Peter Morgan was nearing the end of a lengthy shoot for the upcoming fourth season of Netflix’s The Crown when the coronavirus took hold in the U.K., halting production. While he was ultimately able to wrap the season with what they had, he still lost a couple weeks of filming. “I can see where the gaps are, but I’m hoping that you won’t,” says the showrunner, who adds that he feels “lucky” that they were able to get as far as they did. In the wake of the show’s nine Emmy nominations, including one for best drama series, the London-based Morgan shares what caused him to change his mind about the number of seasons the show will run, the unofficial feedback he gets from Buckingham Palace and why present-day royal scandals are off the table.
How did you celebrate your Emmy nominations?
I’m not sure I did celebrate, to be honest. I mean, I was relieved. I’m not sure that relief is a celebration. This just feels like such a strange time. Jumping around punching the air and lighting cigars feels like something I look forward to doing again, but at the moment, it just would feel weird to be doing that.
Having lost a couple weeks of filming on the upcoming season, is there any chance that you could reconvene everyone once it’s considered safe to do so and get those final shots?
In order to hit the release schedule for season four, we needed to start editing and lock episodes, which we’ve been doing throughout this time. And everything takes much longer under these new social distancing regulations and rules, [even postproduction.] So if we’d, for example, waited until next month, when a number of people are starting to film again in late August, beginning of September, to pick up these extra scenes, I think a) everyone would have been out of the rhythm of it and it would have felt very strange, and b) I think it would have compromised our post schedule. And we had to weigh up, “Is it worth it or not?” And, actually, that we’re still able to hit our release schedule in November for seasonal four has been worth it.
It was announced recently that the fifth season, the one you’re currently writing, won’t be released until 2022. Was that a decision impacted by COVID or was that always the plan?
It’s a normal schedule for us because what happens is, as you’ve noticed, we filmed The Crown in two-season chunks, so we had Claire Foy for two seasons, we’ve now got Olivia Colman for two seasons. And there was a gap year in there in which I frantically do a draft of all the scripts, and then I rewrite the scripts and polish the scripts after that — but at least we have a roadmap of where we’re going for the two seasons. And I said that there was no way that I could possibly do that and be showrunning the seasons if they were in production. You do need a gap year to get ahead with the writing.
This year, you said that the show was going to run five seasons instead of the expected six, but you recently reverted to the original plan. Why the change?
That’s me being exhausted, and the truth is people have just been so supportive and so kind. They were so kind to go with me on the five-season version. That was an act of generosity because it was always pitched as being six seasons and always imagined to be that. And then I think they just looked at the state I was in, which is a classic showrunner look. You look slightly green and yellow and you have bags under your eyes, and you look at least 10 years older than you actually are. At that point, people say, “Just let the poor man out of his misery.” But then in the course of meeting the actors, they were all furious they were only getting one season. (Laughs.) They were like, “Well, that’s not fair. How come Claire Foy gets two and Olivia Colman gets two and I only get one?”
Are you writing that next season with COVID protocols in mind, or are you hoping that the virus will be a thing of the past by the time you’re in production again?
I think so. I’m writing it exactly as I wrote it before. I’m making no concessions whatsoever in terms of international locations, in terms of extras, in terms of size. If anything, the show’s getting bigger. So I am absolutely banking on there being not just a vaccine, but that the vaccine has had global dissemination by that point.
What was the most challenging scene for you to write last season?
If there isn’t a challenging scene to get on paper in every episode, I’m not doing my job. If it doesn’t feel to me like I’m climbing without a rope, then I don’t see [the point]. I remember in season one when Claire Foy comes back to find her father dead, she cries when she sees his dead body. And I said to everybody then, “This is the first and the last time we’re ever going to see the queen cry. She will never cry again. There’ll be many times where we imagine she’s crying, but no tears come.” When you have the queen in scenes of extreme emotion, those scenes are very difficult to write because she’s not a person of extreme emotionality. So you’re constantly having to find ways to make the audience cry without, as it were, the queen crying. In other words, it’s all about inability and restraint and being blocked, because she herself is blocked because it’s wrapped up in this package of being the queen — and the queen is in itself an abstract concept rather than Elizabeth Windsor, who she is underneath. So any scenes that really push to that are always a real challenge.
