At an RTS event on The Crown, Peter Morgan revealed how he was liberated by writing for Netflix. Steve Clarke took notes
When the history of TV in the early 21st Century is written, The Crown, Netflix’s ravishing period drama recounting the reign of Elizabeth II, is likely to be regarded as a watershed moment.
The reasoning might go something like this: The Crown was the first genuinely cinematic, long-form TV show that audiences could watch how and when they wanted to, and it gave crucial impetus to Netflix’s international ambitions. Critics loved it and awards juries kept voting for the drama.
But screenwriter Peter Morgan, who conceived and wrote the series, has a strikingly different take on The Crown’s importance to TV’s evolution.
He predicts that, within 20 years, the scope and ambition of TV will have become so great that, by comparison, his baby will be “considered complete peanuts – low-budget nonsense”.
If this sounds like false modesty, or a joke, it didn’t sound like that when, speaking at an RTS early-evening event, Morgan went on to suggest that The Crown was “only the first tiny step” on the road to some future streaming cornucopia.
He explained that, if a show opened simultaneously in 190 countries on the same day (as The Crown did last November), “you don’t have a regional or national audience to address any more. You’re talking about global event television.”
Many of these countries still lack high-speed broadband. Once they have it, the implications for content creators, producers and distributors will be huge.
Tent-pole movies, such as Bond and Star Wars, would break out of the straitjacket of cinema screenings and become 10-hour epics.
“Storytelling will change, the size of television productions will change,” the writer forecast, adding: “It really isn’t like television any more. It’s absolutely overwhelming. It’s partly [because] the way in which we make it is not like television. And every time we get an opportunity to make it like television, I keep saying: ‘Please can we resist this.’”
Morgan is a specialist in writing compelling political dramas drawn from recent history and performed for stage and screen.
His work includes: the Oscar-winning The Queen, which looked at how the monarchy failed to respond to the public mood following Diana’s death; The Audience (a series of dramatised encounters between Elizabeth II and her prime ministers at their weekly private audiences); The Deal (detailing the fraught relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown); and Frost/Nixon, a behind-the-scenes take on David Frost’s famous interviews with disgraced President Nixon.
One can only wonder what Morgan might one day be inspired to write concerning the Trump presidency.
In the past, he’s written for ITV, the BBC and Channel 4, but he told the packed RTS event that he was unprepared for the effect of being hired to fashion a screenplay for Netflix: “I feel liberated by them. That translates into how I am writing. I feel completely supported and liberated.
“Every time I ring them up with an issue, their response is progressive and open-minded. There are so many times, when you deal with broadcasters, commissioners and script editors, that they crush you with their notes. This is almost like that brief era in Hollywood when they let film-makers run a studio.”
He added: “I’m really committed to reaching final cut on every episode in complete partnership with the director on our own in an executive-free zone.
“Where else does that happen in any medium? It’s heavenly. They don’t micro-manage or interfere. They trust me. As soon as we mess up, they’ll jump in, I promise.”
Fellow panellist, director Philip Martin, agreed that streaming services such as Netflix were rewriting the parameters of what film-makers can achieve.
“If you’re doing a show for 9:00pm on Sunday, there’s a format that you have to park it into, whereas, with this, there’s a freedom,” he said.
Morgan added: “On a project that could easily be too traditional, there’s something about Netflix’s modernity that I found incredibly helpful.”
As the RTS audience learnt, when Left Bank, The Crown’s producer, initiated the project it was anticipated that one of Britain’s main broadcasters would be on board. “We thought that the BBC or ITV would probably be part of it,” said Left Bank’s Suzanne Mackie, executive producer on the show.
Left Bank was inspired by The Audience, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Helen Mirren, to commission Morgan to write what became The Crown; Daldry would go on to direct the opening episode of The Crown.
A two-hour script was written, covering the events contained in The Crown’s first two episodes: George VI’s struggle with lung cancer and his eventual death, and the lead-up to the coronation of Elizabeth II, most noticeably the Princess’s romance and marriage to the man who became Prince Philip.
When Netflix signed up, things really started moving. “We loved their boldness,” recalled Mackie. “They bought it in the room. We didn’t then know how it would be constructed. In the end, what you want as a producer is to walk in and feel that whoever is commissioning you shares your passion and vision. Netflix got it immediately.”
As luck would have it, the timing of Left Bank’s pitch was spot on, according to Morgan: “We happened to walk into Netflix just at the moment they were flush with confidence from having made House of Cards. They had a mandate to push internationally.… Normally, people are very cautious but Netflix just went: ‘Let’s do it.’”
So what impact did the streaming giant’s decision to green-light The Crown have on how Morgan told the story, asked the evening’s host, Andrew Billen.
Did having Netflix as the client change the way he wrote? “They allowed me to completely loosen up,” Morgan replied. “Sometimes, I run three episodes, each one after the other, because statistics show that the average streamer is watching two and a half to three hours at a time.”
It therefore made sense to construct narratives across several episodes – although, he said, sometimes he couldn’t help himself and constructed self-contained, individual episodes.
“One thing I loathe is story arcs across a season,” he explained. “I love things that make no sense.”
As for doing another drama focused on the House of Windsor, Morgan revealed: “I have to declare that I am not a Queen lover. In The Queen, I particularly enjoyed writing the scenes between her and Tony Blair. “I just loved the private audience. As soon as you go beyond that closed door in the audience room… it’s just a dramatist’s dream. I felt very fortunate that I got there first.”
While writingThe Audience he was particularly taken by constructing the scenes between an inexperienced Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill. “I suddenly thought: ‘This is a wonderful relationship – a young girl in her mid-twenties and a man in his early seventies.’
