"All The Things In The Film That Seem Least Believable Are True": Steven Knight On Writing A Diana Biopic
The history of Princess Diana films is littered with flops and farragoes. Can the 'Peaky Blinders' writer really break the curse?
On the kitchen wall at Sandringham hangs a cautionary notice for the chefs and servers. Keep noise to a minimum, it warns. They can hear you.
The sign is glimpsed early on in Spencer, the new film in which Kristen Stewart plays Diana, Princess of Wales, during a turbulent Christmas on the Norfolk estate. It looks like a screenwriter’s contrivance: a quick way to establish an air of simmering upstairs-downstairs paranoia at the Queen’s country retreat.
Not so, says Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders and Taboo, one of the minds behind Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the screenwriter in question. The sign really did hang there, and the staff were all too aware that any morsels of gossip they shared could end up serving as leverage in some secret feud.
“I know some people who knew Diana quite well,” says the 62-year-old Knight in a snug Brummie accent, sipping milky tea on the morning of Spencer’s UK premiere. “Let’s say… posh people. And they put me in touch with some other people who worked in the house on the occasion that the film is set.”
Rather than researching his script from books or documentaries, he wanted to fill it with word-of-mouth details about bizarre royal Christmas customs — and his sources did not disappoint. “All the things in the film that seem least believable are true,” he says.
Take the weighing ritual: a Sandringham tradition that dates from the early 1900s, in which every member of the household is made to sit on antique scales on their arrival and again on their departure, to gauge how much they’ve indulged.
Considering Diana’s mental state at the time — her bulimia, her growing fear that she was being spied on, her increasing sense of isolation from the family and its apparatus — it felt to Knight as if the entire event “had been deliberately laid out as a trail of crumbs for a writer to follow".
"Even the fact that Christmas at Sandringham is basically a never-ending, inescapable series of meals, or that her own childhood home” — Park House, where Diana was born in 1961 — “was sitting there derelict on the estate. It’s as if all her demons had been invited.”
When Spencer premiered at the Venice Film Festival last month, the reviews were mostly highly favourable. Critics praised Stewart’s performance, and the plot’s bold apocryphal detours into paranormality, fairy-tale and camp.
In one scene, Diana hallucinates that she’s choking on enormous pearls in her pea soup; in another, the ghost of Anne Boleyn gives her a pep talk.
At an early screening, Stewart said she felt “that audiences were already primed to love the film”, since Diana herself was so widely admired. The remark caused Knight to raise an eyebrow.
When he was asked to write the script in early 2018 by Pablo Larraín, the director of the Jacqueline Kennedy biopic Jackie, his immediate thought was that it was “exactly the sort of thing I shouldn’t do — because it had been done already, and badly enough that everyone knew about it”.
A Naomi Watts-led attempt, titled Diana and featuring lines such as “If you can’t smell the fragrance, don’t come into the garden of love”, had notoriously bombed five years earlier. But as the two discussed Larraín’s proposal over breakfast, Knight realised he was talking himself around.
Rather than making a conventional biopic “where every major life event has to be covered in three seconds of screen time”, Knight suggested setting it over a single, strained family Christmas: “a situation everyone would be able to recognise”.
They also spoke about Knight’s own reaction to Diana’s death in 1997: he was working in Canada at the time, and was surprised not only by the news footage of British citizens openly grieving in the streets, but also by the fact he found himself weeping as he watched.
“I’m not wedded to the Royal family, but something was happening, and I’d always been curious as to what the hell it was.” Spencer became an opportunity to “work out who this person was who would go on to have that extraordinary effect”.
Pinning down the script was only part of the problem. Finding an actress brave enough to take on the role so soon after the Watts debacle proved trickier than either Knight or Larrain had anticipated. The script was circulated around British actresses, including a couple of household names in their late 20s and early 30s.
“We kept hearing that someone loved the part, but she was worried about what the response might be. There was a sense that ‘If even Naomi Watts couldn’t do it...’ It was like we were setting ourselves up as a coconut shy for abuse.”
But one actress with no such reservations was the Los Angeles-born and raised Stewart, who’d leapt to fame as the teenage lead in the moody vampire romance Twilight and grown into a movie star of rare allure and nerve. “She read it and loved it and was prepared to do all of the stuff required to get it right.”
Spencer was shot in a series of castles and stately homes in Germany earlier this year. Because of the pandemic travel ban, Knight wasn’t able to visit the set, so he watched the footage at home every day and sent over feedback. “I could see it was going to be beautiful,” he says. “But I still didn’t know if it was necessarily going to work.”
