost infectious laugh, coupled with her earnest desire to help others. She set a high bar for her sons, who have both inherited her natural way of being with others. Both have her sensitivity and caring. But they are also brave and tough and share their mother’s passion for using their roles to do good in the world.”
Morgan’s Diana, Diana of The crown, is almost constantly framed in isolation—whether literal, figurative, or self-imposed. In Season 5, it’s easy to feel sorry for her; it is perhaps more difficult to understand her.
There is a certain necessity for this degree of distance. The real Diana was also quick to isolate herself. And Morgan’s job as showrunner and writer is not to rally for the late princess’s vindication, or to gloss over her more unpleasant sides. But to deny a prolonged lens to the relatively few who knew her away from the cameras, like James Colthurst or Lady Sarah Ferguson, protection officer Ken Wharfe or even Dr. Hasnat Khan, is feeling disappointing. Even if it is only a by-product of the demands of the cutting room floor.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, television, books and fashion.