DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. A lot of us know more about the British royal family than we used to thanks to "The Crown," the Netflix drama series that offers an inside look at Buckingham palace when a young Queen Elizabeth was adjusting to her new life as monarch. We get to know her husband Philip, whose life is turned upside down by her ascension, her rebellious sister Margaret and her uncle David whose abdication from the throne in the '30s shocked the nation and caused a deep rift within the royal family. The second season of "The Crown" is now available for streaming.
Our guest today is the series writer and creator Peter Morgan. Morgan wrote the screenplay for "The Queen," starring Helen Mirren, which earned him a Golden Globe. Morgan's also written award-winning plays and the screenplays for the films "Frost/Nixon," "The Last King of Scotland" and "The Other Boleyn Girl."
Here's a moment from the first season of the crown. A few days after Elizabeth Windsor, then 25, had learned her father has died and that she is now queen. Elizabeth is played by Claire Foy. She's with her husband Philip played by Matt Smith. We hear first from her private secretary played by Harry Hadden-Paton.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")
HARRY HADDEN-PATON: (As Martin Charteris) Though it would help if we could decide here and now on your name.
CLAIRE FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) My name?
HADDEN-PATON: (As Martin Charteris) Yes, ma'am, your regal name - that is the name you'll take as queen. Your father took George. Obviously his name is - was Albert. And before he abdicated, your uncle took Edward. Of course, his name was David.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) What's wrong with my name?
HADDEN-PATON: (As Martin Charteris) Nothing.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Well, then let's not overcomplicate matters unnecessarily. My name is Elizabeth.
HADDEN-PATON: (As Martin Charteris) Then long live Queen Elizabeth.
DAVIES: And the first time Queen Elizabeth hears those words, from "The Crown" the Netflix series that is created by our guest Peter Morgan - Peter Morgan, welcome to FRESH AIR.
PETER MORGAN: Thank you.
DAVIES: It's remarkable to imagine a 25-year-old woman suddenly inheriting this responsibility. She says a few times in the series that she would have preferred to live a more anonymous life. And I saw a piece where you were quoted as calling her a countryside woman of limited intelligence. Was this taken accurately or in context?
MORGAN: No, it was - yeah, I've paid for that.
DAVIES: It was at the headline of the story I saw, of course, yeah.
MORGAN: (Laughter) Just about anything unfortunately that I say about the show ends up in the headlines somewhere that I don't want it to end up. So I've ended up being quite private about this and about my responsibilities here. But, yes, I do think she would have been more comfortable as a country woman. I do think she is naturally a modest - naturally a shy, retiring person. I think one can sense that. You know, one can sense when someone is hungry for the limelight and when someone would sooner avoid it.
That, of course, is quite different from her sense of duty - and, you know, which in itself is such an interesting thing to explore. You don't get a sense that people talk about duty very much anymore. And so you know, when I started sketching out episodes and thinking about what the show could possibly offer me as a writer or an audience - you know, what was the central dilemma at the heart of this - psychologically, emotionally for the lead character - it would be, you know, that who she is as Elizabeth Windsor and who she is as Elizabeth Regina, you know, the queen, are two very different things - and the push and the pull between those two things - a bit like Russian Dolls, one within the other.
DAVIES: Right. And her mother tells her that the queen - the Crown must always win. You know, it's fascinating as I hear you talk about this. You know, she bore this responsibility of representing this institution properly. You kind of bear the responsibility of interpreting these lives to a lot of people who don't know very much about them. Does that feel like a weight on your head?
MORGAN: I think - I hope that it's that weight and it's the responsibility of all dramatists would feel when tackling real-life figures. You know, there came a moment after the film that I wrote "The Queen" had come out where Tony Blair was asked about his audience with the queen. And in his book - in his autobiography, which, of course, came many years after we made the film "The Queen," Tony Blair, when referring back to that critical period in the aftermath of Diana's death, used a number of expressions and quotations that seemed to me to be very familiar because they sounded like my dialogue.
And I remember thinking, well, hang on a minute. That can't be right. It can't be right that I got it right. I can't have got it that right. I mean, I think we were all pretty confident we knew what Tony Blair represented. We knew what the queen thought. But surely he didn't say the very things that I'd written that he'd said. And I rang a couple of people, and I said, have you read the Blair biography - autobiography because it sounds very much like the scene that I wrote. And it seems that even Blair's memory had sort of become blurred with what we had done.
