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One morning at the beginning of 2019, when I was in my London flat, the telephone rang.
‘Lady Glenconner? It’s Helena Bonham Carter.’
It’s not every day a Hollywood film star rings me up, although I had been expecting her call. When the producers of the popular Netflix series The Crown contacted me, saying that I was going to be portrayed by Nancy Carroll in the third series, and that Helena Bonham Carter had been cast as Princess Margaret, I was delighted. Asked whether I minded meeting them so they could get a better idea of my friendship with Princess Margaret, I said I didn’t mind in the least.
Nancy Carroll came to tea, and we sat in armchairs in my sitting room and talked. The conversation was surreal as I became extremely self-aware, realising that Nancy must be absorbing what I was like.
A few days later when Helena was on the telephone, I invited her for tea too. Not only do I admire her as an actress but, as it happens, she is a cousin of my late husband Colin Tennant, and her father helped me when one of my sons had a motorbike accident in the eighties.
As Helena walked through the door, I noticed a resemblance between her and Princess Margaret: she is just the right height and figure, and although her eyes aren’t blue, there is a similar glint of mischievous intelligence in her gaze.
We sat down in the sitting room, and I poured her some tea. Out came her notebook, where she had written down masses of questions in order to get the measure of the Princess, ‘to do her justice’, she explained.
A lot of her questions were about mannerisms. When she asked how the Princess had smoked, I described it as rather like a Chinese tea ceremony: from taking her long cigarette holder out of her bag and carefully putting the cigarette in, to always lighting it herself with one of her beautiful lighters. She hated it when others offered to light it for her, and when any man eagerly advanced, she would make a small but definite gesture with her hand to make it quite clear.
I noticed that Helena moved her hand in the tiniest of reflexes, as if to test the movement I’d just described, before going on to discuss Princess Margaret’s character. I tried to capture her quick wit – how she always saw the humorous side of things, not one to dwell, her attitude positive and matter-of-fact. As we talked, the descriptions felt so vivid, it was as though Princess Margaret was in the room with us. Helena listened to everything very carefully, making lots of notes. We talked for three hours, and when she left, I felt certain that she was perfectly cast for the role.
Both actors sent me letters thanking me for my help, Helena Bonham Carter expressing the hope that Princess Margaret would be as good a friend to her as she was to me. I felt very touched by this and the thought of Princess Margaret and I being reunited on screen was something I looked forward to. I found myself reflecting back on our childhood spent together in Norfolk, the thirty years I’d been her Lady in Waiting, all the times we had found ourselves in hysterics, and the ups and downs of both our lives.