Seven thousand costumes, a host of top actors in lead roles, a reported 100m budget and 60 episodes. The new Netflix series The Crown is one of the biggest drama series made in Britain for TV.
But its writer Peter Morgan says he doesn’t even know if television is the right word any more – and he’s daunted at the prospect of writing another 50 episodes to follow the 10 out this week.
Just over a decade ago, Morgan wrote the hit film The Queen, starring Dame Helen Mirren.
In 2013, he followed up with the stage play The Audience, featuring almost all the prime ministers with whom the Queen has held weekly meetings since coming to the throne in 1952.
Yet those two projects appear small-scale next to an attempt to tell the entire story of Britain’s monarchy from the reign of George VI, the Queen’s father, who died aged 56.
“Initially I thought maybe there’s a film in this,” Morgan says. “So I started tinkering with it and it just grew and grew. Elizabeth became Queen at a very vulnerable age, just 25. She was still in the infancy of her marriage.
“So the series is about a woman, a family, a marriage and a country. It’s not all Elizabeth’s story – it’s also the story of who we were in the second half of the 20th Century.
“In a way, I and Stephen Daldry [executive producer and one of the directors] are still trying to work out exactly what the series is about.”
The plan is for a total of 60 episodes, although no exact production schedule is yet confirmed. It is expected that each season will cover roughly a decade, and Netflix is making the first 10 episodes of The Crown available this week.
Morgan says the idea of having to write two-and-a-half days’ worth of complex, polished material about the British monarchy frightens him.
“I’m utterly exhausted having written what I have written. The thought of continuing fills me mainly with dread. It’s an entirely all-consuming monogamy that I think is antithetical to the creative spirit.”
The cast of The Crown is led by Claire Foy and Matt Smith, and Morgan says of them and their colleagues: “I envy deeply and passionately all the other projects they are flitting off to do while I remain imprisoned in a gilded cage!
“I have agreed with everybody concerned to just wait and see what happens when the show comes out – to give it some time and see how people are watching it and how it does or does not resonate.”
Stephen Daldry intervenes with a smile: “In the meantime I’m storyboarding episode 70.”
Each man is still working through the implications of making the series for a video streaming service, where people can opt to treat 10 episodes as a big binge-worthy box-set.
Did Morgan take into account that, probably, few Netflix subscribers will just watch an episode a week, as TV audiences have done for decades?
“I’m certainly writing it assuming it’s possible that people are watching two or three hours at a time,” he says. “And so I’m mindful of how I’m composing the flow of a season.
“It’s like getting into the Uber debate – do we or don’t we approve? But people are now travelling around London in a particular way – it’s a fact and prohibition never did anyone any good.”
Arguably Britain’s most successful screenwriter, Morgan can see a positive side to how his industry has changed. The extra canvas to cover means he can tell a vast story, which traditional TV could never permit, he says.
“Technology and viewing patterns are evolving. Having grown up on a system of three or four television stations in the UK, I still pinch myself.
“Even though I’m working for Netflix I keep asking my children what’s going on with the television landscape and they fill me in. People are drifting towards whole different modes of distribution and consumption.
“We made The Crown exactly as I would make a film. I’m not certain we should even talk about TV. It’s the story of two houses,” he says, referring to Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street. “And of two lives,” meaning the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
“I think you could write 1,000 hours about that.
“What happens normally is that history reduces to a comfortable set of anecdotes. So the ’60s becomes the Profumo scandal and the Beatles and JFK’s death and whatever it is.
“But the great joy of this show is the extra space – it’s finding the things we don’t know.”