And it's both funny but also sobering because you suddenly realise that, you know, the predisposition people have towards sort of blurring - once you watch something on film, it becomes that thing. It becomes the way it was. And so much of what I write can't be exactly the way it was because I don't know. I'm just guessing. And even then, the absolute accuracy of was it really like that - that's like saying to a painter - but that painting is - it would be more accurate to do it with a camera. And the painter would say, yes, but what I've done here is I've chosen paint for a reason.
And I very much think of myself as a painter. I do not want to be judged only by the yardstick of what - was it really, really like that. You're bringing so many different assumptions and imaginations to something. And then for Blair, in this particular instance, to have taken those imaginations or guesses and reconstruct them as the truth. It was confusing.
DAVIES: Yeah, in his own account...
MORGAN: In his own account, he said, I then said that. I was like, well, you didn't. At least, I don't think you did. Well, if you did, what a stroke of luck on my behalf. But I'm pretty sure you're actually just quoting what I wrote, which you've watched and which you've subsequently denied that you've watched but which you've clearly watched.
DAVIES: Well, what we were talking about - the very young Queen Elizabeth inheriting the throne at the age of 25 and adjusting to the demands of it. And one of the things that we see in here is the effect on her marriage with her husband Philip. And he finds it difficult - the constraints of living in a palace and all of the demands on her and being kind of second to her. And I wanted to play a scene here. This is in the second season where Philip has been away on a long trip representing the Crown in Australia and some other places.
And he's back, and information has been surfacing in the press suggesting infidelity on his part. And this is not a complete surprise to Elizabeth. And this is a scene where they're, I believe, in a room on the yacht. And they're going to have a frank talk about their marriage in the context of the demands of being a royal couple. And I'm just going to mention one thing for our audience. You will hear Philip refer to the mustaches. He's referring to the functionaries and secretaries who set rules and enforce traditions around the palace. So let's listen to this. This is Elizabeth and Philip. Philip is played by Matt Smith and Elizabeth is played by Claire Foy. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Thought we might take this opportunity without interruption, without distraction to lay our cards on the table and talk frankly for once about what needs to change to make this marriage work.
MATT SMITH: (As Prince Philip) All right, who goes first? Stupid question - if I've learned one thing by now, it's that I go second.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) If I am to go first, that's where I'd start - your complaining.
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) My complaining?
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) It's incessant - whining and whinging like a child.
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) Are you surprised? The way those God-awful mustaches that run the palace continue to infantilize me.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Perhaps if you weren't behaving like an infant.
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) Giving me lists, sending me instructions - do this. Don't do that. Wear this. Don't wear that. Say this. Don't say that. Can you imagine anything more humiliating?
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Yes. As a matter of fact, I can. I've learned more about humiliation in the past few weeks than I hoped I'd would in a lifetime. I've never felt more alone than I have in the past five months.
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) And why do you think that was?
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Because of your behavior.
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) Because you sent me away.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Yes, and why do you think that was?
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) I don't know. You tell me.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Because you're lost. You're lost in your role, and you're lost in yourself.
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) Christ.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Look; I realize that this marriage has turned out to be something quite different to what we both imagined...
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) Understatement.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) ...And that we both find ourselves in a...
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) Prison.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) In a situation that is unique. Our marriage is different to any other in the country because the exit route which is open to everyone else...
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) Divorce.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Yes, divorce - it's not an option for us ever.
DAVIES: And that is Claire Foy and Matt Smith playing Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, in the Netflix series "The Crown" created by our guest Peter Morgan. It's a terrific scene. How do you find the voices for this young couple in this situation?
MORGAN: I suppose in some shape or form, it's like the high wire walker who doesn't notice the distance beneath his wire, you know, or her wire. You know, I - the fact that I'm writing these two people doesn't seem for some reason to give me vertigo. It - I just write them, and therefore you're then writing about a marriage, and that would be something any, you know, screenwriter would be expected to do. I just seem to be able to write them.
And you know, we know they were holed up on the Royal Yacht Britannia for a good many hours before they emerged publicly. We know that they were in a storm. We know the dates that they were there, and we know what had transpired. We know that his best friend, Mike Parker, who had also been his private secretary, had just been divorced very publicly by his wife for infidelity.
