Queen, The: Writer Peter Morgan on Risky Subject

Right from the start, it was clear that “The Queen” had the potential to spark a heated controversy. Whats so powerful about the idea is its very audacity, you are making a film about a living monarch, comments producer Andy Harries.

Adds writer Morgan: Whats most daring about it is that it isnt a satire. Its a story that dares to paint people in power as complex, rounded, conflicted human beings just like you and me. Theres real no tradition for this sort of thing outside of comedy.

Morgan knew he would have to break new ground in transforming two very real people who are still very much in the headlines–The Queen of England and the countrys Prime Minister–into dramatic characters facing a moment of personal and national crisis. The key would be maintaining authenticity without ever crossing the line into caricature.

Intensive research

Morgan began, as any writer does, with intensive research. There were two main areas of inquiry: one was related to the regimented protocol that surrounds the Queen, from how she is served her breakfast to how she whiles away the days at her retreat in Balmoral; and the other was forming a detailed time-line of what was known to have happened during the days between Dianas death and her public funeral.
In some ways it was very similar to researching any story that takes place in a closed society. You have to try to work your way in and to understand what makes these characters tick, explains Morgan.

Fortunately, Morgan had access to an exceptional array of inside sources from his work on The Deal, as well as from his personal and social life. Additionally, he conducted extensive interviews with anyone he could find who might have had close contact with the Queen, Blair or members of the Royal Family from personal tailors to stable hands. I went to see everyone and anyone who would talk, recalls Morgan. At first they would usually start out very tight-lipped oh, no I cant say anything–but suddenly they would open up and youd start to hear and heres another thing. . . and another thing. I think people wanted to share their stories.

Morgan also watched reels and reels of footage of the Queen to get a better sense of her speech patterns and mannerisms. At the same time, he had a team of researchers filtering information and poring through archive press and television material for further clues and sources. There are a lot of biographers of both the Royal Family and the Blairs, and they all have their sources from equerries to secretaries to butlers to maids to civil servants, Morgan notes. Theres a lot of material out there, but it was always a question of sifting the real from the embellished.

To further help Morgan gain real insight into the Royal Family, he consulted with biographers Robert Lacey and Ingrid Seward. A noted author whose books are meticulously researched and eschew sensationalism, Laceys works include Royal: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, The Queen Mother, Princess and the first serious biography of the Queen, Majesty: Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor. Seward is editor in chief of “Majesty” magazine, a well-respected commentator on the Royals and had unrivalled access to Princess Diana when she wrote her best-sellers The Queen & Di: The Untold Story and Diana: An Intimate Portrait.

As for surprises that came along the way, Morgan offers: I didnt know that Charles had been afraid for his life that week, for one thing. But I think the biggest surprise is that I hadnt entirely come to terms with the extent that we in Britain havent worked out what we want from our Royals. If we want to abolish them, we should abolish them. If we want to keep them, then lets define that, but lets stop torturing them.

Spending time with the Queen

One of Morgans most fruitful research trips was the least expected. When he heard that any member of the public could rent a small cottage at the Queens Balmoral retreat in Scotland, he thought it was too good to be true. But it turned out it was all on the up and up and soon the screenwriter found himself anonymously in residence on the grounds of Balmoral. There, he would have a chance to get stunningly close to the Queen, who, as luck would have it, arrived during Morgans stay, as well as to the employees who get to see her in her most relaxed and natural setting. We were able to talk to countless grounds staff, the stable people, anyone really, and find out all sorts of things, he says. The things we learned really arent secrets — in that anyone who had the audacity to rent the cottage at Balmoral could find them out!

Being at Balmoral gave Morgan a truly visceral sense of the Queens isolation. You really understand when youre there how cut off from reality it is, he notes. Youre a million miles from London in a thick wood, and its a kind of total fairyland. Being there you can see that its no wonder she didnt know what the mood was in London after Dianas death. One private secretary referred to Balmoral as Planet Zog and it really has that feeling of being in another universe.

