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'The Crown' Creator Sees Britain's Royals As 'Just A Regular Family'


This is FRESH AIR. Let's continue our series of Emmy nominees. The Netflix drama series "The Crown" is nominated for 13 Emmys, including outstanding writing for a drama series for our guest Peter Morgan. The series focuses on a young Queen Elizabeth, 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 1930s shocked the nation and created a deep rift within the royal family. Peter Morgan also wrote the screenplays for "Frost/Nixon" and "The Last King of Scotland."

He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies in January. They started with a scene from the first season of "The Crown" a few days after Elizabeth Windsor, then 25, has learned her father has died and that she's 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.


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 regnal name. That is the name you'll take as queen. Your father took George. Obviously, his name is - was Albert. Before he abdicated, your uncle took Edward. Of course, his name was David.

FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) What's wrong with my name?

MATT SMITH: (As Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) 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.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: 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 in the headline of the story I saw...

MORGAN: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...Of course, yeah.

MORGAN: 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've been more comfortable as a country woman. I do think she is naturally a modest and 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, the - who she is as Elizabeth Windsor and who she is as Elizabeth Regina, like, 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 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 hope that it's - that weight - and it's the responsibility that 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. That - 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've written that he'd said. And I rang a couple of people and 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 realize that, 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 then for Blair, in this particular instance, to have taken those imaginations or guesses and to reconstruct them as the truth was confusing.

DAVIES: Yeah, in his own account (laughter). He's got...

MORGAN: In his own account.

DAVIES: Right.

MORGAN: 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 have 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, you know, 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.


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.

SMITH: (As Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) 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 Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) My complaining?

FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) It's incessant - whining and whinging like a child.

SMITH: (As Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) 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 Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) 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 would in a lifetime. I've never felt more alone than I have in the past five months.

SMITH: (As Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) And why do you think that was?

FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Because of your behavior.

SMITH: (As Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) Because you sent me away.

FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Yes, and why do you think that was?

SMITH: (As Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) 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 Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) 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 Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) Understatement.

FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) ...And that we both find ourselves in a...

SMITH: (As Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) 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 Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) 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. 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.

GROSS: Peter Morgan created the Netflix series "The Crown." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies in January. "The Crown" is nominated for 13 Emmys, including one for Morgan for outstanding writing for a drama series. We'll conclude our Emmy series with Trevor Noah, the host of "The Daily Show," which is nominated for two Emmys, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DREAMERS' CIRCUS' "A ROOM IN PARIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.