And so, you know, as a dramatist, you see a series of dots. And what you hope is that through research, the dots are brought close enough together - we know where they were. We know roughly what their official function was. That much with these people is extraordinarily, you know, evident and minuted. We know where they - we pretty much know for every day of their lives where they were and what they were allegedly doing. What we don't know is what they were feeling, what they were thinking. And so it's my job to draw the line between those two points and to do so, in the way that we were talking about earlier, in as responsible a way as possible.
DAVIES: You know, I - watching the series, one gets the impression that Prince Philip probably did play around, although it's not completely clear. And I gather the royal family has never acknowledged - there's been no clear proof of it. Do you - have you ever gotten any feedback from the royal family at all about your work in "The Crown" or...
MORGAN: Well, I mean, the royal family's not going to give me any feedback about Prince Philip and infidelity, but other people might. And the royal family - you know, I'm delighted to say that I've only met them on a couple of occasions, and on those occasions, I steer well clear of telling them who I am or what I'm responsible for and, if they know it, making sure that we're talking about something else. I'm thrilled to give them the distance to have total deniability, and in the same way, I want to have respectful distance from them to be allowed to get on with what I do and to take responsibility for what I do.
That's a different matter from, where do I get the information from about Prince Philip and his alleged infidelities? And what I can tell you is no one has come forward. Therefore, there is perfect deniability on behalf of the palace. And so then you have to ask, am I making it up? If there's nothing on the record, is it irresponsible for me to make it up? And then what you have to do is you have to talk to enough people to get enough information. And all I can do is I can assure you that I'm doing them more favors than harm.
DAVIES: You cast a wide net. You do what you can and...
MORGAN: You cast a wide net. I have 10 wonderful researchers that work around the clock. But then, even they - you know, they don't have access to those circles, and - but bit by bit, those doors have now opened to us. And you know, I'm not - trust me. I'm not writing anything for which I don't feel I could be answerable if not in a court of law, then in the court of critical judgment.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Peter Morgan. He is the creator of the Netflix series "The Crown." Its second season is now available for streaming. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET'S "EXCERTO NO. 1")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Peter Morgan. He's written many movies that you'd recognize including "Frost/Nixon" and "The Queen." He's also the creator of the Netflix series "The Crown." The second season is now available for streaming.
You know, one of the things that drives this story is the abdication of King Edward VIII from the British throne in 1936. And, you know, this was a case where - David Windsor was his name before he was king, and he wanted to marry a woman, an American, Wallis Simpson, who was twice divorced. And this was simply not permitted in part because the king is the head of the Anglican Church where, you know, divorce is not accepted.
And so he couldn't remain on the throne and marry the woman he loved, so he chose to abdicate, which was a really - you know, I don't think I quite realized until I saw this, you know, what a seismic, shocking, traumatic event this was, at least for the royal family kind of like the way Watergate was for us. It was in the '70s, but it was a constitutional crisis that we remember decades later.
In the early episodes here, we see the abdicated King, who's known as David before he was Edward VIII. He's around, but he's sort of banished. You want to just describe the relationship between him and the rest of the royal family.
MORGAN: Well, let's just stop thinking about the royal - as a royal family for just a second.
MORGAN: We'll think about them as just a regular family, which I have to frequently do in order to enjoy writing this. You know, I don't want to feel like a historian or a royal biographer. I want to feel like a storyteller. And what we have here is a - you know, is a fantastic family saga. And in - you know, at the heart of any family saga, there is shame, or there is regret. Or there are misdemeanors of the past. And no family is complete without an embarrassing uncle. And he is the ultimate embarrassing uncle.
MORGAN: And, you know, what he did betrayed everything. You know, he did the very thing that makes the hereditary principle impossible to defend. I mean, you can argue on behalf of the hereditary principle. You can sort of say, well, you know, it works. And yes, here is this one family. And let's just say they've been chosen by God. And let's just say that they have an exalted place and that they deserve the honor that they have. If - as soon as one of them says, do you know what; I don't really want this, you are inviting the entire hereditary principle concept to be, you know, shattered.
And so here's this shattered individual who's now living in Paris surrounded by all the memorabilia of the office which he gave up for love. It's - you couldn't make a character like that up. He's a gift to any writer. And I absolutely loved writing him.
DAVIES: The cast is terrific here. And he's played by Alex Jennings. You know, it's interesting. The reason, I guess, that he couldn't marry Wallis Simpson and keep the throne - at least one legal reason was that the sovereign, the king, is the head of the Anglican Church, which didn't recognize - you couldn't marry someone who's divorced - who was divorced whose previous spouse was still alive. So there was that reason. But from his point of view, you're separating me from the one I love, and it just seemed cruel to him.
