The Story Behind Diana's "Uptown Girl" Performance At The Royal Opera House

- The Crown -
The Story Behind Diana's "Uptown Girl" Performance At The Royal Opera House

"How many people in the world actually know about this?" one backstage runner asks Wayne Sleep at the Royal Opera House right before showtime. "Four," the dancer says, just as the stagehand places a special white dress and shoes on a rack for a very special quick change later on in the evening.

"Avalanche," Episode 9 of Season 4 of The Crown, features a surprise dance duet that not only shocked a royal birthday boy, but an entire audience galore.

At the start of the episode, we see Charles and Diana arrive at the venue for a gala. It's supposed to be the prince's night, as he is the president of the Friends of Covent Garden who are hosting the event. Not to mention, he is celebrating his 37th birthday. But even the news announcer can't help but notice that Diana is the one receiving all the attention from the crowds out in force. Nothing new, as we've learned over the course of the season.

But the cheers from outside were child's play compared to the performance in store. Charles and Diana sit in a box watching the revue numbers one by one, until Diana excuses herself to powder her nose. Minutes later, Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" starts blaring from the speakers with Wayne Sleep taking his place onstage. Charles looks around, wondering when she's coming back. Not soon enough, it seems, as Princess Diana shockingly struts onstage in that same white dress and shoes from the opening scene, giddy at the idea of surprising her husband.

But how did the performance come together in real life? Let me bring to your attention a very important firsthand account of the evening from Diana's dance partner.

Covert Dance Rehearsals

Twenty years after Princess Diana's death, Wayne Sleep spoke with The Guardian to recount the historic night at the opera.

He recalled how at first, as Diana held a lifelong passion for dance, Diana had approached him for lessons in the early 1980s. "Diana loved ballet, but she also wanted to learn jazz, tap and contemporary," he said. But because he was so frequently on tour, he was unavailable to teach her.

Fast forward to a few years later when Diana sought him out for his assistance to perform at the Royal Opera House in a private show for supporters and friends of the Royal Ballet. She earnestly wanted to surprise Charles, so the plans needed to stay "top secret."

They rehearsed in a west London studio, and she had already picked "Uptown Girl" for the song. We sadly do not watch their rehearsals in the The Crown, but we are partial to seeing Diana take ballet lessons, spend nights out dancing on the town with her flatmates pre-royal move-in, and groove along to her walkman while roller skating down the halls of Buckingham Palace. Dance is a form of expression for her.

As movement coach Polly Bennett shared via Netflix, she and Emma Corrin, who plays Diana, worked together to discern what dance meant to Diana. "Ultimately the ability to take up space was our main focus as Diana entered the very controlled environment of the palace," Bennett noted, and Diana certainly did that fine December evening in 1985.

Surprise! A Bang on Showstopper

The number itself did feature Sleep stepping out first to a big round of applause. "I thought, 'You ain’t seen nothing yet,'" he remembered. But when the guest of honor came out, it was a whole other ball game.

"The audience gasped when Diana appeared, as if they’d all taken one huge breath," he said. On The Crown, we see Diana sashay her way through variations on jazz, ballet, and a kickline, playing to the crowd and enjoying every minute of it. Sleep received a letter from Diana a few days later, in which she wrote: "Now I understand the buzz you get from performing."

But she was most pleased that Charles was none the wiser that she in fact would be taking the stage that night. And what's more? The paps who followed her everywhere had not been on her trail.

A Very Unhappy Birthday Prince

Corrin was aware of how much this moment meant to Diana as a gesture to Charles. "This is the scene in which Diana goes through something hugely emotional, this is her reaching out to Charles to show him that she loves him," she said, per Netflix.

However, at least in the series, her birthday number did not go down as well as she had hoped with Charles. At the end of the song, she waves to him from the stage and calls out "happy birthday," to which he weakly smiles.

But all his endeavored civility fades once they reach their town car, and he immediately berates her. "What were you thinking?" he inquires. She insists she was only trying to make him happy. But unfortunately, "that grotesque, mortifying display had nothing to do with me or my happiness," he spits at her. What he really couldn't stand was that for eight minutes, the audience were on their feet, cheering her. "Tomorrow the newspapers will be about nothing other than you."

While the ice may have still remained chilled between her and Charles that night, a friendship warmed between her and Sleep.

To The Guardian, he divulged that they saw each other fairly regularly. She would attend his performances and pop into his dressing room afterwards, or she'd come by his south Kensington flat for dinner. "I think we got on because we were quite similar: we were both loners; we both had to carve out our own paths," he said.

Their friendship dissipated in 1995 when photos from their 1985 performance circulated in the tabloids. "No one knows for sure how they got hold of them. Diana got suspicious – by then, she didn’t know who to trust any more – and we drifted apart," he said.

But their dance lives on forever and is now immortalized in the Netflix series, much to Charles' chagrin. Well, at least the fictional version.

Season 4 of The Crown drops on Netflix on November 15.


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Images: Netflix

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