Tag Archives: Peter Morgan

Royal appointment

With the third season of Netflix’s The Crown about to begin production, creator and writer Peter Morgan explains why he keeps going back to the royal family and discusses the pitfalls of depicting real people.

It’s a bad time to be a republican in the UK.

The royal family, never far from the headlines even in regular circumstances, are seemingly everywhere at present. The Queen’s 92nd birthday last month was followed just two days later by the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s third child, Prince Louis. And in case you haven’t heard, there’s a wedding coming up in a couple of weeks, with Suits star Meghan Markle leaving the world of TV drama behind to join the Windsor clan. Good luck stepping into a newsagent without seeing her face staring back at you from at least half-a-dozen magazines.

This surge of interest in Britain’s most famous family must have Netflix execs rubbing their hands with glee ahead of The Crown, a global hit for the SVoD giant, entering production on its third season this summer. The show, which centres on Queen Elizabeth II, will return with an entirely new cast as the action picks up at a later stage in the characters’ lives.

While the new actors face a daunting task in living up to the rave reviews earned by Claire Foy (Elizabeth), Matt Smith (Prince Philip) and co, The Crown’s creator and writer Peter Morgan is braced for the equally difficult proposition of outdoing his acclaimed work on the first two seasons of the show.

“I’m still slightly embarrassed to be writing about these people and to find myself still doing this,” admits Morgan, for whom The Crown is a third major project with the UK’s reigning monarch at its centre, following 2006 film The Queen and 2013 play The Audience, both of which starred Dame Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II. “I yearn to write a heist film,” he jokes.

Peter Morgan between Matt Smith and Claire Foy, stars of the first two seasons of The Crown

So what is it that keeps Morgan coming back to the royals? “They link us – they connect all of us,” says the Academy Award nominee. “There’s something really interesting and profound about the way all of our lives are interconnected with theirs. They are, at some level, the thing that unites all of us. Our grandparents, our parents, our children – [the Queen] has been there as a constant for everyone, and this family has been there.

“Whatever you may feel about them, about monarchy, we’ve lived with this very special relationship with this extraordinary woman. Whatever you feel about [the existence of a monarchy], it never stops binding us together.”

Making a drama about such high-profile figures inevitably invites scrutiny over historical accuracy. And while Morgan is keen to stress that he has never purported to be a “documentarian,” that’s not to say he doesn’t feel enormous pressure to get things right. “If you start to make an imagination about certain relationships, about certain moments in history, to offer an explanation about why people did something and you shortcut it because you have an hour to explain why something like the Suez conflict happened,” he says. “I feel the responsibility of that and whether I’m misjudging it or I’ve oversimplified it.

“The good news about these characters is we do know where they are most of the time – it’s a matter of public record. You know where they were on which day and what they were doing. My job is to join the dots. We have to make some leaps of imagination about how people were feeling. And maybe sometimes I get it wrong.”

Literally holding up his hands, he adds: “This is just me having a punt. I’m just guessing.”

The writer initially had an idea for one season of the show, with plans to focus on the young queen’s relationship with prime minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) in the 1950s. But it soon became clear that there was a much bigger story to tell.

The Netflix show has been described as the most expensive drama ever – something Morgan refutes

“It just gets more and more interesting the closer you look and the longer you give it,” Morgan says of Elizabeth’s reign. “The truth is, if I gave it the same time again, I could still find more stories to tell.”

Netflix clearly agrees, with The Crown already confirmed for a fourth season before the third has even started filming. And so, it seems, do the streamer’s subscribers. While Netflix is famously tight-lipped over viewing figures, Morgan expresses his surprise at what he has learned about the show’s audience.

“One of the things that’s been interesting to watch is how different generations have connected with the show,” he says. “To be honest with you, this is crass, but I thought this would appeal largely to educated, mainly female, over 40s. But all the research suggests it’s completely different. I think that speaks to the unconscious current that [the Queen’s] face, her presence, has in all our lives.”

Indeed, even without viewing statistics, The Crown’s importance to Netflix is evidenced by its prominence in marketing material for the streamer’s offerings around the world. It’s also among the most critically acclaimed drama originals Netflix has served up so far.

Of course, the greatest proof is in the cold hard cash Netflix has fronted up for the series, which has been touted as the most expensive TV show ever made, with £100m (US$135.28m) being a commonly cited figure. However, Morgan bristles at such claims. “None of the rumours of our budget were true, none of them,” he insists, “and it’s been sort of painful not to be able to say it. We have perfectly healthy budgets, but there are many television shows that have larger budgets.”

Olivia Colman, pictured in The Night Manager, will replace Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in season three

Regardless of the actual financial details, The Crown represented a major coup for Netflix back in 2014. The streamer reportedly outmuscled both the BBC and ITV to secure its first UK original, produced by Left Bank Pictures, in a move seen by many as a watershed moment in the power struggle between traditional linear broadcasters and the SVoD contenders.

