Showrunner explains recasting the show and why working with Netflix is “liberating”.
Peter Morgan tells Screen about bringing Netflix series The Crown to the small screen, and what’s coming next for the epic royal drama.
The show, produced by Left Bank Pictures in association with Sony Pictures Television, is set in the early reign of Elizabeth II and stars Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth, Matt Smith as Prince Philip and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill.
Morgan, who wrote and co-produced, told us that team behind The Crown are “having conversations about whether to go forward” with the third series, which is not confirmed but seems likely.
“If we do… we’d probably need to think about the issue of recasting everybody and so those conversations are happening now and I couldn’t tell you where we’ll come out,” he said.
“It’s a big thing to go on again. Everybody needs to look at one another and say ‘what is the appetite [for this]?’ and under which circumstances and what terms would we do it.”
Morgan (below) also talked about his experiences working within Netflix, the show’s real budget and what’s next for blockbuster TV.
Screen: How is series two coming along?
Peter Morgan: I was writing the second series while we were editing the first, and we are now half way through filming it. It takes us up to 1963. We left season one with the Suez crisis about to unfold, so the first couple of episodes cover Suez, and within the royal family itself Princess Margaret and Tony Armstrong-Jones marry, we deal with a young Charles and his education, we deal with a visit to Buckingham palace of JFK and Jackie Kennedy, so it moves into a slightly post-Edwardian time.
We finish with Britain about to elect Harold Wilson as prime minister, so there’s a political change as we move into the era of Look Back In Anger [the ground-breaking social-realist play], what Suez did to Britain, and how much social change there was.
Have you started thinking about where you will go with series three?
I think the first two seasons have been such hard work and I’ve never had more respect for showrunners than I do now, but we’re at that point now where we’re having conversations about whether to go forward.
I feel that when we reach 1963-64 we’ve gone as far as we can go with Claire Foy without having to do silly things in terms of makeup to make her look older. She can’t help the fact she’s as young as she is, and if we were to go further forward we’d probably need to think about the issue of recasting everybody and so those conversations are happening now and I couldn’t tell you where we’ll come out.
It’s a big thing to go on again. If we were to do another couple of seasons it would be with a fresh cast and everything that that entails, so everybody needs to look at one another and say ‘what is the appetite’ and under which circumstances and what terms would we do it. I’ve got strong feelings about how far you can go as an actor, I think you can age ten years younger than they are and ten years older and no more.
How did the show end up on Netflix?
ITV and the BBC were interested. I had worked with HBO before [on The Special Relationship and Longford]. The people at FX had expressed interest. I had a good relationship with Showtime. Netflix, at the time - not that they were a fringe consideration - were an unknown element.
[But] it was too English for Showtime. The meeting at Netflix felt the most exciting. They had read both episodes and they didn’t feel like a bunch of people from whom I was going to have to extract money. They felt like people who really wanted it.
It was very much our intention to involve the BBC and try and make a co-production between the BBC and Netflix, but in a complete accident of strategy the harder we fought to include the BBC, the harder Netflix dug in for exclusivity. It was not strategic, we weren’t trying to get them to offer more money, we were just trying to get them to involve the BBC. We said we’d really like to get the BBC involved and they said ‘okay we’ll give you ten per cent more’.
Was the budget as big as has been reported?
We had half as much as people were writing about [around $120m - which he explains takes into account a ‘premium’ ]. This is when [Netflix] buys you out so all the income that comes in from sales — overseas or anything else - all comes into that. It’s part of what would traditionally be called royalties.
How did working with Netflix change your approach?
Somehow the combination of Netflix with a historical period felt like an exciting combination. And that incentivised me as a writer, understanding how they think about viewing, how they think about the business.
For example, when they gave us the international release date, it was November 4, four days before the general election in America.I said to them, ‘Are you mad? Why would you do that when the entire world will be discussing something else?’ They smiled serenely and said, ‘That’s not how it works any more. You’ve got to think of it as a two-month release window.’ They were proven to be right.
Working with a cutting-edge system gave me a sense of modernity in a show that would otherwise run the risk of feeling too traditional. It made me reboot. It made me feel refreshed. It made me think of narrative differently and energised it.
The data that Netflix have is that average amount of time that somebody spends watching their favourite shows is two and half hours. When plotting the season, I was looking at it in a completely different way. Normally you have a whole week to worry about, so you build up these dramatic cliffhangers and you’re thinking, ‘How do I write towards an audience coming back in one week?’ All this sort of thing is now completely analogue thinking. It just liberated me.
Netflix famously don’t release viewing figures, so how do you know if The Crown is a success?
They do play their cards close to their chest [about the ratings] which also I must say is a liberation.
You can tell if a show does well by virtue of the fact that it’s visible at all. Last year 455 scripted dramas aired in the US. Ratings become irrelevant, its more about visibility, noise, impact. Even the word ratings feel like an analogue concept.
Netflix judge their success in terms of subscriber base and a lack of what they call ‘churn’ – when people de-subscribe, and I’m thrilled to be liberated from the tyranny of ratings. I don’t write looking over my shoulder.
What’s next for blockbuster TV?
It’s conceivable that in five to 10 years’ time, we will have $300m-$400m TV seasons. You can imagine a Star Wars TV show or James Bond as a TV character.
The Crown opened in 193 countries on the same day, and most of those countries barely have Netflix and many still have very poor broadband reach. If you look at China and India and how much broadband needs to spread through those countries… I think we’ve got at least 10-15 years in this paradigm in which it’ll only get bigger.
Can TV surpass big budget movies?
There used to be a time, when I was younger growing up, where all anyone talked about was movies. Television was a poor cousin and cinema was the avant-garde and what one aspired towards. I do feel [now] there’s at least as much excitement about good television as there is about good cinema.
What feels weird now is trying to celebrate the Oscars as the only paradigm. It does feel like the Oscars and the Emmys…, the American Academy should in some way bring them both together so that there isn’t this distinction anymore. It feels to me like there should be one celebration.