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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the first season of The Crown.]
In the first part of The Hollywood Reporter‘s conversation with Peter Morgan, he talked about finding the tone for The Crown and explained how it’s like a superhero origin story.
The second part of the interview discusses a few specific scenes and episodes about the Netflix drama about Queen Elizabeth II’s early years on the throne, so they’re somewhat spoilers, but not exactly spoilers, because what does it spoil to know that there’s an episode about Winston Churchill’s famous 80th birthday portrait painted by Graham Sutherland? Or to know that there’s an episode in which Princess Margaret is pursued by the over-eager media in what becomes a dangerous car chase?
Morgan talks about why that paparazzi pursuit wasn’t intentionally meant to evoke Princess Di and explains why the Sutherland-Churchill episode was a story he couldn’t resist. He also discusses why he isn’t committing to more of The Crown after the second season, even though it still sounds like he has more chronicling still to do.
How aware are you of the different knowledge bases that viewers come into this with because obviously British audiences are going to know specific things very, very well. American audiences are going to know certain characters or maybe remember things from The King’s Speech, etc. How aware are you that you’re playing to different audiences who know very different amounts about this?
I think I have to trust my own instincts and I have to think to myself, “If I don’t know it then I think we can pretty much assume that other people won’t know it on this particular field.” If it interests me, I also sort of think, “Well, gosh, if it interests me then I’m going to hope that it interests others.” I like to check it out with people and before I write episodes, I don’t disappear and then come back with something. I’m talking about it with people and I’m kicking the tires a little bit. What about this one? What about this one? Those are largely English people that I’m doing that with. I’m not thinking too much, because I think one of the great joys of a medical drama or procedural drama is if they don’t bother to pander to us too much. Sometimes it’s okay for an audience not to understand everything that’s going on. If the human dilemmas and the characters are interesting enough, I hope that they’ll come along for the ride, even if the anthropology might feel a bit strange.
For the most part, the show isn’t about dramatic irony nods to the future but there’s the late car chase with Princess Margaret that’s pretty clearly meant to evoke Diana. Why was that important for you to get in there?
You made that assumption, but I didn’t think of Diana once at that point, actually. I did think though, and in this way I guess it’s a natural conclusion … By the way, you’re not wrong. You’re right. I just wasn’t doing that. Diana never occurred to me. In many ways, Margaret was more of a celebrity than Elizabeth or at least her relationship to and with Peter Townsend had the whiff of danger and it was a relationship that divided the country in two. It was one of those perfect storms. It was the relationship that became bigger than it was because, through the issue of divorce, it tapped into the heart of something that was dividing the country anyway. It was an accident of its own timing. Had he been an appropriate British Duke, or son of a Duke, it would have had a lot of attention but it wouldn’t have had that electric attention that it had because he was a divorced man.
If you weren’t thinking Diana in that moment, does that suggest it was easy for you to not have those dramatic irony moments, to not to write in the past while also looking forward at where the story was going to go 60 years down the road?
I’ve got to be honest with you. I cannot think beyond season two and I’m not going to think beyond season two. Of course by virtue of the fact that we continue to have Prime Ministers and the Queen has continued to stay alive and on the throne, there is a possibility of further material. As any showrunner will tell you, it is crushing work. It is around the clock. It is like a monastic commitment that you make. Pretty much nothing else in your life exists but this. I’m not thinking beyond this. The agreement I made with Netflix is that I would wait and see how the show was received before ever considering continuing. Because there’s simply no point in continuing unless what you’re doing has somehow connected or punched through at a significant level. It’s simply too overwhelming a commitment. I haven’t thought for one second about future seasons because I’m almost living in denial of the possibility of this continuing.
Now I want to talk quickly about the Graham Sutherland/Winston Churchill episode because you earlier made the analogy about the choosing of a portrait artist. That episode came through with such a clear sense of a story that you’ve been trying to get out, that that was a story that you particularly loved. I was curious: Was that indeed a story that you’d been wanted to tell for years, that particular two-hander?
