His crowning glory: How Peter Morgan depicts an 'indefensible' institution

Through the daring with which it has lifted the curtain on the British royal enterprise, Peter Morgan’s saga ‘The Crown’ has moved into in a class of its own, says Giles Harvey

His crowning glory: How Peter Morgan depicts an 'indefensible' institution

In 2015, Peter Morgan, the British dramatist and screenwriter, received a small brown envelope in the post.

It looked like a speeding ticket, and as he tore it open, he felt the first throb of a mild bureaucratic headache. As it happened, the British state was singling him out for different purposes.

Morgan had been named in Queen Elizabeth II’s annual New Year Honours list for his “services to drama”. Henceforth, he would be a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. His presence was requested at Buckingham Palace for the investiture ceremony.

Morgan had never visited Buckingham Palace, though he had set many scenes within its walls.

As a storyteller, he likes to seize on epochal moments from the recent past and subject them to a kind of imaginative fission, working backward from sound bites and headlines to the raw contingencies that shape history.

In The Queen, the 2006 movie based on Morgan’s script, it was the death of Princess Diana and the royal family’s ham-fisted efforts to manage the public’s hysterical outpouring of grief.

Britain has a long and honourable tradition of treating its rulers with satirical contempt; it also has a less honourable tradition, especially where the monarchy is concerned, of fawning deference.

Morgan’s audacity lay in his restraint: He wanted to see the Windsors steadily and to see them whole, as neither pampered half-wits nor infallible deities.

In The Queen, we see the sovereign and head of state (Helen Mirren, who won the Oscar for best actress) sitting in her curlers, watching television and preparing a dismal picnic in the Scottish highlands.

When he was invited to Buckingham Palace, Morgan was finishing Season 1 of The Crown, a hugely ambitious piece of durational television that seeks to tell the story of Elizabeth’s reign, in all its drudgery and dailiness, from the years before her coronation in 1953 up to the turn of the third millennium.

To date, the show is estimated to have cost Netflix upward of €130m, but what puts Morgan’s saga in a class of its own is the daring with which it lifts the curtain on the whole royal enterprise. The Crown doesn’t feed public fantasy — it pours cold water on it.

“As an institution, it’s indefensible. Of course it is,” Morgan said recently about the royals. “And yet the whole thing’s so bloody ridiculous, you can’t help feeling slightly sorry for them.”

What, exactly, is the point of Britain’s royal family? Why, in a time of boisterous populism and expanding social consciousness, do the British continue to tolerate this emblem of entitlement and reaction?

No one seems to know the answer, least of all the royals themselves, and herein lies the fundamental irony of Morgan’s show, which is now in its third season.

Constitutionally, the role of the monarch is to keep his or her mouth shut, to abjure what Elizabeth, in The Queen, calls “the sheer joy of being partial”.

This sphinxlike silence is, in turn, conducive to a second, more intangible function: To serve as a conduit for mass emotion, a projection screen for national yearning or catharsis.

In other words, the royals are celebrities. For about a thousand years, they were the only celebrities. As that began to change around the midpoint of the last century, the House of Windsor found itself fumbling for fresh raison d’être.

His crowning glory: How Peter Morgan depicts an 'indefensible' institution

When Elizabeth became queen in 1952, at age 25, the papers (channeling Winston Churchill’s rhetoric) proclaimed the dawn of a new Elizabethan Age, a period of national greatness to rival that of her 16th-century namesake.

Much of the drama of the show’s first two seasons revolved around Elizabeth’s painful transformation from young woman into ageless symbol of national rebirth. Claire Foy plays the part with subtlety and intelligence; her queen projects an authority she could never quite bring herself to believe in.

“All hail, sage lady, whom a grateful isle hath blest,” says a photographer to Elizabeth at the end of Season 1, aptly quoting the patriotic doggerel of Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sonnets. Foy stands alone, wearing the crown and a look of infinite blankness.

Except Britain isn’t a grateful isle anymore. Orthodoxy is becoming unfashionable, along with faith in the establishment.