Netflix will be hoping its faith in the show continues to pay off in season three, and with a host of talented actors forming the show’s new cast, it surely has little to fear. Leading the pack is Olivia Colman (Peep Show, Broadchurch, The Night Manager) who replaces Foy on the throne as Elizabeth II. Tobias Menzies (The Terror) will play Prince Philip, while Helena Bonham Carter and Jason Watkins will also star as the action shifts from the 50s to the 70s, when Harold Wilson was UK prime minister.

It’s hard to think of a better choice than Colman for the lead role. The actor has the ability to be “both plain and dazzling,” says Morgan. “There’s a sort of everywoman [quality to her]. She’s very connectable and yet quite anonymous. We were all excited about her.”

Colman needed no convincing. “We rang her up and she said yes on the phone,” Morgan reveals. “She didn’t want to meet or anything. It was weird because we rang her on the day that she had just watched it, and her husband had said, ‘Claire Foy is just so good!’ But she said yes on the spot – normally it’s a big palaver.”

With work on season three still at a very early stage, detail is scant. But one thing we do know is that Colman will be the highest-paid cast member this time out, after it was controversially revealed that Foy was paid significantly less than Smith for the first two seasons of the show.

Morgan, meanwhile, is just focused on getting through it. “I have yet to enjoy the moment of feeling confident,” he says. “I just feel overwhelmed and nervous as my default condition. I gather there are pills you can take. That’s how I feel about the show. The biggest challenge for me is all the time thinking of misjudging it. I describe the show as a haemophiliac – if you touch it too hard in the wrong place, it will bruise.”

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Crowning glory

Ahead of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s impending nuptials, royal marriages will be pushed further into the spotlight in season two of Netflix’s The Crown. DQ visits the set to hear how the Queen’s union with Prince Philip is pushed to the limit in the second run.

In what looks like a car park at Elstree Film Studios, situated next to a large branch of Tesco, sits Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street.

The doors and gates of Buckingham Palace are surrounded by green screens that allow The Crown’s crew to work their magic so that it really looks like a palace rather than a particularly ornate bit of plywood. Meanwhile, the door of the somewhat grubby-looking prime ministerial home is taller than normal; it was raised by nine inches to make John Lithgow look more like the rather smaller Winston Churchill in the first season and now it is stuck at that size.

These two buildings, weighted with history, are at the heart of British life and the interweaving stories of what goes on behind their doors are the spine of the award-winning show, one of the most ambitious pieces of television ever made.

The first two seasons cost a rumoured £100m (US$133m) but almost every penny can be seen on screen. This season also spans Antarctica, the South Seas, the Suez Canal, Scotland, Lisbon, Washington, Nazi Germany, Paris and Ghana, while much of the action of the first three episodes takes place on the Royal Yacht Britannia. No effort has been spared to make this sumptuous world believable.

The second season of The Crown sharpens the focus on the relationship between the Queen and Prince Philip, played by Claire Foy and Matt Smith respectively

The characters, too, are larger than life, encompassing everyone from the Kennedys and preacher Billy Graham to cuckolded prime minister Harold Macmillan and Christine Keeler, the showgirl who helped bring down a government. But, at the heart of it, is a special but often dysfunctional family.

The Crown showed the world a very different side of the royals in its 10-part first season. Starring Claire Foy as a naïve but eager-to-please princess who found the crown thrust upon her two decades before she expected it and Matt Smith as her alpha male husband who was forced to give up his own aspirations to stand behind his wife, the show humanised them and made them more understandable.

“I am not a Queen nutter or anything,” insists Peter Morgan, the show’s creator and writer. He first wrote about Elizabeth II in The Queen, the Oscar-winning film about how the Palace and prime minister Tony Blair reacted to the death of Princess Diana. That led to The Audience, the award-winning play where he looked at the secret weekly meetings between the monarch and prime ministers over the decades. The Crown, the entire second season of which landed on Netflix today, was the obvious next step.

As a younger man, Morgan was a republican, but he admits he has since changed his mind. “Most sensible people in the early 1990s probably thought this lot should be kicked out,” he says. “But if we had a referendum on the royal family tomorrow, I think 80% of the country would vote to keep them. I certainly would. I really would. Look at the heads of state everywhere else – there has been a catastrophic failure of the political class in the last couple of years, but [the Queen] represents stability.”

Dexter star Michael C Hall as JFK alongside Jodi Balfour as Jackie Kennedy

The second season of the Netflix show, which is made by Left Bank Pictures and distributor Sony Pictures Television, starts in 1956 with prime minister Anthony Eden’s disastrous Suez Crisis and ends in 1964 with his successor, Harold Macmillan, resigning amid the Profumo scandal. In every crisis, the Queen is left to pick up the broken pieces, as she has so many times since.

In this season we also see how, despite her home life being turbulent, the Queen always puts duty first. Her marriage to Philip is particularly under the spotlight at the start of the 10-episode run.

“Doesn’t everybody in Britain know Philip’s had an affair?” teases Morgan. The answer is no; no one knows for sure whether he had an affair or two, but there have been plenty of rumours. The season plays on them, and how they and Philip’s playboy behaviour impact the Queen. The rumours arc across the season, starting with Philip’s five-month tour on the HMS Britannia that took him away from his family to open the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and visit some of the Commonwealth’s far-flung islands. It ends with his name being mixed up in the Profumo affair.

