Peter Morgan, creator of Netflix’s The Crown, reflects on second season, his tips from royal insiders and the joy of an angrily buttered scone.
In its second season, The Crown managed to combine the Suez crisis, the Profumo affair and the celebrity of JFK and Jackie Kennedy with the drama of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s marital woes, their son Charles’s unhappy school years and the romantic tribulations of Princess Margaret.
It was an impressive feat of storytelling, and an example of what series creator and sole writer Peter Morgan says is “the biggest challenge but also the biggest reward of doing the show - interweaving a family saga into the complex web of both national and international political events. That’s what it offers a writer, the ability to lurch between the intimate and the personal and the political and the epic.”
But if the second season, which continues the inside story of the British royal family and their political counterparts into the years 1957-63, seemed a little darker than the first - albeit with the same sumptuous production values that have helped make the show a right royal hit for Netflix - that, according to Morgan, was not by design.
“It wasn’t that I set out with a world view,” says Morgan, who is also an executive producer of the series, which is produced by the UK’s Left Bank Pictures and Sony Pictures Television. It was just that “by the time the story started, [Elizabeth and Philip] had hit that 10-year rut in their marriage and I used that as a way of exploring some marital challenges”.
There was also the fact that the returning cast led by Claire Foy as Elizabeth, Matt Smith as Philip and Vanessa Kirby as Margaret had settled in to the high-pressure task of playing globally recognised and, in the first two instances, still living public figures. “It felt that the actors were more confident in their roles, less hesitant perhaps,” Morgan suggests.
“So when they let rip, it gave the impression of feeling more fleshed out or more nuanced. They were bringing more of their personal stuff into it, so it was deeper.”
Not that the season was entirely free of lighter moments. One that has already become a fan favourite happens during an intimate high tea with Jackie Kennedy, when the Queen struggles to hide her pique over reports of disparaging remarks made by the US First Lady about both the British head of state and her home, Buckingham Palace. Though nothing is said at first, Foy’s always restrained Elizabeth finds a way to take her feelings out on an item from the traditional British teatime spread.
As Morgan joked after a recent Los Angeles screening of The Crown: “That’s as close as I get to an action scene. I’ve been writing this thing for so long and everybody in it is so polite. I’m desperate to write a fight scene. That scone was my fight scene. She buttered a scone irritatedly.”
Morgan, a Bafta winner and Oscar nominee whose scripts include those for 2006 feature The Queen (with Helen Mirren playing Elizabeth), 2003 TV film The Deal (about then British prime minister Tony Blair) and both the stage and feature versions of Frost/Nixon (about the famous TV interviews of Richard Nixon by journalist David Frost), has plenty of experience dramatising the lives of the famous and powerful. Where The Crown is concerned, however, he is helped by public records and other sources.
“We know pretty much where they are on every single day of the year, because it’s in the Court Circular,” Morgan says, referring to the official daily report of events involving the royal family that is published in several UK daily newspapers and online. “The more dots you’ve got to join, and the closer the dots are together, the less fantasy you have to bring into it.”
When he does have to imagine private conversations, like the heart-to-heart between Elizabeth and Philip that gives the second season finale one of its most crucial and emotional scenes, Morgan relies on the fact that, as well as “being nothing like us”, the royals are also “just like us”.
“We do know that they stayed together,” he says of the Elizabeth-Philip relationship, “that theirs has been an enormously successful marriage. And we know about some of the challenges it faced. At some point you’re left with the prospect of actually writing the sort of conversation that would happen in many marriages.”
The ‘other sources’ are the royal insiders who, Morgan says, have become increasingly available to him because of the show’s track record of avoiding “wild speculation” and, rather than being “scurrilous” or “prurient”, depicting its characters with “the sort of integrity you would want someone to write you with”.
“It gets easier with time,” he reveals. “More and more people with deep, close and historical links to the most senior members of the royal family are reaching out to talk to me. And it’s because they sense that rather than just offering that dead bat [a cricket term for a stroke that kills the ball’s momentum], there is actually some value to engaging.”
The third season of The Crown - which follows the royals into the late 1960s and 1970s, when Britain was swinging and politicians such as Harold Wilson were taking aim at the country’s class system - is due to start filming this summer. And, as he writes it, Morgan says the season “seems a bit more hopeful again, and it’s funnier”.
It may also call for even more sensitivity, given that more of the characters depicted will be still living, or have living relatives.
“I don’t think of it from a legal point of view,” says Morgan of the tricky task of putting historical figures into a dramatic television show, “just a decency and respect point of view. They’ll have children, they’ll have brothers and sisters. I take the responsibility very seriously because, for a lot of people, the version of events that is dramatised in The Crown will be the only version they know of a certain event. Therefore I want to make sure that I can justify and defend it.”
Changing of the guard
The most obvious difference in the third season will be the new cast stepping into the central ongoing roles - as was always planned, according to Morgan. For seasons three and four, Olivia Colman (best known internationally for crime drama Broadchurch) will take over from Foy as the Queen, Tobias Menzies (Outlander) will step in as Prince Philip and Helena Bonham Carter (most familiar recently from big-screen outings including Alice Through The Looking Glass and the Harry Potter films) will replace Kirby as Princess Margaret.
Having just hit his stride writing for Foy, Smith and Kirby, Morgan predicts the new cast “will make it very different and it’s keeping me very much on my toes. I’m both nervous and excited about it.”
One further thing will also be different when The Crown returns to Netflix later this year. Amid all the critical acclaim, the series recently became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed by the producers at Left Bank that Foy, previously best known for the Wolf Hall miniseries, was originally paid less than Smith, because of the latter’s profile from his four-year stint starring in Doctor Who.
The producers have promised going forward “no one gets paid more than the Queen”. And Smith has been reported as saying that the producers have “made amends” to Foy, who has not directly addressed the issue in public.
Morgan says he was unaware of the disparity at the time and does not know the details of how amends might have been made. But he is confident the controversy will not affect The Crown when it resumes shooting with its new cast.
“It was a horrible event for everybody,” says the series creator of the pay disparity revelation and its subsequent press coverage. “Claire was sensational. I’m sorry for her that she was thrown into the middle of all this. But everything’s been patched up and those mistakes will never be made again. As I understand it, everybody’s happy.”