You’ve met with royal aides to brief them on what’s to come in the show. How do they typically respond, and what do you hope to get out of those meetings?
I meet on an entirely informal and impersonal basis with a couple of people who used to work at the palace and who I imagine still have contacts with the palace. It ends up as one of those rather ridiculous conversations in which everybody is slightly tiptoeing and saying something other than what they mean, but you’re still finding a way of getting some information out while at the same time everybody has the most important thing, which is deniability.
Do they ever come to you and say, “No, it didn’t happen this way,” or “That isn’t accurate”?
Occasionally they might come back and say, “I enjoyed certain aspects of the season,” and by that I know that he or she probably means other people enjoyed that. And then they’ll say, “There were one or two things that I personally found disappointing,” which probably means that somebody else found them disappointing.
Does that feedback influence how you write the show at all?
No, nor would they want it to. No one’s trying to censor me. No one’s ever tried to correct what I do or censor what I do. No one wants anything to do with each other. I don’t want anything to do with the palace and the palace wants nothing to do with me — again, so that we all have the most important thing, which is that they can say, “I don’t know what they think they’re doing.” And we can say, “We have no interest in making them happy.” That’s really important because different people have different attitudes. Some people could say, “Oh my God, it’s outrageous what The Crown has got away with saying,” and other people could say, “The Crown could have said it a lot worse.” So depending on your perspective, if you are a rapid anti-monarchist then no matter how critical I am, it will never be critical enough. And if you are really staunch, establishment monarchist, then just about everything I say is pure treason. You will never make those two extremes happy. And there’s no point even trying to. I only write what I want to write.
You’ve said the show won’t get into modern royal subjects like Meghan Markle or Prince Andrew. Why?
I just think you get so much more interesting [with time]. Meghan and Harry are in the middle of their journey, and I don’t know what their journey is or how it will end. One wishes some happiness, but I’m much more comfortable writing about things that happened at least 20 years ago. I sort of have in my head a 20-year rule. That is enough time and enough distance to really understand something, to understand its role, to understand its position, to understand its relevance. Often things that appear absolutely wildly important today are instantly forgotten, and other things have a habit of sticking around and proving to be historically very relevant and long-lasting. I don’t know where in the scheme of things Prince Andrew or indeed Meghan Markle or Harry will ever appear. We won’t know, and you need time to stop something being journalistic. And so I don’t want to write about them because to write about them would instantly make it journalistic. And there are plenty of journalists already writing about them. To be a dramatist, I think you need perspective and you need to also allow for the opportunity for metaphor. Once something has a metaphorical possibility, it can then become interesting. It’s quite possible, for example, to tell the story of Harry and Meghan through analogy and metaphor, if that’s what you want to do. Because there’ve been so many examples in the past, whether it’s Wallis Simpson or Edward VII, or whether it’s Diana and Prince Charles. There have been plenty of opportunities in the past where there have been marital complications. There’ve been wives that have been married into the Royal family that have felt unwelcome and that they don’t fit in. So there are plenty of stories to tell without telling the story of Harry and Meghan.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are …
Is The Crown a third-year show or a first-year show? It’s so difficult to categorize Peter Morgan’s lavish dramatization of Queen Elizabeth II’s life given its recent reinvention with an entirely new cast. That cast, by the way, includes nominees Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter. Not too shabby. The third season, which launched in November, has already delivered a Golden Globe victory to Colman and, perhaps most auspicious for its Emmy prospects, a Screen Actors Guild Award for its ensemble. Indeed, The Crown goes into this year’s Emmys with perhaps more heat than it has ever had before. It just might not be enough to topple domestic productions and current frontrunners Succession and Ozark. — MICHAEL O’CONNELL
A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.