On a chilly day in December 2016, Peter Morgan stood on a London street, watching the filming of a scene from his new television series about the British royal family.
Half an hour later, he flopped into a chair, running his hands through his hair. As both the show’s writer and showrunner, he was already working on Season 2 while keeping an eye on every detail of Season 1. “I love doing this, but it’s overwhelming to a degree that isn’t sustainable over a long time,” he said.
“This” was the “The Crown,” Morgan’s ambitious six-part series that would span most of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, exploring national and international politics, personalities and social change through the prism of an intergenerational — and royal — family. After 60 episodes, all written or co-written by Morgan, he has seen it through.
On Thursday, Netflix will release the last six episodes of the sixth season, marking the end of a show that has been one of the most watched, argued over and influential creations in recent television history.
Reminded, in a recent interview, of those early doubts, Morgan, 60, nodded emphatically. “I am really surprised that I’ve sustained it,” he said. “I do feel” — he paused for a while — “astonished, and grateful, and quite emotional that we got to the end.”
Morgan, center, with Matt Smith (who played Prince Philip for the first two seasons) and Claire Foy (who played Queen Elizabeth in the same period) during filming of “The Crown.”Credit…Alex Bailey/Netflix
When Morgan, along with the director Stephen Daldry and the producer Andy Harries, first pitched “The Crown” to broadcasters in 2014, it was with “low expectations,” Daldry wrote in an email. Netflix was only just beginning to create original content, and streaming was in its infancy.
The BBC would have been a natural home for “The Crown,” but “Peter wanted to do something pioneering and different,” said Suzanne Mackie, who has been an executive producer on the show from the start. “I remember feeling that the TV landscape was going to change and we were going to be part of it.”
“The Crown” was not just part of a shifting landscape, but an agent of change. The show’s blend of scrupulously researched fact and dramatic fiction, its cinematic production values and the changing of its principal cast every two seasons, all set new parameters for prestige long-form television.
“What an extraordinary thing to have invented: the story of a family using three different sets of actors. I don’t think it’s ever been done before,” said Imelda Staunton, who played Queen Elizabeth over the last two seasons.
The final season, which opens in 1997 with the run-up to the death of Diana, has been the hardest of all for Morgan to create, he said, not just because the events and images feel familiar to much of the audience. He also covered some of the same terrain period in his 2006 film, “The Queen,” which focused on the queen (played by Helen Mirren) confronting the emotional public response to the death of Princess Diana.
“I’ve been dreading this moment,” he said frankly. “How do I repeat myself without repeating myself?” He decided that if he couldn’t find a convincing Diana, he would tell the story of the end of her life through Dodi Fayed, Diana’s boyfriend who died with her in the crash, and his mourning father, the Egyptian billionaire Mohamed al-Fayed, who yearned for acceptance from the royals and died this year.
“But once we had Elizabeth Debicki as Diana, I could enjoy writing her, the life she had, the mischief,” and her extraordinary ability to connect with people, Morgan said.
The queen’s death last year, and watching her funeral, also shifted Morgan’s approach to the final season, he said, which ends in 2005 with the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. Elizabeth’s story now concludes with the monarch celebrating and coming to terms with that union, but also contemplating her own death and legacy.
“What about the life I put aside, the woman I put aside, when I became queen?” the monarch asks herself, in a rare moment of vulnerability.
Daldry, who directed the final episode, said that in filming it, Staunton “went on an amazing journey with me in reflecting the queen’s mortality and reign.” For Staunton, “it was an extraordinary thing to try to inhabit a person who was completely dutiful all her life,” she said. “You will never see that again.”
By the end of the show, the queen, Morgan said, “is wrestling with the illogicality of the system” that required such duty of her. “It’s like religion,” he added. “Why lead such a powerful institution along irrational lines? But then maybe the irrationality is the romance. I’ve got no closer to an answer.”
Morgan, 60, grew up in London, the son of two refugees: his Jewish father had fled Nazi Germany; his Catholic mother escaped communist Poland. “If I weren’t the son of immigrants, I wouldn’t have dared write about the British royal family,” he said. “You have to have to feel one foot outside, one foot inside, to understand it.”