History has proved the Queen and the Duke of Cambridge’s marriage to be spectacularly successful and last month they celebrated 70 years together. It meant the programme-makers had to think hard about how to treat these rumours, and they tread the line carefully.

The Crown creator Peter Morgan sandwiched between stars Smith and Foy

“There has never been any confirmation of an affair and it would be prurient, really horrible and irresponsible to make hefty suggestions,” says Left Bank’s Suzanne Mackie. “We know for a fact that this has been a very long and successful marriage. So many people we have talked to, historians and people who have worked in the palace, say they have witnessed a lot of love and affection in this marriage. We have nothing but respect for that. It would be ghastly of us to say anything else.

“And yet, like any marriage, it has to go through periods of change and periods of uncertainty and instability. It is something most of us have experienced; this is a real marriage and we would be whitewashing it to say it was happy all the way through. So we go on a complicated twisting, winding road and we hope that we come out with something truthful.”

While the programme-makers have always been keen to stress they are making drama, not a documentary, they try not to steer too far from facts. A group of historians dubbed The Brains Trust both suggest storylines to Morgan and also ensure the spirit, if not the letter, of the drama is correct.

One story sees the Queen fall out with Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) over nasty comments the First Lady made about the monarch. This plot element was based on rumours in Cecil Beaton’s diaries but is heavily fictionalised. A separate story about the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), the Queen’s uncle who abdicated the throne, and his Nazi past is more based on fact. It hinges around the discovery of the Marburg Files, which indicated just how sympathetic the Duke was to Germany’s ambitions.

Matthew Goode and Vanessa Kirby, who play Tony Armstrong-Jones and Princess Margaret

“You can access the files at the British library and they are amazing,” says Philippa Lowthorpe, the Bafta-winning director who helmed the episode. “When we were filming, I carried them around in my bag so when the crew asked – and they frequently did – how much of it really was true, I could fish them out and show them.

“They are telegrams and letters from people who were around the Duke. Everybody was talking about him. They were manipulating him but he didn’t seem to mind. He had sympathies with Hitler and his philosophy.

“We used copies of the real files throughout the show and there’s a scene where the Queen is given them. It was the first time Claire got to read them – there are about 60 documents in the file – and when she finished the scene she just said, ‘Oh my God.’” Just to emphasis how true this story is, real pictures of the Duke are used at the end of this particular episode.

Meanwhile, the turbulence we see in the love life of Princess Margaret, played by Vanessa Kirby, who in this season meets and marries the philanderer Tony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), is also based on fact.

“Tony represents the shock of the new, which is a real theme of the series,” says director Ben Caron, who directed three episodes of season two. “This is the end of the age of deference and the royals are being thrust into the modern era. Tony is from an artistic world and he challenges all the conventions people have got used to.”

The plan is to have six seasons altogether and filming for the third starts in July but with an entirely new cast who will take the royals into the 70s and 80s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. Olivia Colman, the Bafta- and Golden Globe-winning star of Broadchurch and The Night Manager, will replace Claire Foy as an older version of the Queen, while the producers are close to choosing the rest of their royal family.

Caron, who directed the final scene to feature Foy, Kirby and Goode (ironically one that has not made the final cut), says wrapping the shoot was a bittersweet moment. “The gaffers put on an amazing light display and turned the whole room into a big disco,” he says. “Everyone had slowly started appearing on set from all the departments you don’t always see and you suddenly realise the magnitude of the thing.

“There were a few speeches and some champagne. We’ve all been on this amazing two-year journey together – we’ve seen more of each other than we’ve seen of our own families and it was tough having to say goodbye to the cast. But, for the rest of us, the work continues.”

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Westworld and The Crown head Golden Globe noms

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed the nominations for its annual Golden Globe film and TV awards – the next edition of which will be held in February 2017.

Some TV shows on the shortlists seem to have become permanent fixtures, notably Game of Thrones, Transparent and Veep. But there will also be stiff competition from a range of excellent new shows.

Westworld’s viewing figures improved as the debut season reached its climax

A key contender in the Best Television Series – Drama category is HBO’s Westworld, which also picked up nominations in two other categories. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show has just finished its first season with an average of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date (2.2 million). All of which bodes well for the second, which is likely to air in 2018.

Also in the running is Netflix’s royal epic The Crown, which we discussed last week. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is up for Best Television Series – Drama as well as two acting gongs. It’s 10 years since Morgan received an Oscar nomination for The Queen, so perhaps now would be a fitting time for him to win a top award for his royal endeavours. With an IMDb score of 9.0 and superb reviews, it’s another incredibly strong contender.

Arguably the surprise package of the year has been another Netflix show, Stranger Things, which also finished its first season with an IMDb score of 9. Up for awards in two categories (including Best TV Drama), the show follows the disappearance of a young boy at the same time as the appearance of a girl with telekinetic powers.

