From The Queen to The Crown, how Peter Morgan shaped our view of Elizabeth II

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan's The Queen
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan's The Queen

We see her before we hear her. Lurking beyond the doors of a grand chamber thickly crammed with men in uniform, she is where tradition has tended to place her sex when history is happening: outside the room. Inside it, her future husband is signing away his foreign titles in order to adopt British ones.

Eventually, she speaks. Wouldn’t she rather marry a pink-faced marquess with a grouse moor, the new Duke of Edinburgh asks her. “That would have all been very antiseptic,” she says with a mischievous smile. The first words uttered by Princess Elizabeth in the first episode of The Crown tell their own story.

For her 70 years on the throne, the real Queen Elizabeth II scrubbed her public image clean so that she might, antiseptically, be everything to everyone. She kept her self to herself. So when Peter Morgan began writing about her, he had the blankest of slates to work with. “There’s always this supposition that this is a woman that has no internal life,” he said as the first series streamed.

Our late Queen’s unappointed portraitist-in-chief has had a film, a play and 40 hours and counting of television drama to imagine the life and opinions of, as his Elizabeth describes herself, “a postage stamp with a pulse”. What Morgan has come up with – or Morgan plus the many full-time researchers who work on The Crown – is a fiction, but seemingly a plausible one.

The main thrust of all his writing has been to explore the tension between a sovereign’s public obligations and the private impulses of a daughter, sister, wife, mother. Or mother-in-law. In our most recent sight of her, at the finale to the fourth series, the Queen is hugged by a desperate and lonely Diana but refuses to reciprocate. In the cold calculus of duty vs desire, the crown always wins.

It was the death of Princess Diana which first brought the Queen into Morgan’s purview as the second part in what turned out to be a trilogy featuring Tony Blair. In the event, The Queen (2006) was more solo than duet, as the Academy Award for Helen Mirren amply suggested. The film portrayed a monarch who finds herself suddenly out of synch with her public. “Nowadays people want glamour and tears, the grand performance,” the Queen tells the moderniser at No 10. “I’m not very good at that. I never have been. I prefer to keep my feelings to myself.”

Mirren continued in the role onstage in The Audience (2013), which posited the Queen as a kind of stately psychotherapist for successive Prime Ministers visiting the Palace for weekly sessions. As these were unminuted, there was little for Morgan to go on beyond the knowledge that she favoured Harold Wilson (who tells her “You’re one of us”) and clashed with Margaret Thatcher.

With so many PMs to get through, Morgan’s inability to do more than scratch the surface of the Queen’s relationship with Winston Churchill was the spur for what became The Crown. From the start of it, Morgan conjured up an energetic woman of breezy good cheer who can switch on the regal lasers when the role calls for it. Morgan’s own duty to his audience to provide them with drama hasn’t always cohered with the historical record. When each new season drops, it has become a ritual to wait for the royal authority Hugo Vickers to clarify how many of its scenarios did or didn’t actually happen.

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair

Though quite a lot didn’t, sometimes calumniously so, the essence of Morgan’s unofficial portrait harmonises with – and perhaps influences – our understanding of who the Queen must have been. While he doesn’t shy away from suggesting flaws, his is an evolving Elizabeth who is prepared to do better, to listen, to connect with the people who constitutionally matter to her most: the British people.

With two series still to run, it’s going to be strange and difficult watching Imelda Staunton succeed Claire Foy and Olivia Colman as a woman whose real-life counterpart is no longer physically with us. But even at the beginning, Morgan kept half an eye on the aftermath. “You’re the greatest asset this institution has,” her Prime Minister says in The Queen. “The problem will come when you leave.”

Olivia Colman as the Queen in The Crown - Netflix/Sophie Mutevelian
Olivia Colman as the Queen in The Crown - Netflix/Sophie Mutevelian

Was Morgan also thinking ahead to the day that is now here when, as Diana’s mourners rend their garments outside Buckingham Palace in that same film, he put these words into the mouth of his Elizabeth? “I doubt there is anyone who knows the British people more than I do, Mr Blair, nor who has greater faith in their wisdom and judgement. And it is my belief that they will any moment reject this mood that is being stirred up by the press in favour of a period of restrained grief and sober private mourning. That’s the way we do things in this country. Quietly with dignity. It’s what the rest of the world has always admired us for.”

On the day of the Queen’s death, Morgan said that production on Season 6 of The Crown “will stop filming out of respect” for a period of time.