I will never know was I right about this or wrong about that when I’m writing certain things for which there is no record. But I think an audience can tell. It’s amazing how people get really preoccupied with accuracy and under-preoccupied with truth.
Academy and Writers Guild Award-nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) has spent the last several years bringing us deep into the lives of the British royal family in the middle of the 20th century. The first two 10-episode seasons of The Crown (now streaming on Netflix) explore the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and her marriage to Prince Philip (Matt Smith), following the death of her father, King George VI (Jared Harris). The series tracks her personal and professional relationships, including with her sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby); Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow); and even, in one episode, First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour).
The series has become a phenomenon, racking up countless accolades, as well as numerous nominations and wins at the Golden Globes, Emmys, and BAFTAs for its first two seasons, which covered the early 1950s through the mid-1960s. The third season has been reported to begin with a time-jump into the 1970s. It has a highly engaged fan base and online following, where it is obsessively scrutinized and expectations are high. For instance, we know Olivia Colman will take over as Elizabeth for seasons 3 and 4, while Helena Bonham-Carter will play Margaret—but who will be the new Prince Philip? Inquiring minds want to know.
All this despite the fact that Morgan was not particularly interested in the Queen or the royal family as a subject. It was his interest in politics that led him to Queen Elizabeth and the last six decades of British life at the highest echelons. He has applied a rigorous approach to research, which informs the storytelling. His is the pursuit of truth and honesty, to illuminate universal human truths. Yes, we’re watching a show about the Queen of England. But she is also a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend. In some ways, she is all of us.
Morgan, currently writing the third and fourth seasons of the series (tentatively scheduled to return to Netflix late this year), spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about his sideways approach to dramatizing the royal family, the important distinction between truth and accuracy, and what The Crown has in common with Michael Mann’s 1995 crime drama Heat.
What was your earliest memory of the Queen or the royal family?
For anybody in England, the answer is the same. We grow up with them seeped into our DNA. They’re on every stamp, they’re on every bank note—or she is. And her names are on so many institutions: Her Majesty’s Government, the Royal Mail. So you grow up with this completely hardwired into your conscious and your subconscious, and you don’t think about it particularly. I’ve always thought that, for the British, the relationship with the royal family is sort of like your relationship with the sky. You sort of know it’s there and you look at it from time to time without really thinking and you just take its existence for granted. It’s there all the time.
From time to time, there are serious thoughts about modernization and creating a republic, but in the 54 years that I’ve been alive, and for a great many of the years prior to me being alive, there hasn’t really been a serious push for that. We generally accept them and accept that living with them is what it is to be British.
So at what point did it become apparent there was a story there? Something deeper to delve into, since you have what sounds essentially like a mostly passive relationship to them.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, very passive. Look, the truth is I’ve come at all of this really accidentally and sort of through a side entrance. I had no idea, or no concept, or no interest really, in writing about the royal family. This whole thing started when I started writing about Tony Blair and his relationship with Gordon Brown, who succeeded him as prime minister and leader of the Labour Party and their rivalry [in 2003’s The Deal]. There’s no great tradition in the United Kingdom, or there wasn’t, of writing about our politicians seriously. We tend to write about our politicians and our royal family only through satire and cartoons. There have always been cartoons in every newspaper about the royal family, and Spitting Image [a satirical British series featuring puppet versions of cultural figures], comedians and impressionists. But no one had written about them as serious, three-dimensional, complex human beings with the same desires, aspirations, frustrations, and pain that we all suffer and deal with in life.
I started writing about Tony Blair that way and when I wrote The Queen, I wouldn’t have written that without it being about Tony Blair. It was very much a film about two leaders coming at it from two completely different perspectives, and if somehow you write a story about both the British Prime Minister and about the British Queen, the head of state, you’re saying something about the British constitution and, at some level, just by writing about those two people, you are really getting to grips with what it is to be British and how our country’s put together and how our constitution actually works.
See, in America, you’ve got head of state and head of government all wrapped up into one person, but we have this rather uneasy relationship between inherited power and elected power. One is the least democratic thing on Earth, the idea where a family by birthright should be head of state, it seems barbaric, really. But it’s fascinating and the British seem to be very happy to live with it, particularly in times like this, where democratic politics are letting us down so badly.
So, was it through working on The Queen, or other projects, that you started to find stories or information that you thought you could expand on in a longer project?