The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things was one of the hits of the year

The show was created by the Duffer Brothers, who featured in this DQ feature on 1980s-inspired TV. Commenting on the Netflix relationship, Ross Duffer said: “They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”

The Best TV Drama category is rounded out by the much feted Game of Thrones (David Benioff and DB Weiss) and This Is Us, the only one of the five shows that airs on a free-to-air network in the US (NBC). The latter has been one of the strongest-performing new shows of the 2016/2017 season and is very likely to be renewed for a second season.

It was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Fogelman also wrote Fox’s new drama Pitch and is waiting to see if that show has done well enough to secure a renewal.

Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us

Battling it out for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television are American Crime, The Dresser, The Night Manager, The Night Of and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.

ABC’s American Crime, recently commissioned for a third season, is the creation of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is pretty well regarded by critics but is unlikely to come out ahead of some of the other shows in this category.

FX’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, winner of five Emmys, is probably the one to beat. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Globes.

That said, the Golden Globes isn’t shy of choosing outsiders – as it did last year when it gave Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall the top drama awards. Wolf Hall’s success in this category last year provides encouragement for the British nominees – The Night Manager, written by David Farr based on the John Le Carre novel; and The Dresser, the latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed 1980 play of the same name (written for screen and adapted by Richard Eyre).

David Farr

However, both of them will have to go some way to beat HBO’s The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Of course, if The Night Of does win it will owe a debt to the Brits, because it is based on Peter Moffat’s excellent series Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008/2009).

As referenced above, Mozart in the Jungle was the surprise winner of Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes. So it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top this time out. Mozart, created by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Weitz, is in the running again, as are Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Armando Iannucci’s Veep, both of which are strong contenders.

This is, however, a category where the Globes could make a positive statement in favour of diversity, with both Atlanta and Black-ish on its shortlist.

Donald Glover’s Atlanta has been a success for FX this year, generating an 8.7 rating on IMDb and bedding in with a respectable 880,000 average audience for season one. ABC’s Black-ish is now in season three and hovers around the five million mark. Created by Kenya Barris, the show has been a solid performer but would be a surprising winner.

Donald Glover

The five dramas that received nominations in Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama were Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Ray Donovan and Goliath. In other words, a completely different line-up to the overall best drama category. This contrasts with Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, where the only divergence from the overall category was a nomination for Graves instead of Veep. This is explained by the fact that the heartbeat of Veep is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated in the actress category. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn out here, it’s that there is generally closer alignment between creator and cast in comedy series.

In terms of shows that have been overlooked this year, the Globes didn’t pay much attention to Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s much-feted Orange is the New Black. The mood also seems to have moved away from Shondaland dramas for the time being.

In fact, viewed from the perspective of writers, it’s been a pretty poor year for women, with Lisa Joy and Jill Soloway the only two high-profile female figures to be involved in the headline categories. It’s a reminder that supporting diversity has many dimensions.

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Reign ends but royalty remains

Reign dramatises the life of Mary, Queen of ScotsOn Wednesday, The CW announced that the fourth season of Reign, which debuts on February 10, will be the last. The news is no real surprise given that the show’s ratings have been pretty modest since launch. Season three averaged 970,000 per episode, which puts it at the lower end of the channel’s typical ratings. An IMDB score of 7.6 also suggests it won’t be massively missed.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Reign is a period drama that chronicles the rise of Mary, Queen of Scots in 16th century Europe. It is not overly concerned with historical accuracy and is generally viewed as a guilty pleasure. It is significant, however, in that it is part of a broad array of TV shows that have placed royalty at the heart of their stories. So this week, to mark the end of Reign, we’re looking at this sub-genre.

thecrownThe Crown Netflix is reckoned to have ploughed US$100m into this exploration of Queen Elizabeth II’s early life. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the show has received pretty much universal acclaim and is currently sitting pretty with an IMDb score of 9.
A second season has been commissioned and the intention is that the series will run for five or six seasons (though Morgan has not yet committed to such a lengthy run).

victoriaVictoria Vying with The Crown as the best royal series of the year is ITV’s Victoria. Written by Daisy Goodwin, the show has a similar blueprint to The Crown. Starting with the early life of the famous 19th British monarch, the show is intended to follow her through her life, with season two already commissioned.
The show did well in the UK ratings, with an average audience of seven to eight million on Sunday evenings. It has also sold well internationally, although it’s too early to tell how the global market is responding to the show. It will premiere on PBS in the US on January 15. Its IMDb score is 8.3.

tudorsThe Tudors Michael Hirst’s epic series for Showtime helped kick-start the global trade in lavish, semi-fictionalised TV series about monarchy, power, aristocracy and the like. Aired for four seasons between 2007 and 2010, episodes of the show typically attracted an audience of around 700,000-900,000 for the US cable network.
The series starts during Henry VIII’s reign but doesn’t always stick to the facts. Explaining why, Hirst said: “Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. And we wanted people to watch it.” On balance, he argued: “Any confusion created by the changes is outweighed by the interest the series may inspire in the period and its figures.”
US cable channel Ovation recently acquired all four seasons of The Tudors to accompany its investment in Versailles (below). Note: other series to have explored the Tudor period include the BBC’s excellent Wolf Hall and ITV’s 2003 miniseries Henry VIII. The Tudors achieved an IMDb score of 8.1, Wolf Hall 8.2.

