GUY ADAMS: Has The Crown writer Peter Morgan gone too far?

A right royal row: Peter Morgan described the monarchy as ‘insane’ and said our late Queen was ‘of limited intelligence’… but, asks GUY ADAMS, has The Crown’s writer now gone too far?

Having the intimate details of your personal life served up for public consumption is not nice. Just ask Peter Morgan.

Only last year, the 59-year-old screenwriter was the subject of a high-profile real-life drama when he split from actress girlfriend Gillian Anderson, who played Margaret Thatcher in The Crown, and took up with socialite Jemima Khan.

Gossipy coverage of the brief affair ensued, fuelled both by the glamorous nature of its protagonists and the fact that Khan, who was working as a consultant on the Netflix show, had hitherto been regarded as a chum of Anderson. And Morgan didn’t like it. Not at all.

He therefore hired Schillings, the combative law firm which helps oligarchs and celebrities manage their reputations, to send an indignant letter to newspapers, instructing them to stop writing about the whole thing. Or, as the document read, to ‘refrain from intruding into our client’s private life and stop publishing speculation about his relationships and family life’.

It seemed, at the time, like a spectacularly hypocritical request, given the fact that Morgan owes the lion’s share of his fame, and considerable fortune, to creating fictitious drama about real (and often living) individuals.

Peter Morgan branded the Royal Family ‘survival organisms, like a mutating virus’. If that is really what he thinks, one wonders exactly why he chose to accept the offer of a CBE in 2016

Indeed, almost all of his most famous films and TV shows — which have won a sackful of Golden Globes, Baftas and Emmys, and seen him twice nominated for an Oscar — delve without authorisation into the most personal and confidential moments of other people’s lives.

Take The Crown, his most lucrative creation, which is due to receive a red-carpet premiere for its fifth series at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, early next month. Morgan neither sought, nor received, the consent of King Charles before choosing to dissect his entire life on this so-called ‘fictional dramatisation’, which unfairly depicts our new monarch as a self-serving and disloyal man.

Neither was Charles allowed to veto a host of hurtful scenes depicting wholly made-up events.

One particularly dodgy example comes via an episode where Morgan invents a conversation in which the then Prince of Wales tells his late mother ‘that if we were an ordinary family and social services came to visit, they would have thrown us into care and you [the Queen] into jail’.

Another, set in the early 1990s, involves a fictitious exchange in which Charles plots with John Major to oust the Queen and install himself on the throne. The former prime minister this weekend dubbed it ‘malicious nonsense’.

Other royals who are casually smeared in the latest series of The Crown (which covers 1991 to 1997) include Prince Philip.

Last year, the 59-year-old screenwriter was the subject of a high-profile real-life drama when he split from actress girlfriend Gillian Anderson, who played Margaret Thatcher in The Crown

An entire plotline is, to this end, devoted to suggesting that he pursued a scandalous extra-marital affair with Penelope Knatchbull, the Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who is played by Natascha McElhone.

Viewers see the late Duke of Edinburgh (or at least Morgan’s version of him) tell Knatchbull that he the Queen have ‘grown in separate directions’.

Then, during a carriage-driving trip, they briefly touch hands, with Morgan’s camera zooming in and lingering on the scene before Philip gives his companion a private phone number.

Needless to say, there’s no credible evidence that such an exchange took place, or that Philip was anything other than a devoted husband to Her Majesty. Suggesting otherwise, so soon after both of their deaths, is at best distasteful and at worst downright cruel.

Then there are episodes which appear to lend credibility to the barmy conspiracy theory that Princess Diana was murdered.

At several points during the series, her telephone calls end with odd clicks, suggesting that MI5 is listening in, while in another incident the brake cables on her car appear to have been cut, causing a near-accident.

Of course, were Morgan’s films about fictional characters, this would all be harmless entertainment. But these are real people. And (rightly or wrongly) there are millions of casual viewers who regard The Crown as a vaguely accurate portrayal of quite recent events.

