Golden Age of newspapers key to The Crown's second series

"Her name's Helen King: 29 years old. She writes for The Age, one of the most prominent newspapers here. She's asked to meet you."

So Prince Philip's close friend and private secretary Michael Parker tells the Duke of Edinburgh well into a four-month tour (sans the Queen) in late 1956, which culminates in him opening the Melbourne Olympics.

For Miss King, Prince Philip makes a rare exception to his no-interview rule while the royal yacht Britannia is docked in Sydney.

"Did you see the way she was looking at me?" the Prince asks Parker, assuming Miss King's interest is more than purely professional. "Not to mention the way she's followed us throughout the tour. I think we can safely assume this one's a friend, not an enemy."

The encounter is not historic fact, but poetic licence taken by the makers of The Crown in the second series of the Netflix hit, just released by the streaming service.

It's one of the most interesting and revealing scenes in the series, setting up much of the storyline that plays out over the next eight episodes.

Miss King, played by Australian actor Mirrah Foulkes, doesn't give the Prince (portrayed by Matt Smith) an easy ride.

She grills Philip - a Prince of Greece and Denmark before marrying Queen Elizabeth II - about his traumatic childhood, his family's Nazi connections and England's handling of the Suez crisis.

As much as events of the era are reflected relatively accurately in The Crown, Miss King appears to be a fictional character.

Her scenes somewhat overstate the role of women journalists at the time. But in terms of timing they are not too far off the mark.

Annie Gillison-Gray??? became The Age's first female news reporter in late 1959.

Would a woman have been sent to interview the Prince in that manner at the time, or granted such an audience, I ask her. "No way," Ms Gillison-Gray said.

"They would have sent a woman to observe the fashions, but that's all they would have done. A woman would not have been involved in anything other than the fashion or social side, who was meeting who."

Ms Gillison-Gray didn't interview Prince Philip, but does recall being shocked to once find herself standing right next to him during an earlier visit (he came to Australia with Queen Elizabeth in 1954).

"He got off a train at Spencer Street and I had been sent to see what happened," said Ms Gillison-Gray, then a cadet on the paper's women's pages. "I didn't speak to him, I didn't get that far," she said. "But I was right there beside him."

Ms Gillison-Gray left The Age for England in 1956, during the Olympic Games, and landed a job in the newsroom of London's Sunday Express.

When she returned to Australia she resumed work at The Age.

"Because I worked on the Sunday Express, I obviously wasn't going to tolerate the women's page, and I said I'd love to come back, but not on the women's page. But they said there was nothing else."

Determined to join the news staff, Ms Gillison-Gray had help, she suspects, from the most influential woman on the paper at the time: Kathleen Syme, granddaughter of The Age's founder David Syme.

She was also following in the footsteps of her mother, Joan Gillison (nee Finlason???), one of the paper's first female journalists, who wrote for the paper's Saturday literary section and The Age's weekly offshoot, The Leader, from the mid-1920s.

Now 83, Ms Gillison-Gray said her appointment to The Age's news desk was considered a big risk - so much so that she wasn't allowed to sit in the main newsroom lest she distract the men, and was instead shunted off to the adjoining Leader office.

Her first news assignment was a visit to the morgue, possibly a bid by the chief of staff and news editor to test her nerve. Instead it led to her covering a big story about a murder. She followed the case through the courts, which then became her beat.

"They looked at each other and said, 'If we'd known, we wouldn't have sent you'. Then there was a big story out of it in the courts, with many ramifications."

After almost a year on the news beat, Ms Gillison-Gray moved with her partner, an artist, to Sydney.

She got a job at TheSydney Morning Herald, but despite her achievements was again relegated to the women's pages (albeit under the legendary Connie Robertson, who Ms Gillison-Gray remembers as "a powerful woman, not just the social editrice").

"The news editor was Tom Nelson, and when I started on the Herald I had a message to come round and see him, because he knew my father.

"And he said, 'There's one thing Anne, you must understand that you can't play the same game here. There will never be a woman on The Sydney Morning Herald news staff'."

This story Golden Age of newspapers key to The Crown's second series first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.