‘The Crown’: The True Story Behind Mohamed Al Fayed & Sydney Johnson

Jude Akuwudike and Salim Daw in 'The Crown' Season 5
Spoiler Alert

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for The Crown Season 5, Episode 3, “Mou Mou.”]

The Crown has always had a penchant for standalone episodes and one particular installment in Season 5 presents an almost unbelievable story surrounding Mohamed Al Fayed.

The installment titled, “Mou Mou,” opens in 1940s Alexandria, Egypt, where a young Mohamed Fayed (Amir El-Masry) is doing quite well peddling goods on the streets to make a living. At the same time, he begins cutting a business deal with a young man on the other side of the fences, and he catches sight of the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings) and his wife Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams) as they pay a visit within the walls of the ritzy establishment just out of reach for Mohamed.

As the episode continues, Mohamed tells his father about seeing the former King of Britain, to which he gets a blunt response. Mohamed’s father isn’t a fan of the royals, nor their occupation, but he looks down on the Egyptians who admire them even more. It’s clear Mohamed has plans for his life, and if matching the royals is what it takes, then it’s what he’ll do.

Khalid Abdalla and Salim Daw in 'The Crown' Season 5

(Credit: Netflix)

As the episode jumps forward in time to 1979, he’s become the wealthy businessman most have come to understand Mohamed Al Fayed to be, played in his older years by Salim Daw. Picking up in Paris, he intends to acquire the Ritz Paris and during a launch party of sorts, he meets Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), the former valet to Edward VIII, a.k.a. the Duke of Windsor.

After having Sydney thrown out of the soiree for racist reasons — Sydney’s the only Black server in the room — Mohamed’s son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla) informs him of the valet’s past resume. Seeing this as a stepping stone to advancing his status, Mohamed enlists the service of Sydney in order to understand the intricacies and rules of the British upper crust.

Although the episode feels like it’s trying to present a mini King’s Speech-type story of unlikely friends, it feels rather uneven in its representation of these two figures who have otherwise not played a major role in the show; Sydney appeared in Season 3, but Mohamed hasn’t been onscreen until now. While Mohamed vowed to match the Royals one day, there’s something odd about the dramatized version of him and his desire to employ someone who also experienced the effects of colonialism in Sydney’s Bahamian homeland.

Salim Daw and Jude Akuwudike in 'The Crown' Season 5

(Credit: Netflix)

As Sydney teaches Mohamed the ways of the Royals and their lifestyle, the show exhibits a fondness the businessman has for the valet and implies that their friendship inspired his purchase of Villa Windsor, the former home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. As Mohamed used his exorbitant funds to refurbish the space, Sydney was able to return to a familiar space where he’d spent many years serving the Royals.

Ultimately, Sydney ends up falling ill, and the show suggests that Mohamed made sure he was cared for until succumbing to his illness. There are elements of this story that ring true to reality: Mohamed Al Fayed really did employ Sydney Johnson, and the valet did work for the Duke of Windsor for decades prior.

An obituary posted by the Associated Press on January 17, 1990, announced Johnson’s death, stating that he’d made his last public appearance on December 10, 1989, greeting guests at Villa Windsor. Regarding Sydney’s death, Mohamed was quoted as saying the valet “was truly a gentlemen’s gentleman. We shall miss him very much.”

Jude Akuwudike and Salim Daw in 'The Crown' Season 5

(Credit: Netflix)

While it’s unclear if the men had a close friendship as the series implies, they did work together to restore Villa Windsor, as The New York Times reported in 1986. In the interview about the estate’s return to its former Royal glory, Mohamed stated, “you’ll find the place exactly as if the Duke and Duchess had just gone out to dinner.”

Sydney was credited with placing personal artifacts of the Duke and Duchess in their proper spots. The article designates Sydney as “a kind of house curator.” Prior, Sydney had been serving at the Ritz as the show teases, but it’s never clarified if Sydney and Mohamed actually met the way that they do in the series.

Based on Mohamed’s real-life words, in which he calls Sydney a “dictionary,” adding, “he’s a very cultured man. He got all these things out of boxes and safes and storage rooms, and he knows their history,” there’s an implication of a professional relationship, but it isn’t clear if their bond extends beyond that. If anything, this episode proves just how much The Crown takes liberties when telling a story about very publicized individuals, filling in the gaps behind closed doors.

For those who do wonder though, Mohamed and Sydney did connect, tended to Villa Windsor, and parted ways when the valet died. What happened in between is open to interpretation. What did you think of their story? Let us know in the comments section, below, and don’t miss other episodes of The Crown streaming now on Netflix.

The Crown, Season 5, Streaming now, Netflix