Peter Morgan may be a prolific screenwriter and playwright, but his latest project brought him to a new plane of responsibility.
“I have to have medicals every six months,” he told IndieWire. “The man doing my medical for the insurance [asked] ‘Who are you?’ and I said ‘I’m nobody.’ He said, ‘No, you’ve got this level of tests being done, which means that you are definitely the president of the company or something.'”
“Or something,” in this case, is serving as showrunner for “The Crown,” Netflix’s ambitious multi-season effort to chronicle the life of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), beginning just before her coronation. Morgan’s nuanced perspective on the House of Windsor was well-established after his Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The Queen,” but “The Crown” represents a whole new set of challenges.
Season 1 of “The Crown” ends in 1955, and work has already begun on Season 2, though Morgan said that his interest in continuing the show will depend largely on the reaction.
“We’ll just have to see how the show goes down,” he said. “I don’t want to recommit until I see what sort of impact the show does or doesn’t have. If the show is sort of politely received, then I don’t know think I want to continue. Because if I’m giving it my whole life, then I want to make sure that it is something that is really giving some sort of cultural impact. If it does, then I’ll be happy to continue.”
What matters, for Morgan, is that the series represents an opportunity to depict one of the world’s most famous women in a way never seen before — which could maybe even explain to non-Britons why the queen is… well, The Queen. That’s certainly what IndieWire hoped to find out from the writer.
So the American conception of what royalty means, culturally, is very different from what it means in Britain. What it’s like to communicate, to those who may not be aware, just what kind of impact somebody being “the Queen” has on a culture?
I think that depends on the character of the person who is the sovereign. Because of the way in which she’s conducted herself, it has been an extraordinary period of psychological and emotional stability. What I mean by that is when Bill Clinton was being impeached, I noticed amongst my American friends there was a jitteriness. There was something about the head of state, the emblematic totemic head of state — when something goes wrong in that space, it has an effect on the character of the people, in some shape or form. It’s like a parent. In some shape or form we do have an emotional connection to our head of state, even if, for the most part, they seem very remote.
During the recent Brexit stuff — there’s been a lot of grumbling about how unjust and unfair the system is in Britain that you have a monarchy at all, that they’re not elected and so forth. But I think recent developments politically have made people feel really betrayed by the political process. Not that one would ever give or want to give someone like the Queen any actual power but there’s been something very reassuring and stabilizing about the fact that she has still been there and that it was the people from the political class who were screwing up like that.
Having said that, that could easily change. You could very quickly get somebody in on the throne who is of an unstable disposition, and very quickly the wrong king or the wrong queen could just make you want to tear the whole institution down, and just say, ‘Get the hell out of here, what the hell planet are you people on?’ It’s really, I suppose, just testimony to her about how well she’s done her job. Her father did the job well and her uncle did the job appallingly, so we’re due probably a bad one.
Just by the law of averages?
We’re due just a complete disaster. And maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe a bad thing would be a good thing because that would get people to examine the institution. At the moment all criticism of her has been completely suspended, so there is no critical debate in the U.K. about whether the monarchy is a good or bad thing. To seem to be questioning her at this point would be ridiculous.
With that being said, you’ve mentioned that they are not necessarily used to being treated with respect by pop culture these days. Do you still see that happening in regards to her?
Yes, there’s not much. Of course, there’s the occasional fawning biography by someone in search of a knighthood, but there isn’t much intelligent balance. By that I mean being critical but also seeing their side of the story and everything.
There’s a lot of satire because the institution is so ridiculous. In many ways, satire is all it deserves.
Just talking about the actual nature of wearing a crown, it’s striking how something that makes sense in the 1600s feels almost ridiculous here.
There’s almost nothing that isn’t ridiculous about the royal family, except that you could equally say there’s almost nothing that isn’t ridiculous about religious belief. But it is deeply stabilizing for some people.
It’s interesting — the word “job” comes up a lot when you talk about this. If you were to write the job description for the Queen at this point, what would it look like? What are her qualifications? What are her responsibilities? Or is that too big a question?
No, it’s a very interesting question… Be ever-present, but get out of the way. Be visible, but be anonymous. However bad you feel, just show up. Dare to take it seriously, dare to be serious. She’s good at the job because she takes it seriously and in so doing gives it meaning that there wouldn’t be unless you took it seriously. If that makes any sense.
It’s desperately unfashionable to say she does the job well, but she does the job well. If you got a team of scientists together you couldn’t create a better queen. It’s sort of a breathtaking achievement, really, to have gone through public life in the age of the hypersensitivity of media that we have and to have somebody who is fucked up as little as she is. Her absence of catastrophe is unfathomable, given the leaders that we’ve got. If you look at the people that have reached the very top of our society because of an electoral process and what they’ve done… Every single Prime Minister leaves a crushed broken man, having made a complete idiot of himself, and she just carries on being absolutely identical and unchanged. It’s kind of extraordinary.
What would your response be to finding out that an American writer was doing essentially exactly the same sort of show, but as an American, with an American perspective?
On the British royal family? They’re entitled to do so. But I think they’d struggle to get it right, just in the way they talk.
Just in terms of voice?
Yes, because it’s so culturally specific, I think, in the same way that I would never presume to write a story about Hurricane Katrina. I would never be able to write a New Orleans voice correctly. As an Englishman and an outsider of course I’m entitled to write about Hurricane Katrina, but I just wouldn’t do it well.
Even if your big architectural ideas are sound, if you don’t get the details right it immediately becomes implausible. I think you have to assume that [“Sopranos” creator] David Chase knew a lot of Italian-Americans, and I think he wrote a lot of Italian-Americans well. I think that if I had written about a group of Italian-Americans living in New Jersey it would have sounded terrible.
There’s nothing wrong with anybody from any other country having a perspective on the British royal family. It would be interesting. But I just doubt that they would get the dialogue right.
With the first season of the show, what are you specifically looking at when you’re plotting it?
You can’t retrofit the strength of her reign, but at the same time one of the reasons I think the show is as moving as it is is because you do know what comes. You do know that this person’s going to be there a hell of a long time. She’s not going to get a release from this thing anytime soon. At the same time I think that you don’t imagine this woman, who is essentially a sort of abstract image on the side of our bank notes or our postage stamps — you don’t think that that person has a vivid complex private emotional life. So it’s a bit like finding out the secret life your grandmother led, your great-grandmother in her case. It’s like, wow, Grandma did that. There is something moving there because she’s been so ever-present. There’s barely a human on this earth who is alive who is old enough to know of a time when she wasn’t Queen.
It seems like depicting her vulnerability is a really key part of helping crafting that journey.
Yeah, but I’m only guessing. It may be that she’s tougher and less vulnerable than I’ve written her but I’m only guessing how hard it must have been. You just join the dots and do your best as a writer. You think, well, I know that that happened, I know that that happened. And knowing what was going on in her life here, then you couldn’t help but feel this. But then maybe I’ve made wrong assumptions. She’ll never tell me.
“The Crown” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.