versaillesVersailles Set during the reign of Louis XIV of France, this Canal+ drama rated well at home and has sold widely around the world. A second season is on its way and a third has already been commissioned, with production due to start in April 2017.
The first season rated pretty well on BBC2 in the UK and has been renewed. In the US, it aired on arts channel Ovation – which scored its highest ever ratings when it aired the first two episodes back to back (a combined total audience of 557,000).
Dubbed by one critic as the music video version of French history, the show hasn’t achieved the same critical acclaim as The Crown or Victoria, but it is praised for its high production values.

magnificent-century-kosem-10Magnificent Century Timur Savci’s sumptuous period drama was a big hit at home and also been sold into more than 40 territories. It did, however, receive some criticism from conservative elements within Turkey, who called it “disrespectful and hedonistic.”
The show, which ran for 139 episodes between 2011 and 2014, is based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It was followed by Magnificent Century: Kosem, which jumps forward four decades to tell the story of a female ruler who began her life as a slave girl. This show, also produced by Savci, has sold well internationally. Season one of Kosem aired on Star and season two on Fox.

theroyalsThe Royals E! Entertainment’s The Royals is currently into its third season with an audience in the 600,000 range. This after the show averaged one million-plus for season one and around 750,000 for season two.
The show is a novel take on the notion of royalty, since it is based around a fictional British royal family. Elizabeth Hurley plays Queen Helena, a matriarchal figure attempting to maintain the family’s public image while dealing with a range of domestic problems. One of the key plot lines sees her son, Prince Liam, unexpectedly become first in line to the throne after his older brother dies. IMDb gives the show a 7.4 rating.

mary-princessMary: The Making of a Princess The Brits aren’t the only ones with a royal family, of course. In 2015, Network Ten in Australia ran a TV movie about Mary Donaldson, a young Australian woman who married into the Danish royal family after a chance meeting at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The show, produced by FremantleMedia, got a meagre 6.1 rating on IMDb and mixed reviews, but actually rated well with around a million viewers.
Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne: Historical royal dramas are popular for a few reasons. One is that they are less politically sensitive than stories about current royals. Another is that it is easier to fictionalise a dead royal’s life than a living one’s. And not to be overlooked is the fact that there are more royal families to work with, since a few of them have ceased to exist.
In this lavish production, for example, the focus is on the love story between the son of Frederick III and the daughter of the Duke Of Burgundy in the 1400s. Budgeted at around €16m (US$17m), it is a coproduction between MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF.

the-queens-sisterThe Queen’s Sister As Mark Lawson observed in an article in UK newspaper The Guardian last year, TV producers tend to take a slightly deferential look at recent royals, saving the controversy for long-dead monarchs (notably Henry VIII). One slight exception to this rule is the Queen’s late sister Margaret, who is generally portrayed in the media as something of a hedonist.
In 2006, Channel 4 told her story in a biopic entitled The Queen’s Sister, with Lucy Cohu as Margaret. Critics were divided over the show, some calling it satirical, others tawdry. It secured a number of Bafta nomination and aired on BBC America. See Lawson’s article here.

powerandpassionCharles II: The Power and The Passion A good example of how historic royals are fair game, this BBC production looks at the feckless and lazy side of this 17th century British monarch, restored to the throne after the death of his father’s nemesis Oliver Cromwell.
Written by Adrian Hodges and starring Rufus Sewell, the show does make an attempt to be historically accurate, relying to some extent on Antonia Fraser’s book Charles II. The show aired in the US and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. IMDb gives it a rating of 7.6.

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A royally good show

Television’s most expensive ever series dramatises the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. DQ hears from the creative team behind The Crown.

At a rumoured £100m (US$124m), Netflix has paid a princely sum for its latest original series.

No expense was spared for The Crown, the US streaming service’s first original British drama that was given a 20-episode, two season order. Season one launches today.

The series tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign, revealing her personal intrigues and romances as well as the political rivalries that shaped the second half of the 20th century.

Peter Morgan
Peter Morgan

Opening in 1947, it begins as Britain is still reeling from the devastation of the Second World War. Food supplies are still rationed and the government is running out of money. But against this backdrop, the nation is mesmerised by the marriage of young princess Elizabeth to the dashing Philip Mountbatten.

Expecting many years of married bliss before ascending to the throne, Elizabeth’s simple life is cut short when her father, King George VI, dies unexpectedly and she inherits the crown at the age of 25 –along with the unimaginable burden it brings.

The Crown sees creator Peter Morgan (The Queen) reunite with director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) and executive producer Andy Harries (The Queen), a trio that previously worked on the Tony Award-winning play The Audience, which recalled Elizabeth II’s weekly meetings with her prime ministers across 60 years of her reign.