Yes, it was. I really, really enjoyed writing the audience scenes between Blair and the Queen. I sort of didn’t feel I was done with it. When I finished, I thought, That was fun. And, as you and I both know, she’s now had 13 prime ministers, so she’s been having these really sort of interesting conversations for 60 years. She’s been having them ever since she was a young girl. I suddenly thought, Well, hang on a minute. She really was a young girl when she became Queen and oh my god, her first prime minister was Winston Churchill. You just think, What would that be like? If you’re 25 and you’re a young girl who’s not even had a proper education, suddenly stuck in the room as head of state with Winston Churchill as your prime minister. I mean, that’s something, right? So I thought that would be a fun relationship to write. Once I started researching it, it seemed like there was real mileage to it. I started thinking of that as a film, as the young Queen, age 24, 25, and the old prime minister, age 73. Then I wasn’t done with that. I thought, Well, hang on, there’s all these other prime ministers. So then I wrote this play called The Audience and, in every case, it was writing about the prime ministers that made writing about her interesting to me. It feels to me that if you were making a pudding or something—vanilla ice cream is just dull without the chocolate sauce. It seems these two institutions, just for me and my area of interest in life, I couldn’t write The Crown if it was just about the royal family. It has to be about the relationship between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street at its heart and that seems to have occupied me now for a few years. If you’d have asked me when I was younger what I thought I’d end up writing about, a) I would’ve been shocked that I’d be writing, and b) if you told me I’d be writing about this, I’d have blown my brains out. That’s the dullest thing in the world, how could anybody want to write about that? But actually it’s riveting.
So, it went from these ideas about her meeting with the prime ministers and then you wrote the play. How did it become a series, what was the origin of that?
When Helen Mirren was in the play—and Kristin Scott Thomas took over—it was a big success and you could tell people wanted more. Each one of these prime ministers only has one scene, which wasn’t nearly enough. I started sketching out what a television show might look like, and I thought it could be three seasons. You could do one of her as a young woman, one of her a middle-aged woman, and one of her as an older woman. Say you were doing eight episodes, what would those eight episodes be? It very quickly became clear eight episodes wouldn’t be enough and one season wouldn’t be enough. Actually, two 10-episode seasons for each phase of her life seemed much more sensible. Even then, if you said to me, do you want to do four seasons on each part of her life, I could easily do it. Even now, fitting it all in to what feels to me like very limited cupboard space—it’s like you look at all your clothes and say, How on earth am I going to get them into that cupboard? That’s what it feels like to me. That’s one part.
The other question is how can you keep going on this one subject matter for so long? As a freelancer, as a writer, I’ve customarily been doing three different projects a year, and to be with the same thing for year after year, I suddenly have a whole load of new respect for David Chase or J.K. Rowling, people who’ve really stuck with one thing for a long time.
So then were you looking at an overall timeframe you wanted to cover in a season, or were there individual stories or events you wanted to include?
To oversimplify it, I suppose, which sometimes is helpful when you’re overwhelmed by something, if you break it into six decades, or six seasons, and she’s been Queen for 60 years, you suddenly go, Oh, hang on a minute. That’s approximately a decade a season. When you’re thinking about a show, particularly a show that travels through time in this way, you’ve got to find the speed at which your show travels. 24 traveled at that speed, it traveled in real time, an hour per episode. I guess the speed at which I’m traveling through time is obviously very different and seems to be approximately a year per episode. I came at that completely unselfconsciously, it just settled in that. There was nothing schematic.
It really did start with me thinking about writing a film about her and Churchill. Then, Well, hang on a minute. It actually gets interesting on either side of that. Well, hang on a minute, what about that? And Well, hang on a minute, what about that? There were just 20 or 30 what, hang on a minutes, well, wait a minute, what about that? There were about 20 times I did that.
Do you have researchers that you work with? Or other writers?
Oh my god, yes. I have a huge research staff. About 10 researchers and script team. Some people are working ahead on the fourth season, and I’m telling them roughly what to get, what to look up, and they come back and I realize that was a successful fishing trip or an unsuccessful fishing trip. Others are working with me on season three. It’s a big old operation. In the U.K., we just don’t, despite the efforts to do it, we just haven’t had—historically and culturally—we don’t do writers’ rooms the same way as in the States. There’s this other problem we face at the moment, which is that all writers seem to have their own television show. There seem to be more television shows than writers at the moment. So it’s really hard to get help on the writing front and the writers I would look at to come in and help, they’re busy so far in advance.
You’re writing many intimate, personal interactions between family members. What kind of historical documentation or materials are there for you to work with?
What we know about these people, the Prime Minister and the Queen of the United Kingdom, they’re like the American president, there is simply not a day of their life that can’t be accounted for. So, on any single day, at any single time, you can pinpoint where they were. It’s just a matter of record. You know what they’re doing, certainly in their professional lives, yes? It’s easy for us to find who was where and when were they there. It’s very different from writing fiction. You can create a lot of dots so you can pretty much pinpoint, July 1966, where was Prince Philip? You can find out. Then you add to that. What age was he at that time? Well, he was 46 or something, right? Then you think, How many children did he have? Where was he in his career? You can begin to build up a profile of the more intimate things, because we don’t have his letters, or his text messages, or his emails. And most biographers who write about the royal family are circumspect and delicate and careful and maybe a bit over-respectful.