He was still bruised from the reception of his previous film: Serenity, a 2019 thriller in which Matthew McConaughey plays a tropical fisherman who becomes embroiled in a Double Indemnity-like murder plot, only to discover he is in fact a character in a video game invented by his son.
Knight had directed his own script — “whenever that happens, it’s because no one else wants to,” he notes — and the critics had not been kind. “Maybe it was too weird for people. Or maybe it was because it wasn’t any good!” he shrugs. “I just wanted to try something that turned into something completely different halfway through, and people didn’t enjoy that crunch.”
It was with a crunch that Knight arrived on the British film scene in 2002 with Dirty Pretty Things. A London-set drama about hardscrabble immigrant lives, directed by Stephen Frears, it took a wrecking ball to the capital’s new Cool Britannia-compatible, romcom-burnished image.
Born in Wiltshire in 1959, Knight is the son of a blacksmith, and it was while watching his father shoe horses in scrap merchants’ yards around Birmingham that he encountered the charming, disreputable crooks and swindlers who would later pack the Peaky Blinders world. (He’s currently working on the show’s sixth season, which he says will be followed by a film to round the whole thing off for good.)
After university in London, he found work in the booming advertising sector before becoming a producer on Capital Radio, where he and two colleagues came up with quiz ideas for Chris Tarrant, the station’s star presenter.
One of these, to which they gave the working title Cash Mountain, felt like it had mileage: it was a spin on the old wheat-and-chessboard riddle, in which you start by putting down one grain, double it on every space, “and by the 64th you’ve buried India under 10ft of cereal”.
The idea was that a contestant on a never-ending winning streak could theoretically win an unlimited sum of money: “But nobody would insure us, so we capped it at a million, which still felt outrageous.”
While testing the format, they discovered no contestant was prepared to gamble beyond a modest four-figure sum, even when given three now-famous “lifelines” as backup. “The thing that finally swung it, which seems so simple in retrospect, was to show them the next question before they made the decision to quit,” he says. “That was the key evolutionary step.”
With a 23-year run on British television and international versions in 160 countries, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? set Knight up for life: he’s coy about the royalties, and sold his stake in the show a number of years ago, but concedes that financially it’s been “a good thing”.
It also gave him the freedom to pursue unusual ideas: not just Serenity, but also Locke, a psychological thriller starring Tom Hardy set entirely on a car journey from Birmingham to Croydon, and Hummingbird, a London underworld character study with Jason Statham.
He’s currently writing something else for Statham: a piece about a Russian gangster, though “very different” from his script for David Cronenberg’s similarly themed 2007 film Eastern Promises.
“He’s like Robert Mitchum,” Knight says. “Mitchum wasn’t trying out for diverse roles, people wrote roles for him. I know Jason’s got his driving” — the Fast & Furious franchise, which he joined in part six — “but he really wants to act.”
There was, sad to say, no obvious role for Statham in Spencer: its stoic ex-military character, a watchful equerry tasked with bringing Diana back into line, is played by Timothy Spall. Knight always intended the Royal family’s underlings — chefs, dressers and so on — to be his key supporting characters, while the Windsors themselves largely fade into the background.
“I didn’t want them as baddies,” he says. “I’m by no means an anti-royalist. There’s a lot to believe in.”
He also “categorically” rejects the various conspiracy theories around Diana’s death, even though Stewart asks in an early scene when she realises she’s going to arrive late: “Will they kill me, do you think?”
“I don’t believe there was any conspiracy to kill her,” Knight says. “What I do think is that her choices and circumstances self-evidently culminated in her death, and if she hadn’t made those choices she wouldn’t have died in that tunnel. But I give no credence whatsoever to the idea it was planned.”
The vogue for conspiracy theories, and growing online polarisation, in general drives him “mad”, he adds. “Someone will claim there’s been a massive cover-up involving the Government, the Royals, the CIA and everything else — and somehow the only person who’s been able to get to the bottom of it is him, a potato farmer in Idaho.”
For Knight, Diana’s death is both a tragedy and a fork in history — and he considers how the present moment, with its online ragers and rumourmongers, might have been different if she’d still been around.
“She was an innocent in many ways, but wise enough to use her role for good — to help people, to bring them together. And I wonder, if she had become Queen, whether her influence might have helped soothe the current tide of divisive bulls — and hatred.”
Might that be what makes her loss a national tragedy?
“It’s what makes it a national missed opportunity.”
The Daily Telegraph
Spencer is out in cinemas in New Zealand on January 27, 2022