“They had so many delicious differences, yet they were thrown together. She’s very much at the beginning of her career, while he’s this extraordinary international statesman and yet he was in awe of her.”
Morgan told the RTS that, as a rule, it is unusual for the public to see Elizabeth as a young woman and Churchill as an old man, instead of the imperious wartime leader. He said: “There were so many interesting things – about his stroke, his frailty, the way in which he behaved towards her. He used her to prolong his time in office. I thought: ‘Oh, this is good.”
The screenwriter revealed his reliance on researchers: “I have a roomful of them.… I map stuff out. I like to come up with the ideas for the episodes and then the researchers go away and come back with material. So I am never starting completely from scratch. I am starting with really fleshed-out ideas.”
One point on which Netflix and Morgan clashed was the release date. The streaming company was determined to release all 10 episodes to subscribers four days before the US presidential election.
“I said this would be a catastrophic mistake,” recalled Morgan. “You are hoping to create water-cooler TV and you want us to come out before the biggest water-cooler moment on the planet? They just smiled and said: ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.’ I said: ‘How can it be fine?’ They said: ‘Because you’re thinking analogue.’ They were absolutely right.”
Commentators used to call the kind of drama that Morgan specialises in “faction”. Today, audiences appear far more forgiving to film-makers who use recent history as a starting point to weave together a drama.
As a result, the term has fallen out of fashion. Inevitably, however, much has been written about how Morgan took liberties with aspects of the truth in the first 10 parts of The Crown (the second 10 are in production).
“In terms of the verisimilitude and the accuracy, every time that I think I’ve made something up, it turns out…so much more accurate than I thought,” he says. “I’ve always tried to get it to be truthful. You do your best and, occasionally, there are moments in between two fixed moments when you have to join the dots.
“I think the audience wants a dramatist to do that. They don’t just want a slavish recreation. They want an interpretation… and you will regret it if you don’t believe it.”
‘The Crown: Deconstructing the coronation’ was an RTS early-evening event held at the Ham Yard Hotel in central London on 14 March. The producer was Sally Doganis, with support from Allie Elwell.
Filming the coronation
Martin Childs, production designer: ‘We were refused permission to film at Westminster Abbey, so we used the next best thing, Ely Cathedral, and it proved to be a better thing.
‘Ely is clean and you can empty it out… Westminster Abbey is full of obstacles. I’d have spent a lot of time covering things up there.’
Philip Martin, director: ‘The coronation was one of the world’s first big televised events and was something that was in the public consciousness.
‘There were lots of images that people were familiar with. We had to deliver our version of it in a way that felt satisfying and also real to the story we were telling.
‘We used existing archive and created fake archive and mixed the two. The coronation scenes required lots of technique, lots of direction and design. We wanted to create a seamless sense of being there.
‘Peter’s brilliant idea was that we tell the story through the Duke of Windsor watching the televising of the coronation from his home in Paris, and so tell it dramatically and emotionally.
‘The Duke of Windsor hadn’t got the crown, so you were exploring emotionally what it means to be crowned by the absence of it. It felt like such an interesting and original way to do it. There’s one person, the Queen, who’s coming at the job and wondering what it involves. And another person who’s looking at it and thinking about what they lost.
‘It was the combination of these two positions that created this bittersweet feeling, so it is not only a celebration but, in some way, a loss. That stopped it being syrupy and made it truthful.’
Jennings on the Duke of Windsor
Alex Jennings, actor: ‘I became quite obsessed with him. I have to be careful about championing him, because people can have very strong views…
‘It’s really complicated. He had a fairly active First World War. His driver was killed in the car he happened not to be in at the time. He wanted to be more involved.
‘He was quite radical, politically, and a worry to the Establishment. In a way, he acted with huge integrity when he said, “Unless you can accommodate this woman, I’m off.”
‘As far as he was concerned, it was a huge passion… He then just floated for the rest of his life…
‘When Queen Mary was dying, he spent more time with her than his surviving brother and his sister did.’
Jennings added: ‘My approach is that I read everything that is available and watch footage and try and absorb that. With the help of Philip [director Philip Martin], I was forced to let go of all that.
‘When we were doing the flashbacks of the abdication speech – which I suppose is the most famous audio ever recorded – I kind of got that down pat. Philip encouraged me to let go of all that and not feel encumbered by trying to do an impersonation.
‘Things like the clothes help you [smiling] – I’m quite shallow, but then, so was he.
Casting for The Crown
Peter Morgan, writer: ‘Nina Gold was our casting director. She is wonderful… you tend not to argue with her.’
Suzanne Mackie, executive producer: ‘It had to start with the Queen.’
Peter Morgan: ‘Finding Claire Foy took a while because we saw quite a number of people. We met a number of Philips… then I saw Matt [Smith] and Claire together.’
Suzanne Mackie: ‘The most difficult one for us was John Lithgow. [who played Winston Churchill].We received brilliant guidance from Nina Gold. I thought that we couldn’t cast an American as one of the most iconic characters from British history. But she was absolutely right to lead us towards that decision.’
Morgan on the monarchy
Peter Morgan: ‘Sometimes, when I watch The Crown, I start to get emotional. It’s not that I particularly care about this woman’s life or, indeed, her marriage.
‘It is the fact that, through her, I am connected to my grandparents, my parents. She is the sinew that connects us all on the deepest, subconscious level.’
Morgan added: ‘Like most sensible people, certainly in the early 1990s, I thought this lot should be kicked out… but, if there were a referendum today on the future of the monarchy, I would vote to keep it.
‘In the past couple of decades there’s been such a collective, catastrophic failure in the political class.… The Queen brings stability. It depends on the monarch and we happen to have someone who’s pretty damn good.’