What do you do when the BBC asks you to help ‘resuscitate’ its serious drama output? Maggie Brown asks writer Abi Morgan
The acclaimed theatre and screenwriter Abi Morgan, 43, is dressed in sensible clothes, in a nice top from Marks and Spencer to be exact, as we meet to first watch and later debate The Hour, the new BBC2 drama destined to be this summer’s televisual treat.
In the flesh she appears calm, friendly, with no airs or graces, and is easy to talk to. All her energy, you realise, goes into the work.
The Hour has been dubbed an answer to Mad Men, but is really a period piece inspired by great social and political turbulence – the 1956 Suez Crisis, and the birth of a new approach to news at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios. Although the outfits, smoking and hard drinking do bestow a certain period feel and style.
It’s a meaty drama, with murder, spying and suicide combining with a tense love triangle. The three main characters are Bel, played by Romola Garai, the strong woman producer of the first modern news programme, called The Hour, the programme’s suave married anchor, Hector, played by Dominic West, and an ambitious and passionate reporter, Freddie, (Ben Wishaw) who is mesmerising.
Morgan wrote the six-part script for The Hour single handed after being selected by BBC drama controller Ben Stephenson to help resuscitate BBC2′s reputation for drama for grown ups, alongside The Crimson Petal and the White (which is also starring Garai), The Shadow Line and the forthcoming David Hare film, Page Eight.
“She has an incredible capacity for work – unending energy,” explains Stephenson. “But most importantly, she’s got a unique vision and imagination.”
“Brilliant” is the word used about Morgan by Jane Featherstone, creative director of drama company Kudos, which has made The Hour, who trusted her to turn a thick file of development ideas and research into an absorbing thriller.
It is a testament to Morgan’s standing and scripts that the The Hour also attracted Juliet Stevenson, Tim Piggott-Smith, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Oona Chaplin in supporting roles.
Her first full television series is also the warm up to the release later this year of the movie The Iron Lady, a portrait of Margaret Thatcher, backed by Pathe, which Morgan has written the script for. Thatcher is played by Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent is her husband Denis, and the backdrop is 1980, as Thatcher gears up to fight the unions.
Morgan also had the tenacity to conquer the long distance task, begun in 2008, of writing the screenplay for Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ novel of the First World War. The key thing is that it is currently in production, but is being made as a two-part 90 minute drama, for the BBC, rather than a 120 minute film.
“It is such an epic, a beautifully written book – I have a reverence for it,” says Morgan. “It is a wonderful gift to any writer, a privilege to bring such a huge story to the screen.”
And Morgan has two new plays coming out, one, 27, for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with director Nicky Featherstone, (with whom she frequently collaborates) and Lovesong, with another trusted group, Frantic Assembly.
“Busy? I have had a year, it has to be said,” Morgan says.
I put it to her that she is about to have one of those sweet moments enjoyed by a handful of feted writers, when a number of projects come out together. She is typically self-deprecating: “Writers beaver away, then like buses, all their work arrives together,” she adds.
Morgan really came to notice in television drama circles in 1998, when she worked on the BBC2 drama series Murder, starring Julie Walters. She subsequently wrote the award-winning Channel 4 single drama Sex Traffic, in 2004, about a teenage girl trafficked from the Balkans to Britain. Aiming at raw authenticity, it dared to use subtitles.
Morgan is currently plotting a potential second series of The Hour, although nothing can be definite until the audience has spoken. Another of her scripts bought for Channel 4 is about the Suffragettes.
Perhaps the key to Morgan’s ease and prolific output as a dramatist is that she was born into the business. Her father Gareth Morgan, now deceased, was a successful actor, but went on to run theatres, including the Gulbenkian Theatre, part of Newcastle University. Her mother, Patricia England, is an actress, and recently appeared in a short film of Morgan’s directed by Marianne Elliott, of War Horse fame. Her partner is actor Jacob Krichefski, her sister is the fundraiser at London’s Unicorn Theatre.
But she took the studious route, with an English and drama degree at Exeter University, where she had her first play performed, before taking a postgraduate writing course at the Central School of Speech and Drama. She is reported to have never shown anything to anyone for five years – a long apprenticeship. Her first professional production, Skinned, in 1998, was at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, and after that her career built and diversified.
Morgan says she watched and fell asleep to plays as a child.
“I know how incredibly hard it is to be an actress, waiting for the phone to ring,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do something where I had a sense of control. It seemed to me that the people who sat down to do the job everyday, whether they got paid or not, were the writers. It brought an internal rhythm to the day, while an actor would be waiting around. When writing, you can be calm, the thing about it is you set yourself a riddle every day to solve – that is very satisfying. It is order amid chaos.
“The key element of play-writing and screenwriting is you create a world. And you calmly stand back and let others be the stars.”
She adds: “I do love actors.”
In fact, she thinks they often don’t grasp how much the realisation of productions hangs on them.
“Great actors do a lot with so little,” she says. “It’s not how much they need to do, it’s how little.”
On the other hand, her characters in The Hour are in television and news, and they talk a lot.
“The scripts are less lean than I normally write,” she concedes.
By every account, The Hour was a happy production. It was filmed on location in a real gem, Hornsey Town Hall, close to Morgan’s home in Highgate. She was still writing the final episodes, on set. Generally though, she works from home, and her partner helps oversee the children, who are aged seven and nine. The reward of regular fees from stage scripts, television and films, has certainly oiled the wheels of family life.
But writing for the stage is where she began: “It is really, really hard, you have to have something to say – it’s totally the home of the author,” she says. “The older I get, I feel better equipped for television and film than stage plays.”
Will Hollywood beckon this very grounded writer next?
The Hour begins on BBC2 on July 19