So then, for me as a dramatist, I have to—with my responsible hat on—I know where all the dots are of where they were. I then know from biographies, and as many letters or newspaper articles that we can find, roughly what was going on in their lives, what was preoccupying them. Were they unsettled? Were they settled? Were they happy? Were they fulfilled? Were they conducting affairs? Were they being betrayed? Were they drinking, were they not drinking? You can begin to build up a picture. For me, if the dots were too far apart, i.e., if the coordinates of what we really knew to be the case, were too far apart, I would feel uncomfortable writing. If there was too much conjecture, that would feel scary to me, and irresponsible.
So what I try to do is get all the dots, through all the research, to be as close as possible, so that the leaps of imagination I’m making when I join those dots as a dramatist, that those dots are not too preposterous, that the distance is not too preposterous. The truth of the matter is, I will never know was I right about this or wrong about that when I’m writing certain things for which there is no record. But I think an audience can tell. It’s amazing how people get really preoccupied with accuracy and under-preoccupied with truth. They really get themselves worked up about but she wouldn’t have worn that or they wouldn’t have been there or they wouldn’t have done that. And actually what’s really important in a scene is what was she thinking? What was she feeling? It’s about truth rather than accuracy.
I once got some feedback about The Queen from her private secretary. The real guy, we met him afterwards, because he obviously wouldn’t talk to us during the making of it. He said, “I’ll tell you, you got it all wrong and you got it all right.” What he means by that is, she wouldn’t have worn that thing, the inside of the house doesn’t look like that, they would never have gone shooting in that kind of a Range Rover, the uniforms shouldn’t be red, they should be blue. But what she was thinking, what she was feeling, you got absolutely right. How she felt and how she would’ve spoken and how she responded and how she behaved was eerily correct. And I’m trying to do that all the time. You’ll never win on the accuracy front, but you’ve got to try and get it right on the truth front.
Do you find your way into their private personalities by way of their public personas?
You can. You look at, for example, her sister is a really interesting character, Margaret, who is this much more extrovert character, ostensibly someone much more suited to the public profile of being Queen, because she craved it in some way. Whereas the Queen herself, she’s a very private person, and she would dearly like to be invisible or miles away, or she’d dearly like to not be Queen at all. But she very much just has to get on with it. Whereas Margaret, deprived of a role, sort of spins out of control, and you can see that because she descended into a really terrible alcoholism and ill health and was incredibly unhappy in love. That’s quite an interesting character to write. Now we’re moving into a time where there are lots of people alive who were characters, or children of characters, or brothers or sisters, or colleagues, and so now it’s getting much easier. The problems are different now. Now I can find out pretty much everything I want, the problem is how many people am I going to upset when I write it.
That’s interesting. In particular, with Prince Philip, you seem to always be walking a fine line between suggesting things and stopping short of demonstrably showing them.
I tell you why. It is universally acknowledged, or is universally believed, though not publicly acknowledged, that there were complications in the marriage or that they pursued separate agendas at times, but there will never ever be somebody who comes forward and says, “Yes, I was Prince Philip’s lover in between this time and this time.” There are people who will say it’s off the record, but there will never be anyone who goes on the record. Therefore, if I were to dramatize something specific, I’d be creating an extremely difficult situation for myself because I would be saying something happened that other people aren’t in a position to deny. In All the President’s Men, you get a non-denial denial. Did this happen? “I’m not denying it” means “I’m not denying it.” It doesn’t mean, “I’m saying yes.” There’s quite a lot of that going on in conversations with people who know them. So I feel for the most part that not only am I on safe ground, but that I’m actually, rather than exposing them, I’m doing a pretty good job of sparing their blushes. In other words, it could be a lot worse. And it doesn’t need to be worse. I don’t want to do something scurrilous, but I don’t want to whitewash people, either. This is where we get back to the truth and not accuracy. I want to be sure that people are in no doubt about the truth, but I don’t think we need to get ourselves mucky doing it.
You have a sprawling cast of characters, an almost epic scope of stories. At the same time, the hallmark of the show is long two-person scenes with a lot of dialogue—Churchill and the portrait artist Graham Sutherland, Margaret and Elizabeth, Philip and Elizabeth. What compels you to write those scenes and what do you enjoy about them?
Well, they’re a pleasure to write. Maybe because I started writing in the theater, it just feels normal to me. And we have a fantastic talent pool of actors and television is so suited to what you’re talking about. But also I think it’s another point, which is when you create something it starts to have certain tropes or hallmarks which define it as that thing. It does become someone’s signature one way or another. It might not be appropriate in other shows or types of—although, I have to say, you’ll find that Heat, the film by Michael Mann, has a very similar propensity to have two people sitting there talking one on one, interspersed with moments of great violence and cinematic flair. But what really distinguished that film was the writer taking their time to write character and conversation. It’s nice when a writer gets to write and actors get to act and, above all, in this instance it seems particularly apposite because this whole thing has grown out of a play I wrote about conversations between two people. The absolute foundation stone of The Crown, its starting point, was Tony Blair and the Queen sitting there talking in The Queen and then me wanting to explore more and more of that.
© 2018 Writers Guild of America West