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…