MORGAN: But divorce - just to pick it up because it's so pertinent to that clip that you played - you know, divorce and - you know, divorce not being recognized by the church, then the responsibility to the church because, you know, the queen is head of the church, which means she outranks even the bishops and the archbishops. Above her is - in a hierarchical order, above her is only God. So divorce is a complete no-no and was. And, you know, therefore, marrying a divorced woman whose husband's still alive - it just wasn't acceptable.
And of course, that blight then destroyed Margaret's life, as she, you know, was first in love with a divorced man. And then she was the first royal - I mean, this is the bit that really - it puts things into perspective. And she...
DAVIES: To remind the audience, Margaret is Elizabeth's younger sister - right, yeah, go ahead, yeah.
MORGAN: Yes, Princess Margaret - she - when she then married and when she then finally got divorced to Tony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon, that was the first royal divorce since Henry VIII...
MORGAN: ...And Catherine of Aragon. So, you know, that gives you some idea of how reluctant...
MORGAN: ...How reluctant they were. Heads rolled.
DAVIES: Not a small thing.
MORGAN: It really wasn't a small thing. And it - of course, we were all laughing because, you know, the divorce happened in the 1970s, you know, by which time, of course, it was completely acceptable socially and, you know - and widespread and - even in their circles.
DAVIES: Peter Morgan is the writer and creator of the Netflix series "The Crown." After a break, he'll talk more about "The Crown" and about his other films, including "The Queen," starring Helen Mirren, and "Frost/Nixon" with Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. And John Powers reviews "The Assassination Of Gianni Versace," the second installment of the FX Limited series "American Crime Story." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANS ZIMMER'S "THE CROWN MAIN TITLE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Peter Morgan, the writer and creator of the Netflix dramatic series "The Crown," a look at a young Queen Elizabeth and others in the royal family in the 1950s and '60s. The second season of "The Crown" is now available for streaming.
You know, Claire Foy is just terrific in this role. And I assume you were involved in the casting. You know, what were you looking for, and what did you see in her, this 31-year-old actress?
MORGAN: Well, the casting of Claire Foy, which is now sort of almost impossible to imagine, was - you know, she was overlooked. So this doesn't reflect well on me, but I will tell the story and live in shame. So what would happen is we'd be - I would be sent a list of people coming to the castings, and I would look down the list. And Wednesday's, as it were, casting session would involve the following five young actresses. And I looked down the list. Like, well, I know that one, that one, that one - oh, yeah, they're all rather interesting. I'll come in at 11 to see that one, and I'll come in at 12 because I'm busy and important, and I'm far too - and whoever this Claire Foy person is, I'm absolutely not interested.
And I overlooked and snubbed Claire on no fewer than five occasions until there was one time where I simply couldn't avoid it because I was interested in the one before and the one after her. And so I then stayed to see her. And then I was like, well, why hasn't no one showed me her?
MORGAN: What's the matter with any of you? Why didn't you tell me to look at this one? They said, Peter, says she's been there on four or five occasions. And each time, you've studiously avoided her. And I said, but she's fantastic.
DAVIES: Yeah, what did you see? What did you see that captivated you?
MORGAN: Well, it's not an easy part. I mean, you have to be both - forgive me when I say it. But you have to be both plain and stunning, you know? She has to have both. And a number of the actors that came in were simply too beautiful, you know, too conventionally beautiful or too - their faces did not have the full range because Elizabeth Windsor is a beautiful - was - is arguably still a beautiful woman but not all the time and not from every angle. And her face lights up, you know, with a smile and can look quite grumpy, quite like a wet weekend when not smiling and be overlookable and quite plain.
And you need to believe she has intelligence and understand her intelligence 'cause the queen - contrary to what people think I think, she has an intelligence and a very sharp mimicry and an intolerance of fools. But at the same time, she's not that intellectually curious. And so she has to be both quick and alert and yet at the same time capable of repose and being quite docile. So it's not easy.
And she has to be emotionally stable, and I don't think an actor can act that. I mean, of course they can, but it so helps if they all that. And Claire brought a lot of thought into the part and then acted a lot of the stuff that she didn't have to perfection. And I saw it in an instant that she could do it.