That may explain the increasing volume of criticism that has greeted every passing series of the Netflix show: where once Morgan was taking liberties with the reputation of George VI, Edward VIII or other long-dead historical figures, his recent iterations of the programme have begun invading the privacy of royals who are very much still alive.

Rightly or wrongly, there are millions of casual viewers who regard The Crown as a vaguely accurate portrayal of quite recent events. Pictured: Morgan with Matt Smith and Claire Foy on the set of The Crown

Among those now lining up to criticise the screenwriter are William Shawcross, the official biographer of the Queen Mother. This week he called The Crown ‘an odious series, filled with lies and half-truths encased in lace and velvet’.

‘It is astonishingly and deliberately hurtful to members of the Royal Family — public servants who cannot answer back, let alone sue for damages,’ he added, further accusing Morgan of waging ‘a campaign to abuse’ on the monarchy and ‘destroying by lies a vital institution’. He called the whole thing ‘an absolute disgrace’.

The vehement nature of this criticism has perhaps surprised Morgan, the privately-educated son of a German immigrant who began writing at Leeds University in the early 1980s.

For much of his career, he kept out of the firing line and, having worked in relatively obscure television roles in the 1990s, he did not achieve fame until the early 2000s, when he wrote The Deal, a topical TV film about the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown which was a big hit.

Morgan then cemented his status as a titan of historical drama (and darling of Hollywood) via the 2006 hit The Last King Of Scotland, depicting Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He followed it up with 2008’s Frost/Nixon, depicting Sir David Frost’s post-Watergate interviews of the U.S. President Richard Nixon.

There was also the 2006 film The Queen, for which Helen Mirren won the Oscar for best actress, portraying Her Majesty in the aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997 (although that was generally considered by critics to be more respectful of the royals than Morgan’s recent dramas).

While a sort of fame inevitably ensued, the nearest Morgan came to having his own existence subjected to scrutiny came during the final years of his marriage to Austrian aristocrat Lila Schwarzenberg, born Princess Anna Carolina zu Schwarzenberg, mother of his five children. Writing in an Austrian society magazine, before their 2014 separation, she once revealed what she said were his unsuccessful efforts to seduce her on holiday with the help of the erotic novel Fifty Shades Of Grey.

‘Peter still carries the fantasy that the combination of sun, sand and sea undoubtedly leads to countless sex sessions,’ she wrote. ‘Unfortunately, I have to admit that Shades Of Grey didn’t really change much in the course of our holiday.’

On another occasion, she described how Morgan was once furious to be served a dinner of fish fingers.

‘Peter always says you can gauge the state of our marriage on the number of fish fingers he gets served up in a week,’ she wrote in 2013. ‘And it appears I went too far once again with my culinary neglect towards Peter as I served him the leftovers of the kids’ meal. He took one look and said, “I am neither five years old nor a f****** penguin.” ’

What he would make of a rival dramatist turning these incidents into entertainment for the masses is, of course, anyone’s guess.

Friends this week described Morgan as being ‘quite traumatised’ by the mounting controversy over The Crown’s new series, saying ‘he has not done anything to be sensational, the show would be a different show if he sought the sensational. He has not sought to trash the reputation of the Royal Family’.

History suggests otherwise, however. During an interview with the Sunday Times in 2017, he revealed his actual views about the monarchy, declaring that Queen Elizabeth II was ‘of limited intelligence . . . She’s 90-something years old and barely knows what the internet is.’

He then branded the Royal Family ‘survival organisms, like a mutating virus,’ said that the Queen’s belief in Christianity was ‘deranged’ and the monarchy itself is ‘insane’.

If that is really what he thinks, one wonders exactly why Morgan chose to accept the offer of a CBE in early 2016 (before the first series of The Crown had aired).

During an investiture ceremony, the (then) Prince Charles is said to have exchanged small talk and told him: ‘Scriptwriting isn’t so easy, is it? I tend to think it’s not what you leave in but what you leave out that’s most important.’

As anger mounts over what he chose not to leave out of the latest series of The Crown, perhaps Morgan is wishing he had taken that advice.

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