The British royal family is not exactly known for its diversity, so it’s no surprise that the characters depicted in The Crown are predominantly white. But in its fifth season, the Netflix drama makes space for some of the people of color who were previously connected to the institution.
Airing on Nov. 9, the show—which Netflix has taken pains to emphasize is fictionalized—depicts the Egyptian billionaire Mohamed al-Fayed and his son Emad “Dodi” Mohamed, as well as Hasnat Ahmad Khan, a British-Pakistani surgeon who dated Princess Diana for two years from 1995 to 1997. Also featured are Martin Bashir, a British journalist of Pakistani descent who famously forged documents to secure a BBC Panorama interview with Diana which aired in 1995, and the elusive Sydney Johnson, a Black valet who was the footman to Edward VIII until Edward’s death in 1972.
While Johnson’s character is not new to The Crown—he previously featured in blink and you’ll miss it scenes in two episodes of season 3—this is the first time we hear from the show’s first prominent Black character.
What role does Johnson play in The Crown?
Johnson features in episode three as a young Bahamian man working for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor while they are in the Bahamas. The Duke appears to grow fond of Johnson and his quality of work, and lets his wife Wallis Simpson know that he intends to bring him home to continue in his attendant role. In the same episode, which jumps forward to the end of the 1970s, Fayed, a billionaire Anglophile and the owner of The Ritz Paris and Harrods of London, dismisses Johnson from working at The Ritz due to racial bias. Upon later learning of Johnson’s previous employers, the Duke and Duchess, he hires Johnson as a way to learn about British society and progress through its social ranks.
Subsequent scenes show Johnson also becoming a resource for Fayed when he aims to restore the former home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Paris to gain favor with Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen ultimately snubs Fayed’s invitation to visit the restored home but sends staff to transport the items she would like to take from the home. Johnson’s onscreen lifetime ends in the same episode when he becomes sick and ultimately dies in bed while being cared for by Fayed.
Who was the real Sydney Johnson?
Born on Andros, the largest of the Bahamian islands, between 1921 and 1923, Sydney Johnson (sometimes spelled Sidney) is best remembered for serving as a footman to the abdicated king and former Duke of Windsor, Edward VIII, for over 30 years. Johnson began working as an attendant for Windsors when Edward became governor general of the islands in the 1940s, during World War II.
“I met him at the Windsors’ house in Paris in 1989. He was a delightful man, with a lovely smile, and great human sympathy. He was clearly very fond of the Duke and Duchess and spoke of them with understanding,” says Hugo Vickers, royal biographer and author of The Crown Dissected.
Johnson was just 16 years old at the time and would progress in his role until he became a footman in 1960, according to Vickers, who says he also married his French wife that year. He stayed on in this capacity until a year after the Duke’s death in 1972. Vickers tells TIME: “The Duchess wanted to dismiss him. At that time [Johnson’s] wife died, and he asked for more time off to care for his children. She fired him.”
Despite Johnson’s fondness of the royal couple, Vickers says that he would have been treated as a servant in those times, and the Duchess’ view of him would likely have been influenced by her Baltimore roots, and the racial segregation that was a codified way of life there and across the U.S.
How did Johnson start working for Mohamed al-Fayed?
While little is known about Johnson’s working life between 1973 and 1986, Vickers says that one of his next employers was believed to be Lady Glover—a friend of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. An exact date is not known for when Johnson was first employed by Fayed, but he returned to the Duke and Duchess’ Le Bois villa in the Bois de Boulogne with his new employer after the Duchess’ death in 1986.
At the time, the New York Times reported that Fayed had taken a 50-year lease on the former home of the Duke and Duchess. He brought the Duke’s former footman onboard as a valet to help with a $2 million restoration project to turn the home into a private museum of Windsor memorabilia. ”Sidney is a dictionary,” Fayed told the publication. ”He’s a very cultured man. He got all these things out of boxes and safes and storage rooms, and he knows their history.”
Most photos of Johnson that are publicly available were taken at the opening of the house, where he told guests, “I feel on top of the world.” In the images, he can be seen in a red and gold livery, with a black waistcoat, and a crisp white shirt with a matching bowtie. According to the New York Times, Johnson gave a thorough tour of the luxurious home, touching on his former employers’ Christmas traditions, their love of pug dogs, and their favorite clothes.
The Associated Press reported that Johnson died in 1990, and while the cause of his death is not publicly known, Vickers says it was “quite sudden.” Fayed was quoted at the time saying Johnson “was truly a gentlemen’s gentleman. We shall miss him very much.”