From Tony Blair to Brian Clough and the Queen, screenwriter Peter Morgan tells Sarah Freeman how he has turned the lives of a succession of famous faces into award-winning drama.
Peter Morgan would like to set the record straight. The Crown, the epic Netflix series which traces the reign of Elizabeth II, is not the most expensive TV series ever made. It doesn’t even come close.
“It came from an early interview and stuck,” says Morgan of reports the royal drama had cost the streaming service $130m. “The truth is two series had been commissioned at the same time, but nobody thought to divide the figure in two. We are cheaper than Game of Thrones. Definitely cheaper. I kept saying, ‘We need to correct this...’, but of course everybody involved was happy that it came with the ‘most expensive ever’ tag. It’s good for publicity.”
Morgan doesn’t sound like he’s being precious, just concerned perhaps that all the talk of big budgets could have overshadowed The Crown’s artistic merit. Regardless of the finances this was a lavish production - the first series alone, which followed Claire Foy’s princess as she prepared to take the throne, involved 7,000 costumes and a replica of Buckingham Palace, but there was plenty of substance along with the style. It also picked up a trophy cabinet of awards, including a pair of Golden Globes, and cemented Morgan’s reputation as one of the country’s leading screenwriters.
That journey to the red carpet began though in less glamorous surrounds. It was the early 1980s when Morgan arrived at Leeds University from his middle class upbringing in leafy Wimbledon. At the time the city was still in the shadows of its industrial past and it couldn’t have been more different from Oxford’s ivory towers which his mother had hoped would end up home for her teenage son.
“I have said in the past that going to Leeds was my way of rebelling and it was probably was a bit. I went to study English, but I quickly realised that the fine art department was where the party was and I gradually tiptoed over.”
While a degree in history of art might not have been the most obvious foundation for a career in TV drama, Morgan, who is a passionate advocate of education for education’s sake, says the years he spent in Leeds were formative.
“It felt like I had been turned inside out and put in a tumble dryer. I had gone to school with kids from the same background as me and every view I held had been inherited from my parents. Suddenly I found myself in a very different world. The great tragedy of vocational education these days is that it overlooks the value of a degree that makes you question what you believe. My kids aren’t at the university stage yet, but I get the sense that we have ended up with a system that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
“The best piece of advice I was ever given was that you are at your most productive between the ages of 40 and 60. I have found it to be true and I don’t think you should even start deciding what you want to be until you are 25. Instead you should find time to read books, to experience life, basically do all the things you can’t do once you have to work for a living.”
It was at Leeds that Morgan took his first faltering steps as a writer. He and a friend took a play to the Edinburgh Festival and after a drama MA at Hull University he found work as a jobbing scriptwriter. For the next decade or so things ticked along, but it was The Deal in 2003, the drama about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s succession pact made over dinner at the Granita restaurant that singled Morgan out.
“I remember the casting director saying, we have got someone perfect to play Blair, but he isn’t available for a year. She said his name was Michael Sheen. As a scriptwriter you only get paid when the thing begins to shoot and at the time I was skint and I am thinking why in God’s name are we waiting 12 months for an actor nobody has ever heard of.
“Of course it soon became clear why and yes, The Deal was a game changer. Until then I hadn’t ever been able to say I was a writer. At least not with a straight face. It seemed to me that if you were going to announce yourself as a writer you must be certain you had something important to say and I wasn’t sure that I did.”
Morgan had found his niche and his ability to peel off the public face of a succession of famous faces is unrivalled in contemporary drama. After Blair and Brown, the film studios came calling with Morgan writing the screen plays for Frost/Nixon, The Damned United, again starring Sheen as Brian Clough during his ill-fated time at Leeds and Rush, which chronicled the rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
However, he says he is most proud of The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies. The retired teacher became the subject of a witch hunt following the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol. Jefferies was the landscape architect’s landlord. He was also entirely innocent, but the fact he looked and sounded a little eccentric was enough to convince some of the tabloid press of his guilt.
At the time, Morgan was accused of tampering with facts of the story, but he says none of his work has ever purported to be documentary.
“When you are writing about real people you have to constantly remind yourself that there is never just one version of history. For The Deal I interviewed three people who were there that night and they all had wildly different views of what happened. It’s human nature; we all perceive things differently. I have always worked on the basis that as long as you treat people’s lives responsibly and can look yourself in the eye then it will be ok.”
While he doesn’t want to name names, Morgan says he has walked away from a number of projects when it became clear the subject’s ego might prove a barrier. The Queen was clearly not one of them. Having written a film, a stage play, both starring Helen Mirren, and now The Crown he perhaps knows the Royal Family better than they know themselves.
“Had you read the original script of the The Queen you would have thought it was a pretty peppery portrayal of a rather cold woman. But actually it’s her very inability to communicate her feelings that make her human. We all have flaws.”
Morgan had hoped the BBC would be involved in The Crown, but in the end it was Netflix who sealed the deal.
“People consume television in a totally different way and not having to write with the next ad break or the next cliffhanger in mind is actually pretty liberating. With The Crown there is obviously a lot to go at. We are committed to six series and I am not doing anything else until it’s done.
“One of the principles of writing drama is to take the audience on a journey they know they are going to go on, but you send them on it in a way they never expected. It’s a bit like life, full of twist and turns that you never see coming. Had someone said to me when I got to Leeds that I would end up as a screenwriter I wouldn’t have believed them, but it happened and I feel pretty lucky that it did.”