The more he learned about the Queen and her secluded life, the more Morgan began to feel empathy for the experience of the Royals during those harsh days when the press turned against them. They were a family in crisis locked up in a closed world, he observes. The Queen decided that to protect Dianas boys, all televisions and radios were to be removed. So they were living in a place of total denial. They were bunkered up in an institution propped up by sycophancy, and they werent being told what was going on in the country at large. The people were on the streets clamoring for a reaction from the family, and none was forthcoming for that reason.

At Balmoral, Morgan also learned that the Queen would often go out driving alone in her Land Rover, which led to the wholly imaginary yet starkly emotional sequence in the film in which she encounters, with a flicker of recognition, a majestic stag alone in the woods. That scene was written as a kind of potent metaphor, Morgan explains. Apart from the fact that the stag is an age-old symbol of the imperial, and that the Queen is known to have a deeper kind of connection to animals than to people, I was also interested in the idea that any stag that still has 14-points is one that has eluded capture and avoided being culled, which seemed an apt reflection on a monarchy that has not really played any serious role in the politics of the country for a long time.

Even with all the revelations that the research brought, another influence closer to home helped Morgan to forge the voice and personality of the Queen. As it turns out, my own mother is the same age as the Queen, he explains. And many people have talked about how the Queen serves as kind of a mother figure for Tony Blair so I was very conscious of that while writing. The Queen is such an unknowable, private person, yet, in many ways, I think my mother is exactly the same sort of person. She grew up during the war, never complained, is very thrifty, goes around the house shutting off lights and thats just who she is. Its very contrasted by Charles, who has this astonishing extravagance and profligate wastefulness, which I think adds up to someone with quite low self esteem. But The Queen is a woman who has essentially given her entire life to service and now in just one week it all starts to fall apart.

Tony Blair

Morgan was equally fascinated by Tony Blair. He swept into power in a landslide and ushered in a complete change, after well more than a decade of conservative rule, he notes. Blair is someone who is just possessed with making people like him, but for him to go into the Palace for the first few times must have been incredibly exciting and we wanted to capture that.

He also saw that the conflict between Blair and the Queen reflected far deeper rifts between the traditional and the modern, in British society and the world at large. Its the question of elected power versus inherited power, he explains. I think it became a kind of mother-son story that goes to the heart of the peoples changing value systems. Blair ushered in a kind of touchy, feely modern era that altered the British reputation for stoicism. Suddenly it was Cool Britannia, and it felt very modern and exciting. But the price was that a whole traditional part of Britain seemed to die with it. And the death pf Diana became the catalyst that brought these two worlds into conflict.

Global media

Another catalytic force in “The Queen” is the media, which becomes a kind of de facto character in the film. Television is a key element to the story because thats really how most people knew Diana, know the Royal Family and how we all experienced the whole story of Dianas death, he notes. And of course, the media is a constant consideration in Tony Blairs government.

As he was writing, Morgan was constantly shifting on the fly. I showed the screenplay to endless people I knew privately and socially who had inside knowledge and they would say things like Oh, he would never say something like that and then Id ask Well, what would he say and go from there.

Frears as writer's director

Morgan also found a supportive collaborator in director Stephen Frears. Hes a writers director, comments Morgan. He will pore over every single word and force you to go back and make it clearer. There was an endless sifting of tone and emphasis and clarification. Very few directors have that same intellectual rigor.

Frears was equally appreciative of all that Morgan brought to the film. Im very respectful of writers and Peter writes very well about these kinds of things, says the director. I wasnt that interested in whether the things that are said in the script were really said, but it had to be completely believable.

Morgan needed not only intellectual rigor but also guts to tackle the usually off-limits subjects of “The Queen.” Yet despite the fact that he was writing highly confidential conversations between people who not only were in power in 1997 but remain so today, Morgan saw little to fear. Ultimately, theres nothing vicious or defamatory about this film, he comments. It might be sharply critical in places but its primarily affectionate and sympathetic to all the people involved. In many ways I came to believe that the only real blame for what happened in those days could be placed on us the public and our desire to be a part of someone we didnt even really know.