While studying fine art at Leeds University, he decided he wanted to work in theater and came to writing “through a series of accidents.” Now, he said, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
Morgan wrote television scripts for much of the 1990s, before gaining wider attention in 2003 with “The Deal,” a film for British television about the rivalry between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Then came his 2006 breakthrough with “The Queen,” directed by Stephen Frears.
In 2013 he premiered “The Audience,” a play about the weekly meetings between the queen, again played by Mirren, and her prime ministers, which played in the West End and Broadway and won several Tony Awards. Writing it, Morgan was struck by the relationship between the young Elizabeth and the elderly Winston Churchill, and thought perhaps it could be a film. As he began to explore the idea, and starting at an earlier point, “I thought, there might be a TV show in this,” he recalled.
There was. In a negotiation between on-the-record history and speculative imaginings characteristic of his work, Morgan has portrayed the royal family as ordinarily human, with complicated and rich inner lives. Private versus public, tradition versus modernity, relevance versus mystery: “The Crown” has explored these issues over the decades of the queen’s reign.
“The Crown” started “a seismic shift in royal representation onstage and screen,” Mark Lawson wrote recently in The Guardian, noting that before the series began, fictional representation of the royals was mostly satirical or comedy. Morgan, by contrast, depicted “royalty with the quasi-documentary realism of acting and lavish scenery,” Lawson added.
As a consequence, the series has come in for opprobrium — particularly over the final two seasons — from outraged royal-watchers, critics and public figures, who have called out historical inaccuracies and objected to imagined conversations and encounters.
But truth is elusive, and ambiguity is essential for Morgan. “I can only repeat what I have always said,” Morgan said. “Some of it is necessarily fiction. But I try to make everything truthful even if you can’t know if it’s accurate.” He quoted the late author Hilary Mantel: “History is not the past, it’s the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past.”
The royal family, Morgan said, “is like a shadow family for everyone, which is why people have such strong opinions. And it’s right and proper that a dramatist writes about kings and queens and leaders. It has historically been what we do to make sense of the world.”
Over almost a decade, the show has made stars of its young actors, among them Claire Foy, Vanessa Kirby and Emma Corrin. “It changed my life,” Kirby, who played a young Princess Margaret, wrote in an email. Morgan, she said, “understands how to paint arcs, deep emotional journeys — no matter how big or small the part.” Morgan, she added, always encourages “the unpredictable, the complex, the challenging.”
Khalid Abdalla, who plays Dodi, Diana’s boyfriend, in Seasons 5 and 6, said that before taking the role, he had been uninterested in watching a show about the royal family. But once he joined the show, he said, he was “amazed by the way Peter gives a point of view you hadn’t had, and makes you rethink what you thought you knew.”
When it came to the characters of Dodi and his father, “it was moving that he gave the al-Fayeds a cultural space for their grief,” Abdalla said. “There is a blindness to that side of the story that needs to be called out and recognized, and Peter did that.”
For each season, Morgan spent at least six months working with a core team to create a detailed timeline of the relevant time period, with a research team providing documents, photographs and other background materials for every scene. “I love playing with stories like a jigsaw,” he said. “I am very specific and detail-oriented; if I were a doctor, I would be an elbow man!”
That detail extends to every character. “Not one character speaks in the same way,” Kirby said. “That is surprisingly rare in writing — and so true to life.”
Over the last ten years, Morgan has also, together with the executive producers Mackie and Oona O’Beirn, overseen every detail of the shows production. “Making a show like this is like making ten feature films each season, with the same care and detail,” Morgan said. “And unlike one film, it just goes on.”
Now that he’s reached the end, “People keep saying, you must be so happy and proud, but I’m not yet. I’m still a bit traumatized.” He laughed. “I promise I will smoke a cigar soon.”
He is nonetheless on to his next project, which he said he couldn’t talk about yet. “It won’t,” he said firmly, “involve palaces.”