Stepdaughter of IRA supporter cast as The Crown’s Countess Mountbatten

Natascha McElhone - Jean Baptiste Lacroix/Getty Images
Natascha McElhone - Jean Baptiste Lacroix/Getty Images

It is a piece of casting that may raise eyebrows in the corridors of Buckingham Palace and beyond.

The stepdaughter of Roy Greenslade, Fleet Street’s self-confessed cheerleader for the IRA, has been cast in The Crown as a scion of the Mountbatten family, whose members were murdered by the terrorist group in one of its most infamous atrocities.

The choice of Natascha McElhone, 51, for the role of Countess Mountbatten, who married the grandson of the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, has led to questions over the appropriateness of The Crown’s casting for the fifth season of the award-winning series.

Lord Mountbatten, his 14-year-old grandson Nicholas Knatchbull and his grandmother Baroness Brabourne were killed when the IRA detonated a bomb planted on board a fishing boat in County Sligo in August 1979.

Paul Maxwell, 15, a member of the crew, was also killed.

The murders had a deep impact on the Royal family. Lord Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh’s uncle and a mentor to the Prince of Wales, had a huge influence on the modern day Royal family and any depiction on screen – including casting – is particularly sensitive.

Casting feels ‘slightly two fingers’

Roy Greenslade, right, with Natascha McElhone, centre, and wife Noreen Taylor at the Royal National Theatre in 1988 - Alan Davidson/Shutterstock
Roy Greenslade, right, with Natascha McElhone, centre, and wife Noreen Taylor at the Royal National Theatre in 1988 - Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

Greenslade, a former editor of the Daily Mirror, Guardian columnist and a professor of journalism, outed himself earlier this year as a supporter of the IRA who had written regularly under a pseudonym for An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein’s weekly newspaper.

In a mea culpa published in February, Greenslade explained how his support for the republican cause “and the use of physical force” had followed a journey that began when he fell in love with Noreen McElhone in 1971.

Noreen, wrote Greenslade, had been “imbued with a republican spirit” and, early on in their relationship, she introduced him to Patrick Doherty, who would go on to become Sinn Fein’s vice president.

At the time, Greenslade moved in with Noreen McElhone, when her daughter Natascha was just two.

Penny Junor, a Royal biographer, said that while McElhone could bear no responsibility for the “sins of her stepfather”, she believed another actress might have been chosen to play a member of a family in such sensitive circumstances.

“I think it shows a lack of respect [by the programme’s makers],” said Ms Junor.

“Of course, you cannot visit the sins of the father on the daughter, but there are lots of actresses out there. It just feels slightly two fingers.”

New series will ‘raise eyebrows’

Ms Junor suggested the new series of The Crown, which premieres in November next year, will “raise eyebrows in so many ways” because the new series covers “recent history” focusing on the early to mid-1990s and the break-up of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

The actress has also acknowledged the influence her stepfather once had on her thinking, although she says that “he politicised me only temporarily, much to his chagrin”.

In an interview in 2009, more than a decade before Greenslade admitted his secret IRA support, the actress said: “I am so glad and grateful he [Greenslade] came along. He was a tremendous influence on me. Roy was a great activist.”

Greenslade declined to comment on Sunday. “I have nothing to say, not a single word, to say about a nonsensical story,” he said.

A spokesman for The Crown said: “I don’t think we would comment on that story.”

McElhone declined to comment.

Playing the part

Penelope Knatchbull riding beside the Duke of Edinburgh in 2009 - Steve Parsons/PA
Penelope Knatchbull riding beside the Duke of Edinburgh in 2009 - Steve Parsons/PA

In the new series of The Crown, McElhone plays Countess Mountbatten, who became a close confidante of the Duke of Edinburgh. The countess, aged 68, was one of just 30 guests – limited by Covid restrictions – at the Duke’s funeral.

Born Penelope Eastwood, the daughter of a self-made millionaire, she married Norton Knatchbull, the grandson of Earl Mountbatten, in October 1979, two months after the bombing that also killed Knatchbull’s younger brother.

Knatchbul became the third Earl Mountbatten and the couple live at the family estate in Hampshire.

In April this year, Sinn Fein publicly apologised for the murder of Lord Mountbatten. The Prince of Wales met with Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's then president, in 2015, shaking his hand at the start of a four-day visit to Ireland.

McElhone has established herself as one of Britain's most recognisable actresses, best known for roles in the award-winning The Truman Show and in Ronin, opposite Robert de Niro, in which she played an IRA operative commissioned to steal a briefcase.

She was a judge in this year’s Booker Prize, complaining that it was hard to be up early to film the new series of The Crown while finding time to read dozens of books in her role as Booker judge.