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Over the course of its first three seasons, The Crown has earned its reputation as one of television’s most ambitious productions. Beginning in the early days of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the series takes on the formidable task of reconstructing a version of the historical record through the lens of the British monarchy. Building on his previous royal dramas The Queen (2006) and The Audience (2013), Peter Morgan and both generations of castmembers who have portrayed “The Firm” have garnered critical acclaim. Though no stranger to being scrutinized for its historical accuracy, the Netflix drama aimed even higher in its fourth season with the introduction of two of the U.K.’s most beloved and controversial public figures, respectively: Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson). After breaking its own viewing records and racking up a whopping 24 Emmy nominations, it’s clear that The Crown did not miss the mark. In a recent interview with THR, Morgan discusses the show’s “magic ingredient” and the complicated family dynamics at play in its latest season.
Season four kicks off with the highly anticipated introduction of the future Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher. What did you take into consideration when writing and casting these characters?
Writing fascinating, complex characters like Thatcher and Diana Spencer is a bit of a high-wire act. People, especially in the U.K., have very, very strong opinions about them one way or another. And I was never going to make everyone happy. But that didn’t make it any less exhilarating.
Both you and the cast have spoken about the meticulous research that goes into crafting The Crown. How do you strike the right balance of historical accuracy and creative liberty?
There are a dozen exceptionally bright researchers, script editors and historians — led by two women, Annie Sulzberger and Oona O’Beirn — that are entirely responsible for making my job possible and holding the writing part of this show together. They are the research team and script team that challenge and inspire me every day. They keep me on my toes. They keep me sane. They keep me honest. I owe them everything.
Given that season four spans roughly a decade’s worth of history in just 10 episodes, were there any historical events that had to be cut from the original timeline?
This is the part of the writing process that takes me the longest — working out what to leave out and what to put in. I like to think that’s the magic ingredient and what defines The Crown. It takes us at least nine months, outlining and outlining, before the writing of any season starts. History, even recent history, is so reductive, and so many gems disappear into a black hole. No one would thank us for churning out the “greatest hits” of any decade. We have to dig deep and find the surprises, the overlooked stories, like palace break-ins, and put them alongside the iconic events — like moon landings or weddings, or elections, or assassinations.
Unlike the previous three seasons, Margaret Thatcher is this season’s only prime minister. What new challenges or opportunities did this change present?
Actually it was a pleasure to be able to give Mrs. T. the time and space she deserves. She’s such a strong and extraordinary flavor — with such specific speech rhythms and such an unmistakable point of view. And an unmistakable silhouette. Because she is such an exact contemporary of the queen herself, she seemed to have an additional relevance to our show.
From the royal tour of Australia to the massive crowds Princess Diana attracts during her visit to New York, this season features a number of tricky-looking sequences. Is there a scene that was particularly memorable or difficult to shoot?
I’d have to say the scene, which director Julian Jarrold shot, to open the “Commonwealth” episode — in which we go around the world seeing people in all the Commonwealth countries listening to the speech made on the radio by Princess Elizabeth [Claire Foy] from South Africa — feels like one of the most astonishing sequences of all four seasons. And I still have no idea how our production team pulled it off.
Thanks to his unhappy relationship with Diana, Prince Charles went from being one of the family’s most sympathetic members to, as they say on the internet, its “most punchable.” How did his backstory in season three set him up for his journey in season four?
The show has a great deal of sympathy for the predicament Prince Charles found himself in as a schoolboy, as a university student, as an heir and as a husband. Not just for him [but] for Diana and Camilla Parker-Bowles, too. Their imbroglio felt like a Rubik’s Cube that simply wouldn’t click in a way that would bring any of them happiness. It was none of their fault, and it was all of their fault. But that’s so true of life. The disadvantage they had was that their private misfortunes played out in such a public way — the most glorious and most sour fairy tale of the 20th century.
There’s a prominent focus on motherhood this season, with Margaret Thatcher, the queen and Princess Diana all grappling with their roles as parents. How does this tie into the larger themes of the show?
Ultimately, the show is all about family. The difficulties of leading a family, living within a family and juggling the responsibilities of parenthood with those of leadership.
Since you began working on The Crown, how much attention do you give to current events surrounding the royal family?
I try to keep focused on history and not the present day. I like to make sure there is at least a generation between the events I’m writing about and what’s going on all around me.
Season five will mark the second time that The Crown has transitioned to an all-new cast, with Imelda Staunton leading a new troupe as Queen Elizabeth II. What did you learn from the most recent recasting, and how do you maintain established relationships with a new generation of actors?
It’s both the hardest part of the job and the most rewarding part of the job. It’s shown, once again, the extraordinary depth of the acting talent in the U.K. Robert Sterne, our brilliant casting director, seems to find at least six world-class artists for each part who could do it in such different and interesting ways. I just sit back and watch, gobsmacked and eternally grateful.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
The fourth time may prove to be the charm for Netflix’s pricey biographical drama on the royal family. The groundswell of support for HBO dramas Game of Thrones and Succession rendered previous wins in the top category impossible — but the former is long gone and the latter isn’t eligible this year. With the field wide open for the first time since it premiered in 2016, and its own events finally catching up to recent pop culture (notably with Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin as Charles and Diana), 2021 might finally be The Crown‘s year. — Mikey O’Connell
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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