In Peter Morgan's domestic-sized dramas, our leaders emerge as fallible, even loveable figures. But his work is not as reactionary as it seemsby Andrew Billen / December 16, 2006 / Leave a comment
The most sought-after dramatist in the world, courted by television, theatre and Hollywood, is a 43-year-old Briton who does not even bother to invent his characters. Peter Morgan instead plucks his dramatis personae from the public stage. Richard Nixon, David Frost, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Lord Longford, Myra Hindley, Idi Amin and, most famously, the Queen have each been reimagined by him. Stripped of their historical majesty, they emerge as fallible, semi-comic players in domestic-sized dramas. In almost every case, we end up liking them more than we thought possible.
Morgan reanimates the recent past so cleverly that it is easy to forget that most dramatists who try to do the same fail abjectly. Docudrama—a term Morgan disavows—is a contentious form. In the early 1990s, the BBC received so many complaints about its representations of real people that it issued guidelines compelling producers to consult those to be portrayed (“or their surviving near relatives”). If their “co-operation or approval” was withheld “on reasonable grounds,” the portrayal should be abandoned. While the BBC backed away from the genre, ITV ploughed on with dramatisations of the Birmingham six, the Hillsborough stadium disaster and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Even as agit-prop, however, the films had limited success, often generating more outrage by their “inaccuracies” than by the injustices they sought to dramatise.
But Morgan’s dramas attract overwhelming praise. Nitpickers who object to a wrongly studded epaulette in a costume drama remain quiet when confronted by his confabulations. Whereas ITV was brought in for questioning by the tabloids earlier this year when it dramatised the moors murders, Channel 4’s Longford, which also portrayed Myra Hindley, was given a free pass. The tinderbox of Alastair Campbell’s temper has not, so far as we know, been ignited by The Queen, despite his oafish portrayal in the film.
In one week in October, both The Queen and Morgan’s Amin movie, The Last King of Scotland, opened in America. They both attracted critical accolades. A bidding war followed for the screen rights to Morgan’s west end hit Frost/Nixon, the story of David Frost’s 1977 interview with the ex-president. Among those hoping to direct it were Sam Mendes, George Clooney and Martin Scorsese. But the director selected by Morgan—and he was in a position to choose—was Ron Howard. This decision offers an explanation for Morgan’s popularity. Howard, whose most recent film is The Da Vinci Code, was the most middlebrow of the suitors. Morgan told Entertainment Weekly that he had chosen Howard precisely because of his “very mainstream” taste. “To me,” he added, “the holy grail is not art-house. It’s intelligent, adult, mainstream cinema.”
The author of ITV’s utterly mainstream Colditz has, indeed, a gift for appealing to large audiences. He makes, after all, one of Britain’s favourite kinds of drama, the period piece (even if his period is hardly more distant than the day before yesterday). It is a cosy genre. We all feel superior to the past, because we know what happens next. Some of the biggest laughs in The Queen are triggered by straightforward dramatic ironies. “Tell him to hang on,” Blair tells an aide who says he has Gordon Brown on the phone; nine years later, Brown is still “hanging on.”
Visually, Morgan’s films do not stint on the nostalgic potential of archive footage. And while not all his actors aim for impersonations, some of the sheer fun of The Queen comes from Helen Mirren’s mimicry of Elizabeth’s voice. In that film, as in The Deal, Morgan’s 2003 Channel 4 drama about the Blair-Brown rivalry, an equal joy is Michael Sheen’s representation of Tony Blair, a Xerox-copy of a performance rivalled only by the same actor’s reproduction of David Frost.
Morgan has been blessed by the talent of his casts, but they in turn have been blessed by his ear for idiolect. In The Queen, Blair muses on our behalf over the provenance of a royal flunky, who insists on pronouncing precedence as “preecidence.” “God, where do they get ’em?” he asks, and the vernacular is spot on. Nicholas Garrigan, the young Scottish doctor hired by Amin in The Last King of Scotland, is equally fascinated by the arcane circumlocutions of a British diplomat: “Is there a place where you learn to speak bollocks?” In Frost/Nixon, the gap between the voices of the co-protagonists is not the Atlantic but a generation: Nixon cannot do small talk; Frost can do nothing but. Morgan, we can be confident, hears his characters before he even sees them.