“You do know if that man wins today, he’ll want us out,” Prince Philip says, scowling at the news in the tone-setting opening minutes of Season 3.

“That man” is Harold Wilson, and “today” is October 15, 1964, when Wilson’s Labour Party narrowly defeated the Conservatives in a general election and returned to power for the first time in 13 years.

Wilson was a socialist, a moderniser, a man of the people.

“Half his cabinet will be made up of rabid anti-monarchists,” says Philip, a well-shaken cocktail of grievance and paranoia. “They’ll want our heads on spikes.”

Britain, then, has a new government, and The Crown, far more adaptable than the institution on which it’s based, has a new cast. Foy and Matt Smith (who played Philip) have been succeeded by the slightly older Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies. Long may they reign.

Colman won last year’s best actress Oscar for her portrayal of another British monarch in The Favourite, the eccentric and voluptuary Queen Anne, but Elizabeth, aloof to the point of refrigeration, is a different proposition altogether.

Foy’s sovereign was tremulous and wavering, tossed from one crisis to the next. Colman’s, no less beset by troubles, has acquired a stately new resolve: The mask of authority has grown to fit the face.

Short and slight, with tired, pale blue eyes and a mischievous grin, Morgan is himself an unimposing figure. Being a showrunner, he told me, is like having multiple full-time jobs (writing, casting, editing, looking in on set), so he always feels he is neglecting one or more of his duties.

While Season 3 was being filmed, he was busy writing Season 4, which will cover the years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“His brain is in constant motion,” said american actor Gillian Anderson, who will play Thatcher. “We are all in awe and slightly afraid of it in equal measure.”

She and Morgan have been dating since 2016. They first met when Anderson appeared in The Last King of Scotland, the 2006 film about the rise of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, for which Morgan co-wrote the script with Jeremy Brock. (He has five children with his first wife; the couple separated in 2014, after 17 years of marriage.)

Morgan sits down at his desk around 6am. Once a week, a team of researchers, which doubles as a kind of writers’ room, comes over to his house in Central London for script meetings.

“He’s not precious about the material,” said Annie Sulzberger, the show’s head of research (and the sister of The New York Times’ publisher AG Sulzberger).

“As a researcher, you find a detail and you think: ‘Wow, I hope this makes the cut.’ That doesn’t mean anything to him. If something doesn’t move the plot along, or reveal character, or tell us something relevant about Britain at the time, it doesn’t have a place.”

Morgan isn’t precious about the scripts themselves either.

“If something isn’t working in rehearsal, he’ll say: ‘Can you hang on a minute? Just talk amongst yourselves,’ ” said Colman. “Five minutes later it’ll be: ‘OK, try that.’ And, sure enough, he’s just churned out a brilliant speech.”

Morgan is the child of emigrants, of refugees from the 20th century. His father was a German Jew who fled the Nazis, his mother a Polish Catholic who fled the Soviets.

They met in London in the mid-1950s; Morgan was born in the suburb of Wimbledon in 1963, and grew up speaking German at home. The present absence of a community who didn’t make it — the friends and family his parents left behind in their respective homelands — shaped Morgan’s childhood.

After graduating from the University of Leeds, where he discovered his passion for theatre, Morgan began to write and direct plays, sometimes in collaboration with his friend Mark Wadlow.

There is little in Morgan’s early work (a handful of well-turned TV and film scripts) to suggest that he would become a skilled excavator of history and the inner lives of those who make it.

Morgan can pinpoint the moment this interest was awakened. One day in 2001, as he was waiting to board a plane at Gatwick Airport, he spotted the front cover of James Naughtie’s The Rivals, an account of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer who would later succeed him as prime minister.

The cover bore a black-and-white photograph of the two men: One youthful and telegenic, a visionary sparkle playing about his eyes and mouth; the other solemn and aloof, dependable perhaps but distinctly uninspiring.

“It completely changed my life,” Morgan said of the image.

“I realized there was a kind of Cain and Abel story there, and I knew at once how to tell it.”