Suzanne Mackie executive produces, with Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Inception) composing the music, making The Crown his first ever television project. It is produced by Left Bank Pictures.

Claire Foy (Wolf Hall) and Matt Smith (Doctor Who) star as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, with Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret and John Lithgow as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The cast also includes Jared Harris, Victoria Hamilton, Dame Eileen Atkins, Alex Jennings and Lia Williams.

Netflix has commissioned two seasons of the drama at a cost of £100m, with filming taking place across southern England, featuring stately homes, churches, airfields, streetscapes, town halls and schools. Lancaster House, on Pall Mall in central London, doubles for the state rooms inside Buckingham Palace, while other sets were recreated at Elstree Studios in north London, including the private chambers of Elizabeth and Philip, the Buckingham Palace offices and 10 Downing Street offices, as well as back lots with the gates of Buckingham Palace and the world-famous 10 Downing Street front door.

Location filming also included trips to Scotland and South Africa, which is the setting for Elizabeth and Philip’s trip to Kenya early in the first season.

Daldry says: “We were thrilled to make this. I have to say it’s been one of the most enjoyable professional experiences of my life. It’s been an extraordinary journey. We’re in the middle of shooting season two. In the end, we’re expecting to do six seasons, maybe seven.”

Here, DQ hears more from the director as well as Morgan and Mackie as they discuss the origins of the project, working with Netflix and why they see Claire Foy as the leading actress of her generation.

The Crown
Filming on season two of The Crown is already underway

The Crown’s origins come from Peter Morgan’s enjoyment in writing scenes between the Queen and her prime ministers…

Morgan: A few years ago I wrote [2003 film] The Deal, the story about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. [Left Bank Pictures CEO and The Crown executive producer] Andy Harries then said, “Why don’t you do the same again but with the murder of [Princess] Diana?” So I tried to write that and it was preposterous. I said I wanted to put Tony Blair in and they said, “Don’t put Tony Blair in.” Then I did and we made The Queen with Helen Mirren, and I so enjoyed writing the bits between the prime minister and the Queen. I don’t really like writing about The Queen on her own, I like writing about her in conjunction with prime ministers, because it’s sort of about how we’re made up and what we’re about. Then I thought I’d quite like to write some more prime ministers so I wrote the play [The Audience]. The scene I most enjoyed writing was the one between Winston Churchill and her. So that’s where it came from. I then wrote a film version but then thought it might work better for television.
I thought I was just writing two episodes. Then we went to America to see if anybody wanted to coproduce and Netflix said they’d like two seasons, which took us aback a bit. Then I started writing. We’re now filming season two.

Daldry: Peter and I have always been trying to work together. Then we did the play and decided we wanted to continue working together. It’s been lovely and we’ve had a fantastic working relationship on the play and we continued to work on this. I’m assuming we’ll carry on; the story carries on. I want to because I find it endlessly fascinating. It’s not just the story of the royal family, it’s the story of who we are, why we’re here and what we dream of, in a way. That’s where I find it amazingly interesting. It’s the story of our nation.

A writer wouldn’t choose royalty as their protagonist, they’d choose Tony Soprano…

Morgan: As a dramatist you wouldn’t necessarily choose her as a centrepiece – you’d choose Tony Soprano, because he has violence and mood swings and he is decisive and you can pretty much take him in any direction and it feels plausible. The Queen is not necessarily who I would choose as a protagonist but because of the predicament she finds herself in, the more I dug into it, the more writing about her became interesting to me – writing about a woman who becomes two women and the effect that this extraordinary burden has on her. Whichever point of the second half of the 20th century you dip into, either [the royal family] are making a complete mess of things or the politicians are making a complete mess of things. They’re pulling themselves in and out of pitfalls and there’s something so spectacularly illogical about the British constitution that it becomes quite romantic.

Matt Smith
Former Doctor Who star Matt Smith plays Prince Philip

(Almost) everything you see on screen really happened

Daldry: We do have the most amazing research team in the world. It works as a team effort so every circumstance that you can possibly imagine that we dramatise – even the things you think are created by the director – they are documented moments. They actually happened. It’s endlessly fascinating to us. Of course, it is an interpretation of those events, it’s bound to be. We’re not trying to make a documentary, we’re artists interpreting it, but the facts themselves are phenomenally interesting. A good example [of artistic licence] would be at the very end of episode two. The Queen goes to Sandringham and sees the body of her father. I know she didn’t [in real life], it’s documented she did not see the body of her father. But I think it would be more dramatically interesting if she went into the bedroom and saw her father. Everything is a moment of discussion about where we part from absolute reality and where we want to heighten the drama. Emotionally I felt she wanted to see it, even if it’s not literally true.

Morgan: It’s commonplace on a show like this to have a writers room. But we don’t really have a writers room; we have a researchers room. We have seven or eight people working full time doing research so what will happen is I will ask them to do this and that or find this and that as I’m writing it and I will map out at the same time what an approximate structure is for the episode or for the season or the story or whatever it is. So they are constantly feeding back at me while I’m writing.