If Morgan, the son of immigrants who grew up speaking German, is gifted at dialect, his preferred structural technique is dialectic. His pieces are essentially two-handers: Frost/Nixon; Queen/Blair; Blair/Brown; Longford/Hindley; Amin/Garrigan. It is a form popular with comedy writers—Laurel and Hardy, Steptoe and Son, or the Frasier brothers—and Morgan’s pieces are essentially comedies of manners, even when his ostensible subject is a mass murderer. When he strays, as it were, beyond the drawing room, the results are striking but not always successful. In Longford, Frank Pakenham beards Ian Brady in his den, and there is suddenly no place for laughter: instead we are reminded of another encounter with a psychotic truth-teller—Clarice Starling’s with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. When Morgan shifts gears in The Queen, the result is less convincing. Out in the Balmoral estate, the Queen encounters a stag and enjoys a moment of empathy with a fellow hunted creature. The metaphor does not quite work, partly because the deer’s existence is being threatened not by the masses but her own gun-toting family. Inside No 10 and Balmoral, however, Morgan is at home: he knows what volumes curtains, cushions and carpets can speak.
Morgan researches his plays exhaustively and interviews eyewitnesses. For all that, he is intolerant of the suggestion that he is the servant of the facts. The disclaimers that preface his works are assertions of independence. The Deal quotes the sly epigraph to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Much of what follows is true.” An author’s note to Frost/Nixon assures us that he believes his representation is accurate, but adds: “In the end, as an author, I feel most comfortable thinking of this as a fiction.” More testily, he told an interviewer who questioned the authenticity of The Queen: “It is not a docudrama or a drama of faction. I’ve done my reading and gone away and written a script about individuals. If I was writing about Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, no one would be asking me about this.”
Morgan, in other words, relies upon what a dramatist should: his imagination. The opposite approach sank Jimmy McGovern’s 1996 Hillsborough, a film so hemmed in by inquest testimony that the actor playing the policeman in charge of security at the football stadium was left speechless at a crucial moment. In contrast, only Blair and Brown know what words were actually exchanged in their Granita restaurant meeting in Islington in 1995, and they are not talking. The Deal, however, convinced us that Blair’s non-committal committal to a Brown premiership is precisely what was probably said.
The smoothness with which Morgan convinces us that we are watching “the truth” may make us forget how conventional his dramas are. It is worth asking if Morgan’s “truth” masks anything else. On the face of it, after all, his work is reactionary. To understand all is to forgive all, and even Morgan admits he has been surprised by how many people leave The Queen professing their love for its subject. “She’s a dysfunctional mother and a dysfunctional wife,” he told a journalist. “She gets it [Diana’s death] entirely wrong. She patronises Tony Blair, she’s cold, she’s withdrawn, she’s aloof. She’s riddled with flaws.”
Yet we forgive them, just as the movie invites us to agree with Blair that the monarchy may be a flawed institution but is not a failed one. Her Majesty’s flaws are not tragic. They never are in Morgan’s plays. His protagonists are too unheroic for that, their ambitions too small. His subjects are motivated by their survival instincts. With the arguable exception of Nixon, they are driven by little beyond their own vanity. Indeed, his heroes lack conviction almost as a matter of principle. Frost, we are told, is “a man with no political convictions” who has never voted in his life. The Queen has never voted either and shows only mild curiosity about what it must be like. Blair, for Morgan, is the ultimate conviction-lite politician—someone, as Kitty Muggeridge famously said of Frost, who rose without trace.
In writing The Deal, the battle for socialism no more attracted Morgan as a topic than it did Blair as a cause. An outsider nicknamed “Fritz” at his public school, Morgan gives every impression of regarding politics as a spectator sport. Uninterested in polemic, he avoids the controversies generated by other docudramatists. By rights, this neutrality should leave an emptiness at the heart of his work. But in fact, lack of conviction becomes its theme. Passion is dangerous, but so is its lack. Morgan flirts with this argument in both his Blair plays and in Longford, where the dogmatic Catholic peer is utterly fooled by Hindley, a personality-free chameleon. But its clearest working out is in The Last King of Scotland, which opens here in January.
In the film, Garrigan, the Scottish medic who ends up in Uganda by chance, larkishly allows himself to be sucked into Amin’s circle only to find himself responsible for a colleague’s torture and death. In Giles Foden’s novel on which the film is based, Garrigan is an idealistic do-gooder. Morgan prefers to make him an ignoramus about African politics, a half-hearted adventurer out to take what he can (including other people’s wives) so long as there is no cost to himself. Finally, he is reprimanded by Amin: “Look at you! Is there anything you have done that is good?” Amin’s appetite for murder, we come to understand, is merely an exaggerated version of Garrigan’s own id. And Amin is no Nazi, merely a boy scout who, equipped with no political compass, panics and runs amok. In Morgan’s words, Amin is “a parentless child, brought up by the British army.”
Morgan’s work suits the sophisticated conservatism of our age. His well-made plays provoke laughter more often than tears, but it is the laughter of affection, not ridicule. We are moved to sympathy for our rulers, not rebellion. Morgan writes docu-comedies, not satires, and their hallmark is fairness. But they are less complacent than they seem. In a health warning for our uncommitted times, they admonish us that it is precisely the lightweights we need to watch.