His crowning glory: How Peter Morgan depicts an 'indefensible' institution

The Deal, the subtle, propulsive script that Morgan wrote about Blair and Brown’s relationship, became the basis for an acclaimed TV film directed by Stephen Frears.

It was hardly apolitical — it is, in part, a story about the death of old-style socialism and the emergence of market-friendly New Labour — but it was striking for the sensitivity and lack of overt moral judgement with which it rendered a pair of increasingly reviled public servants.

After The Deal came out in 2003, Morgan was everywhere in demand. The film’s producers wanted more of the same, and Morgan came through with The Queen, in which Blair (again played by Michael Sheen) once more proves himself a PR maestro, persuading Elizabeth, against her better judgement, to show a grieving Britain some emotion.

That year, 2006 was something of an annus mirabilis for Morgan. In addition to The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, that year also saw the premiere of his play Frost/Nixon (later made into a film, again starring Sheen), which takes as its basis the heated 1977 interviews between disgraced former president Richard Nixon and British talk-show host David Frost.

The private meeting that has taken place at Buckingham Palace on a regular basis for nearly 70 years between Elizabeth and her prime minister became the foundation of Morgan’s play The Audience.

In it, Morgan compiled an imaginative highlights reel of these briefing sessions that spanned the entire course of her reign, from Churchill to David Cameron.

After the play opened in 2013, Morgan found he couldn’t stop thinking about the unlikely relationship between Elizabeth and Churchill, a sheltered young woman and a worldly old man who were drawn together, it seems, by feelings of reciprocal awe. He began to contemplate a film and then, as his research went deeper, a TV series.

“What you really want, as a writer, is a character like Tony Soprano who can go in any direction, be caring and compassionate and ultraviolent within the space of 10 seconds, and it’s all plausible,” said Morgan.

Elizabeth, a relatively unremarkable woman who has followed more or less the same routine for much of her life, may sound, by contrast, like a creative straitjacket.

And yet, as Morgan demonstrates with such finesse, so great is Elizabeth’s commitment to sober impartiality that when she does occasionally betray a hint of unconstitutional emotion, it arrives with the force of a well-timed right hook.

The new Elizabethan Age didn’t quite pan out.

“This country was still great when I came to the throne, and now look,” Elizabeth tells her sister Margaret (played by Helena Bonham Carter) late in the new season, shortly before her silver jubilee. “All that’s happened on my watch is the place has fallen apart.”

His crowning glory: How Peter Morgan depicts an 'indefensible' institution

Margaret, who in Morgan’s hands becomes a cross between a Shakespearean fool and Billy Wilder’s faded film star, Norma Desmond, is always on hand to administer an infusion of passive-aggressive home truth.

“It’s only fallen apart if we say it has,” she tells Elizabeth from her bed, where she spends much of the season, resting up between one alcoholic spree and the next.

“That’s the thing about the monarchy. We paper over the cracks, and if what we do is loud and grand and confident enough, no one will notice if all around us it’s fallen apart.”

Elizabeth, she adds, with a glacial narrowing of the eyes, must not flinch: “Because if you show a single crack, we’ll see it isn’t a crack but a chasm, and we’ll all fall in.”

This, in Morgan’s unsentimental vision, is the real point of the monarchy, if it can be said to have one anymore. What he catches so well is the desperation behind the grandeur, the tragicomic spectacle of an institution, and a people, labouring to believe in itself.

The Crown is not a show for Brexiteers. It is a valediction, forbidding mourning, to British pre-eminence and self-regard.

Elizabeth, it appears, never wanted to be queen. She got on with it nevertheless. It’s hard to think of a woman who divides her time between eight palaces as having made a sacrifice, but as Morgan shows us, decade on decade of self-abnegating duty exacts a human price.

Elizabeth, he said, “represents an ideal of public service. I understand why people are furious, why they want the whole institution gone.”

He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “But I’m quite proud we haven’t kicked them out.”

- Adapted from an article that first appeared in The New York Times Magazine

c.2019 The New York Times Company

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