DAVIES: Well, I want to talk about - we've talked a bit about "The Queen," which is this - the feature film that you did before you did the series "The Crown. This was directed by Stephen Frears. And we'll hear a scene here. This is about the moment in 1997 when Princess Diana has been killed in a car accident. And because she is divorced from the royal family, the queen sees her death as a private matter with no need for a public appearance or even a statement from her, the queen. And in fact, she takes her family and Diana's two boys, who are her grandchildren, to the royal estate in Scotland kind of to just get away while London is mourning.
And in this scene we're going to hear, she gets a call from the Prime Minister Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen, who is concerned because the public and the press are seeing the royal family as heartless because it's expressed no grief at Diana's passing. So we hear the queen pick up the phone to speak to the prime minister.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE QUEEN")
HELEN MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Prime Minister.
MICHAEL SHEEN: (As Tony Blair) Good morning, Majesty - sorry to disturb, but I was just wondering whether you'd seen any of today's papers.
MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) We've managed to look at one or two, yes.
SHEEN: (As Tony Blair) In which case, my next question would be whether you felt some kind of response might be necessary.
MIRREN: (AS Queen Elizabeth II) No. I believe a few over-eager editors are doing their best to sell newspapers, and it would be a mistake to dance to their tune.
SHEEN: (As Tony Blair) Under normal circumstances I would agree. But, well, my advisers have been taking the temperature among people on the streets. And, well, the information I'm getting is that the mood is quite delicate.
MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) So what would you suggest, Prime Minister, some kind of a statement?
SHEEN: (As Tony Blair) No, Ma'am. I believe the moment for statements has passed. I would suggest flying the flag at half-mast above Buckingham Palace and coming down to London at the earliest opportunity. It would be a great comfort to your people and would help them with their grief.
MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Their grief - if you imagine I'm going to drop everything and come down to London before I attend to my grandchildren who've just lost their mother, then you're mistaken. I doubt there is anyone who knows the British people more than I do, Mr. Blair, nor who has a greater faith in their wisdom and judgment. And it is my belief that they will, any moment, reject this mood which is being stirred up by the press in favor of a period of restrained grief and sober, private mourning. That's the way we do things in this country - quietly, with dignity. That's what the rest of the world has always admired us for.
DAVIES: And that is Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth in the film "The Queen," which was written by our guest, Peter Morgan. You know, it's interesting that in "The Crown," we see a very young Elizabeth, who is struggling to put duty above her personal interests and feelings so often. And in this episode, you know, many decades later, it would seem the queen puts her personal feelings about Diana and her failed marriage and her disappointment in Diana above her role and - you know, as a sovereign kind of embodying the nation's grief. Does that make sense?
MORGAN: I think no. I think that it was exactly the opposite. I think it was that she was doing exactly what she thinks the principle - the right thing to do was, which had nothing to do with her personal feelings. People interpreted it as a personal vendetta. But actually, there is strict protocol at the time when you have a - even if you're the mother of the future king, if you're divorced, you're no longer part of the royal family. At that point, you're no longer entitled to, you know, the titles. And as such, when you are second or third or fourth or fifth in line or whatever it is, there are quite clear precedents for what happens. And this is in a system which, you know, works entirely through precedent. You know, what are the rules for what happens when this happens?
And of course when the rules are in conflict with what the natural emotional intelligence or response to a situation would be, that's when you get into trouble, and that's where the royal family has frequently come - you know, has run into trouble - is when their response appears to be emotionally out of step with the strict systems or rules or, you know - and if I went to my researchers, I'd be able to come back to you with six or 10 really interesting examples - I'm sitting in a radio station; I've got no access to that - but where there'd been really interesting examples where actually you would want emotionally to respond in one way. But actually, it's really clear that in the case of, say, the Prince of Wales, you know, who's heir to the throne, the following rules apply.
And she, the queen, behaved perfectly correctly in that scene that you just heard even though as a mother-in-law or former mother-in-law, it might appear cold and inappropriate. And that's why the response in the country was so animated. She was only doing what she thought the right thing to do was.
DAVIES: And she was eventually persuaded to come to London and join in a national mourning, give a televised...
MORGAN: Yeah, the queen, by the way, never attends funerals - almost never attends funerals. You know, so no matter how close she is to someone, you will find that the queen does not attend the funeral.
MORGAN: She will say...
DAVIES: It's protocol?
