It was the TV interview that confirmed it all. When Diana, Princess of Wales, agreed to join Martin Bashir on Guy Fawkes night in front of BBC cameras to talk about her feelings of marital betrayal and loneliness, the foundations of the British establishment shook. The broadcast of that fateful interview was, of course, also a moment of personal pain and sorrow for Prince Charles, now King Charles, and their two sons, William and Harry.

The BBC have since agreed never to show the Panorama programme of 1995 because of the duplicitous way Bashir secured the late princess’s involvement, misleading her into suspecting widespread treachery against her. But now, contrary to the wishes of the royal family, the makers of The Crown, the award-winning Netflix drama, have faithfully recreated the infamous encounter and are to show its key moments, as well as the background to the broadcast, over two episodes of the upcoming fifth season, which starts on Wednesday.

At the centre of the row about the interview’s reproduction is Prasanna Puwanarajah, who plays Bashir. Speaking to the Observer, the actor said he had not been shocked to see the Panorama dialogue in the script. “What I was interested in is how we would see the interview in the episode. I wanted to understand how it would work,” he said. “Then I saw that it was about presenting parts of it so that other characters could respond.”

Prasanna Puwanarajah as Martin Bashir.
Prasanna Puwanarajah as Martin Bashir. Photograph: Photo Credit:Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Puwanarajah plays these controversial scenes opposite Elizabeth Debicki, cast as Diana in this, the final Crown season to cover the princess’s life. The two actors worked with vocal and movement coaches to build an accurate version of TV footage that has been seen many times around the world. “We looked at the way they sit. We worked hard on the bits that viewers will already know about to achieve the kind of observational verisimilitude that means it will not be noticed as they watch,” said Puwanarajah.

Did he worry, given this level of persuasive detail, that there would be little difference from showing the original interview? “I understand that argument, but the flip side of it is that, because the real footage is so familiar, it would have been distracting if we had not done it accurately. The whole programme is now part of the fabric of our collective knowledge, our history, and not to do it properly would have been to bump the audience out of an important dramatic moment.”

Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki as Charles and Diana in The Crown
Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki as Charles and Diana in The Crown. Photograph: Keith Bernstein/AP

Puwanarajah did not ask to meet Bashir, the former BBC religious affairs correspondent. Instead he studied footage of the journalist’s notable screen interviews, including one with Michael Jackson. “I didn’t discuss it with Peter Morgan, the writer, but used what was valuable in what we all came to know happened. In any situation, no matter how important the events become, people are living in their own human-sized reality. So in rehearsal we tried to find out how these two people, Diana and Bashir, decided they needed each other for the next step of their lives. We had to work out how to dramatise it, but we took no moral position. It was a complicated set of circumstances, but at the heart of it is a well-documented act of deceit. Although there is also much we will never know for sure, which is quite haunting.”

Morgan, who created The Crown for Netflix, won early plaudits in his career for recreating a television interview between US President Richard Nixon and David Frost in his first play, Frost/Nixon, later to be filmed. He was also on set for much of the filming of Bashir’s screen encounter with Diana. “Peter is not a sensationalist. He is almost an anthropologist, I think. He has always been a mindful dramatist and he takes careful steps through that liminal space between events of public record and what people did privately,” said Puwanarajah.

The actor, who has just directed his own first film, Ballywalter, believes recent calls for disclaimers on Netflix trailers for season 5 of The Crown are beside the point. The move, demanded in response to John Major’s complaints about “malicious nonsense” elsewhere in the script, assumes that audiences are foolish, Puwanarajah believes. “People get that it is a dramatisation,” he said. “And there is something about the broader footprint of this show that actually paints quite a sympathetic picture of the complicated existence of the royal family. It has enlarged an emotional understanding of them.”

The episodes dealing with Bashir’s attempt to get the interview also tackle the BBC’s handling of the issue, dramatising boardroom fights between the traditionalist chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, and John Birt, the modernising director general in charge of output. As a prominent Netflix product, The Crown also takes the opportunity in these scenes to highlight the dawning threat to the BBC posed by all the satellite channels and streaming services that were to come.

Bashir is shown lying to Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, presenting him with fake documents created to look as if she was being duped by her staff and watched by the secret services. After last year’s damning Dyson report, the BBC announced it would not even show clips from the Panorama interview again without clear context. The decision followed complaints from Prince William, who said Bashir’s deceit had accelerated his parents’ divorce, and from his brother, the Duke of Sussex, who claimed the interview lost his mother her life. The duke has since signed a £112m deal with Netflix, who are making a documentary about his life with Meghan.

Prasanna Puwanarajah
Prasanna Puwanarajah: ‘I saw that it was about presenting parts of it so that other characters could respond.’ Photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

Puwanarajah, a familiar face from television dramas Patrick Melrose and Ten Percent, hopes the Bashir episodes will highlight persistent problems inside public institutions and media organisations. Not least is the question of racial discrimination, which, along with class, played a role in the Bashir saga, he believes. “There was a wariness of outsiders in the BBC that is part of what happened. Bashir’s ambitious actions are part of a documented lineage of ethical malpractice in journalism, but the subterfuge was detected in his case. Despite apparent progressive strides, problems around race persist in our institutions,” he said.

The actor’s new film which had its world premiere in Belfast on Thursday, deals with mental illness and depression and stars Patrick Kielty as a man attempting to restart his life with a stand-up comedy evening class. Puwanarajah plans to direct again, but is currently filming as an actor on Payback, a Jed Mercurio-produced thriller set in Glasgow and written by Debbie O’Malley.

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