- The Crown season 3 premiered on Netflix on November 17 with a new cast and new characters.
- During episode 8, "Dangling Man," we watch the last days of the Duke of Windsor, former King George VIII.
- But one character who stood out was his footman, Sydney Johnson, who has an intriguing true backstory, as he worked for the duke for over 30 years.
- Spoilers ahead!
There's no question that The Crown is one of the best shows on television. Its multi-million dollar budget allows for supremely decadent sets, expertly researched "it really happened" storylines, and an award-winning ensemble cast whose performances never waiver. (We're looking at you, Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter).
But as the show chronicles the real-life exploits of a multi-generational British monarchy, led by a higher than high-society royal family, there's one thing producers can't escape for sake of historical accuracy: The Crown is white as hell. Don't get me wrong, I'm personally obsessed with the series. (Who can resist an epic period drama of this magnitude?) And since it's all based on real life, there's not much they can do. After all, Meghan Markle, who's the first biracial modern royal, just entered the fray in 2016. And many historians believe Queen Charlotte, who reigned from 1761 to 1818, was the first-ever Black or mixed race royal, but that's pre-The Crown era.
But the lack of ethnic diversity in the show's casting is not something that's lost on me—a Black woman. Especially during a time where people of color are just beginning to be fairly represented in Hollywood. (Just 29.4 percent of actors weren't white in 2017's most popular films, according to USC Annenberg). So as an entertainment junky and loyal fan of the show—who's grown up occupying spaces where I am often "one of few" or "the only"—it's become a subconscious habit to zero-in on the rare person of color in The Crown. It's a personal game of, "Hey! They kind of look like me!" Weird? Yup, I know.
Anyway, it's exactly why Sydney Johnson (played by Connie M'Gadzah) in The Crown's episode 8, "Dangling Man," stood out.
He's a blink-and-you'll-miss-him character who appears to be a footman. We're briefly introduced to him in the episode's opening scene when former King Edward VIII (a.k.a. the Duke of Windsor, who's abdication led to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II) calls for "Sydney!" after violently coughing up blood. Eventually we learn that the duke has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and doesn't have long to live.
From there, as we witness the key storyline of the queen and the rest of her family grappling with whether to visit the duke in his last days, I couldn't help but notice Sydney in the background of a handful of scenes. Was the only Black man I'd seen so far on season 3 of The Crown an actual person, or the show's way of attempting to be inclusive?
As expected, in line with the show's consistent efforts to be as historically accurate as possible, Sydney Johnson was indeed a real person. According to The New York Times, which exclusively spelled his name "Sidney," Johnson was the Duke of Windsor's personal valet until the royal's death in May 1972. Johnson, a Bahamian, worked for him for 32 years after he was hired at the age of 16 during World War II while the duke was the governor of the island.
According to a 1990 People article, Johnson officially resigned from his post in 1973 after his own wife's death. Apparently, the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, wouldn't let him leave work in time to take care of his kids. Simpson, who suffered from dementia in her final years, died in 1986.
But Johnson returned to the duke and duchess's luxe Parisian villa (the Le Bois in the Bois de Boulogne public park) after his new boss, billionaire businessman Mohammed al-Fayed, bought the royal residence in 1986. Fayed, who owns the Ritz Hotel Paris and once owned London's Harrods department story, renovated the property. But according to The New York Times, he decided to turn part of the home into a museum of Windsor memorabilia. The mansion still had much of the late-couple's belongings, and Johnson was charged with curating the collection.
"Sidney is a dictionary,'' Fayed said in 1986. ''He's a very cultured man. He got all these things out of boxes and safes and storage rooms, and he knows their history.''
Fayed still rents the home today, but Johnson died at age 69 in January 1990. At the time of his death, the AP reported that Fayed said he "was truly a gentlemen’s gentleman. We shall miss him very much."
So what did we learn? Sydney Johnson was a pretty cool guy, so let's take the time to give him a well-earned royal shoutout. And this is also my long way of saying "that one Black person" in The Crown was so much more than that—as we always are.