MORGAN: ... I - yes, because - I think, yeah, it is protocol, and it's like the crown does not attend a funeral. It's - again, if you gave me a couple of hours to respond, I'd be able to respond with more information. And, you know, because, again, you know, my - I keep doing this. I keep refusing to swallow all this information myself because I - you know, my responsibility is to be a storyteller.
These people interest me only insofar as they are a family and a vehicle with which I can analyze the second half of the 20th century or the dynamics of a family as a long-running saga. Swallowing this royal porn, which is what we all call it - you know, sort of swallowing the minutiae of apparently completely crackpot protocol and so forth - it's not something I particularly delight in. We have - I have 10 full-time researchers on this show, and they work round the clock. And they have certain areas divided up within them. And some of them are more focused on politicians, and some of them are more focused on royal matters.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Peter Morgan. He is the creator of the Netflix series "The Crown." The - its second season is now available for streaming. We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Peter Morgan. He's written many movies that you'd recognize, including "The Queen." He's also the creator of the Netflix series "The Crown." Its second season is now available for streaming.
You know, I saw "The Queen" when it was made. I think it was 2006. And then I've watched "The Crown" recently, all 20 episodes. And then I watched "The Queen" again, and it was so much fun to see the same characters that are in the series "The Crown" now, you know, decades later, much older, drawn by the same writer, you, Peter Morgan. You know, they're different actors in some cases, but we see these same people after they've matured and gone through all this life experience. And I'm sort of fitted - this is Peter Morgan's vision of these people now, later on, although you did them in the reverse order. You did the older one - the more recent one first...
MORGAN: That's true. Yeah...
DAVIES: ...And I wonder, if you were doing "The Queen" now after this deep immersion into the Elizabeth of her 20s and 30s and 40s, do you think you would've done it or written it any differently?
MORGAN: Such a good question. I don't - I really don't know. I couldn't tell you. I haven't re-watched "The Queen." I don't tend to watch anything - you know, by the time you've reached, you know, final cut on something, you're so sick of it. And, you know, by the time you've done promotion and so forth - listening to it just now I, you know, I was - the only affection I had was not from my writing, but for the beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat who I noticed is just on "The Shape Of Water" and won the Golden Globe the other night. It was a great pleasure to run into him again. He's a wonderful composer.
But I tend not to look back on it. But it's interesting that I wrote the older character - the older versions - and let's see. You know, I - at the moment, I can't bear the idea of continuing to write these characters for much longer. But I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying storylining seasons 3 and seasons 4 as they're coming up, which would be the - as it were, the middle-aged queen, which, you know, comes in between, of course, the queen that you saw in the movie played by Helen Mirren. And there's a whole generation, as it were, to be played by another actress. And we've asked Olivia Colman to do that and, happily, she said yes.
But actually, the cumulative depth of knowing that they - you know, knowing them as - having written them as younger and having invested in their marriage in the early years of their marriage, and now, as the marriage hits middle age and as they hit middle age, and as they have midlife crises, and as they, you know, go this way and that way as characters, maybe - and this is one of the joy of writing television and having the time to really, really stay with characters - maybe that will really pay dividends. And maybe I'll love it.
DAVIES: But the plan is to do six seasons - right? - to take them up to the present time.
MORGAN: No, we - I can't think that far ahead. It makes me want to blow my brains out. I can only think in terms of the seasons 3 and 4, which I'm just starting the writing of them at the moment.
DAVIES: I want to briefly mention "Frost/Nixon," the film that you did in 2008, I think, directed by Ron Howard. It was - I know it was a play originally. You did it for stage. And this is based on the interviews that David Frost, who older folks will remember was a British celebrity journalist, did with Richard Nixon three years after he had resigned in disgrace. Let's just listen to a scene. This is from this series of interviews Frost did with Nixon. Many of the earlier interviews were relatively congenial, but this is the last of them when Frost is really boring in on Nixon about Watergate. Nixon is played by Frank Langella, David Frost by Michael Sheen. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FROST/NIXON")
SHEEN: (As David Frost) And you've always maintained that you knew nothing about any of this until March 21. But in February, your personal lawyer came to Washington to start the raising of $219,000 of hush money to be paid to the burglars. Now, do you seriously expect us to believe that you had no knowledge of that?
FRANK LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) None. I believed the money was for humanitarian purposes to help disadvantaged people with their defenses.
SHEEN: (As David Frost) Well, it was being delivered on the tops of phone booths with aliases and in airports by people with gloves on. That's not normally the way lawyers' fees are delivered...
LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) Look. I have made statements to this effect before. All that was Haldeman and Ehrlichman's business. I knew nothing. OK, fine. Fine. You made a conclusion there. I stated my view. Now, let's move on. Let's get...
SHEEN: (As David Frost) No, hold on. No, hold on.
LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) No, I don't want to talk.
DAVIES: And on it goes. That's Frank Langella and David Frost...
DAVIES: Do - in the film Frost...
MORGAN: It's a blessing you faded it out. Thank you.
DAVIES: Yeah, well it could - it gets heated. What interested you in this confrontation between these two men - wanted to put it on stage?
MORGAN: Well, it was a particular - you know, you do - not to sound pretentious, but you do look at it almost like a set of ingredients. And not every historical encounter which has huge significance and ramifications for the country or for the world has those ingredients. And for me, it's all about character. And it appealed to me particularly - I could never have written "Frost/Nixon" as a play or as a film had Frost not been British. Frost was my way in. And so to me, it was a story about a guy out of his depth and a guy, you know, suddenly finding himself - you know, I went in through - I was not tortured in the same way as any American citizen would have been by the national trauma that was Watergate.
And so Watergate was something I observed from the point of view of the U.K. I emotionally invested in what must have it been like to have thought, oh, I better get these interviews with Richard Nixon because it's quite a prestigious get - only to suddenly feel the extraordinary weight of American - you know, the trauma on your shoulders. And to realise if you do not deliver a conviction, that these interviews will effectively be offering somebody a rehabilitation. And so suddenly he's in unbelievably deep water, and that really appealed to me. So I came in at it through Frost.
But, of course, in America the play and the film were interpreted completely differently. And they were interpreted as will the beast get slain, you know. And one of the joys of "Frost/Nixon" as a project was traveling in between the United Kingdom and the United States and having this schizophrenic response to the play. In one country, it was a play about Richard Nixon. In one country, it was a play about David Frost.
DAVIES: And in England, they saw Frost as - what? - rehabilitating his own image or what?
MORGAN: No, Frost was sort of - you know, Frost was known in the U.K. as an opportunist. Although he was a very intelligent man, he was certainly not known for his intelligence. He was known more for his high-life style and his - you know, he was always with beautiful women. And he was at - you know, he was an opportunist. He was a golden opportunist. And this was one opportunity that he seemed to have misjudged.
And so the opportunist being out of his depth felt - you know, it was a story met with glee in the United Kingdom, where Frost was, you know, also the purveyor of some quite low-brow game shows or talk shows. And suddenly the idea that he was in the ring with Richard Nixon and being forced to deliver something that no one else had delivered before. It turned out he did have both the mettle and the intelligence to do so, but we wouldn't have known it necessarily starting out.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Morgan, it's been fun. We will look forward to more of "The Crown." Thank you so much for speaking to us.
DAVIES: Peter Morgan is a writer and creator of the Netflix series "The Crown." Its second season is now available for streaming. Coming up, John Powers reviews the assassination of Gianni Versace on the FX limited series "American Crime Story." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "HOME")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The latest installment of the FX limited series "American Crime Story" begins tomorrow. It's called "The Assassination of Gianni Versace," and it tells the story of the 1997 murder of the famous fashion designer. The series is created by Ryan Murphy and is based on the book "Vulgar Favors" by Maureen Orth. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It's easy to make a TV show about murder, which is why they do so many of them. What's hard is making a murder story about something bigger than killing. Ryan Murphy pulled off that feat in the first installment of the FX anthology series "American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson." Of course, once that show nabbed big ratings and Emmys the question became what could Murphy possibly do for an encore.
We get the answer in "American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace," which tackles another splashy murder - the 1997 shooting of the Italian designer known for his flamboyant warmth. Working from a book by reporter Maureen Orth, Murphy examines a crime that initially grabbed headlines but whose details most of us never knew or quickly forgot.
The series begins off sporadically. It's a sunny Miami Beach morning, and two men are heading toward a fatal collision. One of them is Versace, played by the wonderful Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who swans like a king through his Mediterranean-style villa. The other is Andrew Cunanan. That's Darren Criss of "Glee" fame, a gay Gigolo and wannabe celebrity who prowls the beaches and streets waiting for his moment. And it comes. He spots the fashion icon outside his villa gates, guns him down, then slips away into the Florida sunshine.
