Forget Justin Timberlake or Nick Carter, in the late ’90s there was one heartthrob above all others who was guaranteed to make girls go wild: Prince William.
With his blossoming good looks, fancy title and tragic backstory, the British royal became the subject of teenage dreams across the globe. His face was plastered across magazines, hordes of screaming girls would gather outside anywhere he was scheduled to make an appearance, and, cementing his status as a pop culture icon, he even had an unwitting cameo in “Princess Diaries 2” when his photo flashed up on screen as a potential husband for Anne Hathaway’s character Mia (“Oh yes! I absolutely accept!” cries Hathaway, before being informed William’s not eligible because he’s in line for his own crown).
The right royal hysteria that gripped the late ’90s and early 2000s is recreated in the sixth and final season of “The Crown” in an episode titled “Willsmania,” in which the bewildered teenager, still reeling from the loss of his mother Princess Diana, suddenly finds himself juggling global sympathy — and lust. In the episode, William, played by Ed McVey, is seen reading some of the thousands of fan letters sent to his boarding school and blushing violently as girls, clutching “Marry me” signs and Teddy bears, scream for him outside a royal event. “It was madness, like the arrival of some pop star,” remarks Prince Charles, who’s played by Dominic West.
McVey, himself a newcomer to the world of celebrity, sees the fandom that erupted around the prince as symbolic of a unique cultural moment. “I think [the ’90s] was really the birth of pop culture, and he was in that age group and people were just very excited about him,” McVey told Variety at the celebration for the series’ finale in London.
The actor got his own taste of “Willsmania” while shooting “The Crown” earlier this year alongside Meg Bellamy, who plays Kate Middleton. As they recreated scenes from the royal couple’s romance while at St Andrews University in Scotland, they were met by paparazzi and gawking locals. “In a way, it was incredibly helpful,” said McVey. “Because that’s what a lot of his life was like at that time, and that’s what we go through in the show a little bit so to have an understanding of what that feels like as the actor it was helpful, because it’s strange.”
“The Crown” creator and showrunner Peter Morgan told Variety earlier this year that he had been reluctant to write William into the show, which ends with the 2005 wedding of Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. “He’s clearly somebody who doesn’t want to be written about, and I want to spare him that, but he is heir to the throne,” Morgan said.
“Up until that moment in 2005 anything is legitimate, as far as I’m concerned, given that it’s 20 years ago and therefore a generation away, and therefore dignified,” he added. “Part of that was William getting together with Kate at University. So I had to do it.”
Which is perhaps why Morgan portrays the teenage William as bashful, often hiding behind an archetype Bieber-sweep curtain of hair while younger brother Harry (played by Luther Ford) teases him about his adoring fans. “Will is a shy old thing, not comfortable with that kind of attention,” Prince Charles says to Camilla in the episode.
The real Prince Harry has admitted to being a fan of “The Crown,” but McVey didn’t spend too much time thinking about what the IRL William might make of his performance. “Not particularly,” McVey said. “If I was to think about all that, it would have been too much. I was able to separate the two. And Peter wrote such an incredible character that had so much meat to it, so I was able to get into that and block out all the other stuff that could have been more distracting.”
Either way, “The Crown’s” millions of fans around the world will certainly be watching. And much the same way Emma Corrin’s portrayal of William’s mother in Season 4 created a new wave of Diana fans, prepare to see Willsmania 2.0 once the second part of Season 6 drops. Possibly mixed in with some Edmania too.