Everyone working on The Crown was in awe of Claire Foy’s performance…

Daldry: We’d always appreciated Claire Foy in all the shows that she’d done but now it suddenly seems she has become the leading actress of her generation. Suddenly she’s gone into this extraordinary realm. We are all in awe of Claire. It’s an extraordinary performance of being the most visible/invisible woman in the world but also a woman you never quite get to grips with. All the times I’ve spent time with the Queen, you know her and you don’t know her. You think you’re getting somewhere and there’s this other world you have no access to. Claire does this extraordinary tightrope walk between giving you access and not giving you access. It’s an extraordinary performance.

Mackie: She was pregnant when she auditioned so by the time we got to principle photography, it was a very inauspicious start. We started at Elstree and we realised we needed bigger rooms and scale and depth and corridors. Starting in Scotland was very necessary. Claire had just given birth and although we started in the summer, it was horrendously windy, the weather was awful and, poor thing, she was just trying desperately to adapt to this sudden shock of being on set in a very beautiful but challenging location with a newborn baby and playing a princess. She was stoical, brilliant and professional. And we’re gifted with a cast who are not only very, very good but also incredibly nice. We’ve not had tantrums or difficulties. Claire carries so much of this and she’s a delight.

the-crown-s1-ep5-3
Claire Foy is earning rave reviews for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II

“It’s an expensive show, but it’s not that expensive…”

Morgan: No writer has ever been told the truth about money, ever. But when I read [the cost of the show], I think, ‘That doesn’t describe the experience we were having.’ Whatever sums of money we did get, you have to halve it because we have two seasons.

Daldry: It’s an expensive show, but it’s not that expensive. At the moment we’re discussing a scene in season two where Jackie Kennedy comes to see the Queen. We think it’s quite important to show the expanse and scale of Air Force One in comparison to the British Comet. So Peter and I are quite vigorously hanging onto the idea we have to build Air Force One.

Writing for Netflix made a period drama feel modern and progressive…

Morgan: There’s something about Netflix that made it feel modern and progressive, and that galvanised me and my storytelling and made me excited to go back to this material because I felt I was doing it at the same time as I was moving forwards. I felt somehow that even though I was writing about something in the past, I was at some level at the cutting edge of where we were going. Even if I do continue with this, I imagine the way in which we’ll be watching seasons further down the road will be very different to how we’re watching now. I’m too unimaginative to be able to project where we’ll be with watching television in five or 10 years.

Daldry: One of the great things about Netflix is I said: “How do you feel about the show? Are you happy with the show?” They said: “The best thing about this show is we said yes and got out of the way.” It’s such an unusual experience. They were so enthusiastic and so easy to work with. It’s great [not to have anyone] telling you what to do – just saying, “Keep going and we’re loving what you’re doing.”

John Lithgow
US actor John Lithgow as Winston Churchill

The royal family weren’t involved in the production…

Morgan: I want to keep my distance. I’ve ducked the opportunity to meet [the Queen] a couple of times, not because I don’t want to but I’d be in shock. I just think it’s better for her, better for us to have complete independence. I want to be free to write how and what I want. I want the work to speak for itself and I don’t want to feel that I’m endorsed or supported or that I owe anyone. Equally, I want them to have total deniability and to [be able to] say I got it all wrong. Both sides being able to give one another that respect and independence is important.

Writing season two while filming the first was tough…

Morgan: I was polishing certain episodes that were being shot, I was looking at rushes of certain episodes being shot, there were other episodes to be shot and I was still having to write season two. I got pretty low during that – but I didn’t have time to get low, I was just sunken eyed. It was tough.

There will be a new queen in future seasons…

Daldry: At the moment we’re casting for the difficulty Prince Charles had at [his school] Gordonstoun. We’re casting Jackie Kennedy, JFK – the casting process never stops. And it’s a fantastic ensemble of actors. We are trying, and we are achieving at the moment, to [bring together] a wonderful group of people. It’s not only the best of our British acting talent but people with the right spirit and the right grace. John Lithgow was an unusual piece of casting. He said: “Why on Earth do you think of me as Churchill?” I said: “You’re American, you’ll be fine.”

Morgan: We did it [cast an American actor] for The Queen with James Cromwell [who played Prince Philip] and I thought when certain parts are so iconic and you feel like you’ve seen the turn being done before, somehow Lithgow brings an iconic, leftfield aspect.

Daldry: We are going to have to cast another queen. Claire Foy will do a second season and then we’re recasting for the queen in middle age.

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Morgan and Thorne doing it write

Peter Morgan
Peter Morgan

The UK’s Royal Television Society (RTS) held its annual Programme Awards last week. Winning scripted shows included The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (which took Best Drama Serial), No Offence (drama series), Catastrophe (scripted comedy), Coalition (single drama) and Emmerdale (soap/continuing drama).

There were also writer awards for Peter Morgan (The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies) and Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, who write and star in Catastrophe.