Over the next nine episodes, screenwriter Tom Rob Smith teases out the murders implications. He shows us the guerrilla war between Versace's sister Donatella, played by a slightly de-beautified Penelope Cruz, and his longtime companion Antonio D'Amico, a big hunk vulnerably played by singer Ricky Martin.
More important, he tells the killer's story but in reverse chronology. Each new episode takes us earlier in time depicting and helping explain the California-born Cunanan's murderous journey across America on the way to Miami Beach. Cunanan had once briefly met Versace a few years before the murder. And here we see him trying to impress the designer by claiming to have grown up as the son of a pineapple baron from the Philippines.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE")
DARREN CRISS: (As Andrew Cunanan) For my first job, I worked for my father on his pineapple plantations in the Philippines - can you imagine that? - picking them in the midday sun. You should've seen me. My father was a military man. He was a pilot for Imelda Marcos, the first lady of the Philippines.
EDGAR RAMIREZ: (As Gianni Versace) Really?
CRISS: (As Andrew Cunanan) Yes. He flew one of those old planes, the type that Buddy Holly died in. Beechcraft Bonanza, they're called, if you know them. He would fly them low to the ground because Imelda was terrified of crashing. And that is a true story. My father would tell her, Imelda, when you're flying a plane at 400 miles per hour in a rickety tin can, it doesn't matter how high you are.
RAMIREZ: (As Gianni Versace) And then you moved to America.
CRISS: (As Andrew Cunanan) My father wanted me to have the very best education, which of course I had. He's retired from the military now. He runs all of his businesses from abroad 'cause he can. Who knew that there was so much money to be made in pineapples? He was here the other day. He was just in town. And he was driving around in his Rolls-Royce with his boyfriend as a chauffeur.
RAMIREZ: (As Gianni Versace) Boyfriend.
CRISS: (As Andrew Cunanan) Please don't ask.
RAMIREZ: (As Gianni Versace) Your father has a boyfriend?
CRISS: (As Andrew Cunanan) He left my mom and ran off with one of the young men who worked on the plantations.
POWERS: It should come as little surprise that "The Assassination Of Gianni Versace" is not as rich or as thrilling as "The People V. O.J. Simpson." After all, that was about the most enthralling murder of any of our lifetimes. Yet this new series is still well worth watching. Murphy's at his best when he takes tabloid material and, without draining away its juiciness, reframes it to grapple with serious issues. The "O.J." series was steeped in questions of race, class, sex and celebrity. The first season of another Murphy series, "Feud," wasn't merely a catfight between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis but a resonant story about how Hollywood uses and abuses women.
And so it is with "Versace," which expands from its namesake's murder to become a moving portrait of gayness and homophobia in '90s America. In his killing spree across America, Cunanan encounters closeted businessmen in straight marriages, wives trapped in such circumstances, devoted gay naval officers chased out of the military by don't ask, don't tell. Even as Cunanan leaves a clear trail, the cops and FBI keep botching the investigation because they find gay life so alien and perverse that they wallow in anti-gay stereotypes rather than looking at the evidence.
Now, the Versace family is already complaining that the series is riddled with errors, and no doubt things have been fictionalized. Yet the show is far from unsympathetic to Versace or his circle. Marten's Antonio emerges as warm and decent while Cruz's Donatella is tough but loving, a far cry from Maya Rudolph's amusing "Saturday Night Live" parody. As for Gianni himself, in Ramirez's radiant performance he emerges as, if anything, too saintly.
Indeed, as the episodes unfold, it becomes clear - maybe even a bit too clear - that Versace and Cunanan are alter egos. They embody almost opposite ways of living gayness, one creative and life-affirming, the other tormented and steeped in death. Criss is terrific as the creepy Cunanan, a highly intelligent fantasist with tense good looks who's also a psychopathic narcissist who's terrified of being ordinary. Seeing no difference between fame and infamy, the villain of this "American Crime Story" is a textbook product of our celebrity culture. He's a hollow man who'll do anything to be in the spotlight.
DAVIES: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. On tomorrow's show, millions of Americans are walking around with implanted medical devices - artificial hips and knees, cardiac stents, pacemakers and many others. We'll talk with medical journalist Jeanne Lenzer, who says medical devices are approved with far less scrutiny than pharmaceuticals and some may be causing harm, even deaths. Her new book is "The Danger Within Us." Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO'S "FIESTA CON DE LA CRUZ")
DAVIES: Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO'S "FIESTA CON DE LA CRUZ")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.