Per German tradition, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve—a difficult rite of passage for Sandringham newcomers given the royals’ fascination with cheap presents. There are formal black-tie dinners on both Christmas Eve and Christmas, with seating plans drawn up by the queen herself. (One rule: couples are split up to make for better conversation.) Table etiquette is important—apparently, according to the aforementioned documentary, guests should not sprinkle salt and pepper directly onto their food, but on the plate itself. Wine glasses should only be touched at the stem. When the queen puts her fork and knife down, all of the guests must also put down their utensils.
On Christmas, there is the annual photo-call and walk to church before the queen delivers her yearly holiday broadcast. The Christmas dinner is a black-tie affair for which tiaras and fine jewels are encouraged.
The queen’s dresser, Angela Kelly, has revealed that the monarch changes wardrobes up to seven times a day during the holiday period—and sets the tone for what the other guests are to wear.
“Once Her Majesty has chosen her dress for dinner, a handwritten notice is pinned up in the Dressers’ Corridor detailing what she will be wearing, so that the Queen’s ladies’ maids can select an appropriate dress for the lady they are looking after,” Kelly wrote in her book The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe.
Former royal butler Paul Burrell has said of the grueling wardrobe changes, “You get up in one thing, then you have to change for church.… You might change for lunch. You might then change to go for a walk in the afternoon. And then you will change for dinner.”
“It can be quite exhausting,” added royal expert Richard Kay, speaking in Channel 4’s A Very Royal Christmas: Sandringham Secret. “It was one of the unbending rituals that both Princess Diana and the Duchess of York found quite hard to adjust to.”
“Imagine Diana in her circumstance, and the fact that everything’s based around food, and everything’s based around what you wear, and how you look,” says Knight. “And that means what shape you are. So everything is about what’s in the mirror, not what’s really there. I used mirrors a lot in script because it’s about reflection, and she’s not the reflection. She’s herself.”
Which royal family members appear in the film? Not many. Unlike The Crown, which follows multiple characters in parallel storylines, Spencer is told strictly from Diana’s perspective. And she was incredibly lonely at Sandringham—meaning that there are not many recognizable royal cameos. Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry) feature in several scenes, as does Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and, fleetingly, Queen Elizabeth (Stella Gonet). If you watch closely, you can also catch a brief glimpse of Camilla (Emma Darwall-Smith).
Does the story end on a grim note? A light spoiler: The film gives Diana a happier ending than she had in real life. Explains Knight, “The film has got a happy ending, and I really wanted that to happen, because I think she deserved a happy ending there.”