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‘The Crown’: The Story of Mohamed Al-Fayed and His Valet

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LONDON — It’s 1946 in a dusty square in Alexandria, Egypt. Teenagers play a boisterous football match, and certainly one of the players looks on curiously as the previous King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, arrive on the nearby British consulate, their automobile door opened by an immaculately dressed young Black man.

“I need to match them, I need to be like them, have power like them,” the boy later tells his siblings, after their father has excoriated the British for his or her occupation of Egypt.

That is the opening of Episode 3 of the newest season of “The Crown.” We see that boy grow as much as grow to be the businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed, whose son, Dodi, was for some time a household name in Britain after he and Diana, Princess of Wales, died together in a automobile crash in August 1997.

The episode charts the rise of Mohamed, who would all the time long to be a part of the British establishment, against the story of Sydney Johnson, the Bahamian valet to the Windsors, who Mohamed saw within the square and would later employ himself.

The episode is a characteristic twist within the show’s deal with the continued story of the royals, because the “Crown” creator Peter Morgan again finds prisms through which the monarchy might be understood within the context of British social history.

In the official podcast of “The Crown,” Morgan said that he had found Al-Fayed an enchanting character, but that it could have been difficult to inform his story within the series if there hadn’t been a robust intersection with the royal family. “Once I discovered that the guy who had been the non-public valet to Edward had been the valet to Al-Fayed, the story just fell into my lap,” Morgan said.

So, who were the Al-Fayeds? Was the elder Al-Fayed really obsessive about the royals? How did he and his son meet Diana? Here’s a guide to who’s who and what’s what.

Mohamed Fayed (he added the “Al” prefix within the Seventies), or Mou Mou to his friends, grew up in Alexandria, the son of a college inspector. He sold Coca-Cola on the road and sewing machines door to door, before starting to work as a furniture salesman for Adnan Khashoggi, the longer term billionaire arms dealer.

In 1954, he married Khashoggi’s sister, Samira, and a 12 months later she gave birth to Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Mena’em Fayed, who became often called Dodi. The wedding only lasted two years, and custody of Dodi was given to his father, who sent Dodi to boarding school in Switzerland, after which Sandhurst in Britain. Al-Fayed, initially bankrolled by Khashoggi, began to make his fortune in Europe, mostly as a middleman for the ruling family of Dubai, and in shipping.

The hit drama’s fifth season premiered on Netflix on Nov. 9.

He moved to Britain within the Seventies, and acquired the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1979, as “The Crown” depicts. In 1985, he bought the landmark London department store Harrods, and in 1997, Fulham Football Club, in addition to several British residences.

In 1986 he took a 50-year lease on the house of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, within the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and spent a reputed $14 million on restoring the house to its previous splendor. Now around 93 (there’s some debate in regards to the 12 months of his birth), Al-Fayed has sold each Harrods and the Fulham Football club, but still owns the Ritz.

It seems clear from Al-Fayed’s actions throughout his life that he had a deep desire to be accepted in social circles he perceived as established, and establishment. Within the “Crown” podcast, Morgan says “it’s price seeing him as a personality in the sunshine of his own background, contextualizing: where did he come from? What’s his relationship to Britain?”

Al-Fayed grew up with British institutions, the British army and sophistication system occupying positions of power throughout him, Morgan points out: “For him, the thought of being accepted in any shape or form inside those circles would have been such recognition of where he got to, greater than money within the bank.”

The Al-Fayeds were often solid as outsiders and social climbers by the British press, said Arianne Chernock, a professor of contemporary British history and a specialist within the monarchy at Boston University, although “the show portrayed them more sympathetically, suggesting how proximity to the monarchy meant acceptance for them.”

One among the episode’s most surprising moments is when it seems the film Dodi has convinced his father to finance is the award-winning “Chariots of Fire,” the 1981 sports drama directed by Hugh Hudson. When “The Crown” depicts the film winning a best picture Oscar, we hear the producer David Puttnam thank the Al-Fayeds “for putting their money where my mouth was,” and the elder Al-Fayed, watching with Johnson, dances with glee.

The Al-Fayeds created a production company, Allied Stars, within the late Seventies, and “Chariots of Fire” was Dodi’s biggest success, although the corporate was also involved in producing the motion thriller film “F/X,” Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” and “The Scarlet Letter,” starring Demi Moore.

At the tip of the episode we see a fictional meeting between Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) on the Royal Windsor Horse Show, when the queen avoids sitting next to him by dispatching Diana in her place. (In point of fact, they probably met at Harrods, or possibly through Diana’s father and stepmother, with whom he was friendly.) Within the episode, Al-Fayed and Diana get on famously, and although Dodi comes over to say hello, little is made from any connection between him and the princess.

This probably reflects the pair’s real first meeting, within the mid-Nineteen Eighties by various accounts, at a polo match by which Prince Charles was also playing. Later within the season, we see the elder Al-Fayed invite Diana to bring Princes William and Harry along with her on holiday to his villa in St. Tropez. The scene is ready for next season’s meeting, and Dodi and Diana’s fateful end.

Sydney Johnson was born within the Bahamas, and commenced working for the Duke of Windsor when he was 16, when the duke was governor of the islands during World War II.

The duke then took Johnson into his household service when he and the Duchess of Windsor moved to Paris. Johnson spent greater than 30 years working for the couple, up until soon after the duke’s death in Paris in 1972. (Reports vary in regards to the reasons for his departure, but some say that the duchess was not sympathetic to his request for more time together with his circle of relatives.)

Little is understood about Johnson’s life within the years after he left the Windsor household, but he did work on the Ritz and was taken on by Al-Fayed, in his nearby residence on the Champs-Élysées, within the late Seventies. He encouraged Al-Fayed to tackle the lease of duke’s Paris residence, and advised the businessman on easy methods to authentically restore the home.

Johnson died in Paris in January 1990. Al-Fayed was quoted in his wire agency obit, saying that Johnson “was truly a gentlemen’s gentleman. We will miss him very much.”

When Al-Fayed (Daw) first talks to Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), he asks him what he did for the duke. Johnson replies simply: “All the things. I took care of each aspect of his life from the moment he opened his eyes within the morning to the moment he closed them at night.”

What’s fascinating about valets, said Jennifer Purcell, a professor of contemporary British history at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, is “they’ve intimate access and knowledge that other people within the household may not have. They grow to be invisible. Sydney Johnson can operate within the shadows and really hear what’s happening. It’s an intimacy that’s each desired and feared.”

Purcell added that for Al-Fayed, knowing the main points of aristocratic and royal life through Johnson would have been “a ticket into those spaces.”

Yes. The royal household “actively worked to maintain out staff of color” from the Nineteen Forties to the Seventies, said Radhika Natarajan, a historian of Twentieth-century Britain at Reed College in Portland, Oregan, referring to 2021 reports in The Guardian newspaper, which included documents showing that until the late Sixties, people of color were banned from serving in clerical roles within the royal household‌.

“The royal family has a protracted and complex relationship to outsiders,” Chernock said. “Queen Victoria brought members of the empire into her family and her household, so there’s a bigger tradition. But it surely was possible to entertain each possibilities: that you would welcome certain nonwhite, colonial people into your household, and likewise maintain a firm belief in white British superiority and Empire.”

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