No, no. (Laughs.) How nice of you to think that. Where you’re absolutely right is that in two instances of this season, I just thought, “I’ve got to tell that story.” One of them was the portrait. I just thought, “Right, that’s an episode.” As soon as I heard about that I just thought, “I just want to see that. I don’t care that it doesn’t particularly connect with x, y or zed, we’re just doing that story. “The other one I felt that about was the Great Fog in episode four where I thought, “Why has nobody told me about this? Why don’t I know about this? I’m furious!”
Because I think so often certain things survive in history and certain things just get forgotten. As historians write more and more histories, it’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that other historians read their histories and then make synthesis and certain things just get forgotten and left out and neglected. While Churchill’s portrait has been written about by one or two people, I think it was forgotten, for the most part. The Fog I didn’t know about. So I just thought, “These two things really interest me. I know that they’re not strictly part of our narrative.” But then breaking up the narrative isn’t a bad thing from time to time. Once or twice every season, I just want the indulgence to be able to tell the story that I really want to tell. So you’re absolutely right. It wasn’t one that had been waiting to come out of me, but as soon as I came across it, I said “Oooh, I really want to do that.”
Did you always know that you were going to be leaving the Suez Crisis for the second season? Because I was watching and if you know the history, that’s something you know is looming and I wondered if we were going to get to it now or late. How did you structure in where that was going to fit?
I think quite early on I knew. I thought I’d take it up to that point. Initially, I thought this would only be three seasons. It would be one season of her as the Young Queen, one season of her as the Middle-Aged Queen, one season of her as an Old Queen. It’s only in the writing of it that I said, “Oh, my God I need more time.” The truth of the matter is, I could’ve written three or even four seasons of her as the Young Queen. I did get to the point where I thought, “Actually no, let’s leave it on the knife’s edge of Suez because Suez feels like a changing point for the country. Britain was never the same again after Suez.” Therefore, I was going to deal with that at the beginning of season two. Which we do.
As you’re writing these characters in a second season and going forward, to some degree do you feel like there’s any distance between the real people who you thought you started off understanding and the real people who are now characters you’ve created to some degree?
It’s a good question and for that reason that I’ve resisted ever meeting the Queen, even in official situations because A: I feel like I owe her an apology and B: I’d hate to meet her and think “Oh my God, I got it wrong.” To some degree, I am writing my guess of who she is. While it could be helpful, possibly, to get a closer sense of who she is, it might also undermine me completely. I’m doing my very best to get it right. Nothing is perfect. Also, I think there’s a sort of covenant of trust, isn’t there? I think when you’re looking for a portrait painter to do a portrait of someone, you’re not always just looking for verisimilitude. You’re looking for something else. You’re looking for an interpretation.
I guess that’s part of what I’m doing too. I’m sure that there are things that I have done that are off the mark, but they’re not intentionally so. They’re partly because I’m only doing the best job that I can possibly do, but I am also me doing it. Not just me, but it’s the director and the actor and that collective process of four or five of us trying to interpret this person will mean that, necessarily, we’ll end up somewhere different from who that person is.
If you had to guess of the main characters, who do suspect is probably the most Peter Morgan creation and the least like the real person, hypothetically?
I hope it doesn’t disappoint you if I say someone not in the royal family because in the royal family, there is quite a lot of footage about them and a lot of interviews. The one character that none of us could find anything about except for the fact that he existed and he did write diaries is Tommy Lascelles, the chap with the mustache. Either the Duke of Windsor or Tommy Lascelles. Both speak more with my voice. I found them such a pleasure to write. And Queen Mary, I find her a pleasure to write. They come closest to my voice. Or maybe not my voice, but I found that I could really let rip as them. I found them easier to write. With the Queen, she’s quite monosyllabic sometimes and such an interior person. But I still found her a joy. Actually by the end, I was hearing all their voices quite clearly.
The entire first season of The Crown is now streaming on Netflix.
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