Morgan overcame competition from Russell T Davies (Cucumber) and Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne (This is England ’90), with judges describing his writing as “skilful and poignant… absolutely first rate.” They called the drama “compelling and tender… it took the viewer on a deeply moving emotional journey.”

Morgan, 53 next month, is not new to TV. But until now he has been best known for a series of idiosyncratic feature films.

Having written the romcom Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence in 1998 and TV series The Jury in 2002, his career took a decisive step forward in 2003 with a TV movie called The Deal, which told the story of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s power-sharing deal. In 2006, he wrote a superb film-length follow-up called The Queen, which explored the reaction of the political and royal establishment to the death of Princess Diana. This earned him an Academy Award nomination and a deserved Golden Globe.

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies centres on the true story on a man wrongly implicated in a murder case
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies centres on the true story of a man wrongly implicated in a murder case

More acclaim followed with productions including The Last King of Scotland (adapted for the screen with Jeremy Brock); Frost/Nixon (play and screenplay); The Other Boleyn Girl, The Damned United, Rush and The Aftermath (the third in Morgan’s so-called Blair trilogy). And then came the RTS Award-winning Christopher Jefferies miniseries, written for UK broadcaster ITV.

Morgan, who has a brilliant knack of making the political seem personal, isn’t finished with TV. He’s currently working with Left Bank Pictures on The Crown, an epic US$100m drama for Netflix.

Based on a play by Morgan called The Audience, it tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign. Anyone familiar with Morgan’s previous writing on the themes of power, establishment and intrigue will appreciate that he is perfectly suited to such a project – though it will be interesting to see how he copes with the much larger creative canvas offered by a 10-part TV series.

When the project was announced, he said: “The Crown is not only about the royal family but about an empire in decline, a world in disarray and the dawn of a new era. I am beyond thrilled to be reunited with partners from film, theatre and TV (director Stephen Daldry and producer Andy Harries) for this epic project and delighted to be working for the first time with Netflix.”

This Is England '90 is the final part of Jack Thorne's franchise
This Is England ’90 is likely the final part of Jack Thorne and Shane Meadows’ franchise

To date, Netflix has only ordered a first season. But it’s highly likely there will be future series of the show covering more recent stages in the Queen’s reign. So it might be a while before we see another movie or miniseries from Morgan.

As an interesting side note, Bafta has just announced its own TV awards nominations and there is no place there for Morgan’s Jefferies drama. Titles shortlisted for this event include Humans, The Last Panthers, No Offence and Wolf Hall (for Best Drama Series); Doctor Foster, The Enfield Haunting, London Spy, This Is England ’90 (miniseries); The Good Wife, Narcos, Spiral and Transparent (International Series); and The C-Word, Cyberbully, Don’t Take My Baby and The Go-Between (single drama).

In the context of the Baftas, the big winner is Thorne, who is attached to The Last Panthers, This Is England ’90 and Don’t Take My Baby.

In other news this week, Sky1 has commissioned a second season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, which is produced by Carnival Films in collaboration with Lee’s POW! Entertainment. As the name suggests, Lucky Man is based on an idea by superhero icon Stan Lee. But it’s another example of the trend towards greenlighting dramas with high-profile names and then getting other people to do the actual writing job.

The third season of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror will debut on Netflix
The third season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror will debut on Netflix

In this case, for example, the show was written by Neil Biswas, Ben Schiffer, Rachel Anthony, James Allen, Stephen Gallagher and Alan Westaway. Biswas, who is credited on all 10 episodes of Lucky Man season one, was already known to Sky, having written an episode of Sinbad a few years ago. His other credits include The Take, Bradford Riots and In a Land of Plenty.

Elsewhere, there was further evidence this week of the superstar status now afforded to leading TV writers, with Channel 4 losing out to Netflix on the UK first-window rights to season three of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.

Channel 4 was the first company to back Brooker’s project but a huge financial deal saw Netflix take control of an expanded version of the project for season three. Channel 4 thought it would still be given the opportunity to premiere the show in the UK, but Black Mirror producer Endemol Shine has licensed first-run rights to Netflix. This isn’t hugely surprising but C4 is not happy.

11.22.63 stars James Franco (left)
11.22.63 stars James Franco (left)

In a statement, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt said: “Black Mirror couldn’t be a more Channel 4 show. We grew it from a dangerous idea to a brand that resonated globally. Of course, it’s disappointing that the first broadcast window in the UK is then sold to the highest bidder, ignoring the risk a publicly owned channel like 4 took backing it.”

Other projects in the news this week include Hulu series 11.22.63. Based on a book of the same name by Stephen King, the series centres on Jake Epping, a recently divorced teacher from Maine (played by James Franco) who travels back in time and has an opportunity to prevent the assassination of US president John F Kennedy (though things don’t quite go as planned). The show is executive produced by JJ Abrams, Stephen King and Bridget Carpenter, who has also taken a lead role in its writing.

This week, 11.22.63 was picked up by Canal+ in France, having previously been licensed for use by Fox Networks Europe. The show currently has an 8.8 rating on IMDb, which marks it out as a strong performer.

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