He's just won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. On Tuesday he is tipped to win Oscar nominations for both The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. His hit West End play Frost/Nixon is transferring to Broadway. His television drama Longford was recently selected for the Sundance Film Festival. "It's a bit like four buses have arrived at once," playwright Peter Morgan says. "I'm just so heading for an almighty thrashing with the next thing I do."
Having toiled away in British TV for 15 years, Morgan is suddenly on a winning streak. Not only does he have a remarkable ability to move from television to film to theatre, he's frighteningly prolific. At only 43, he has fashioned memorable portraits of real-life figures from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to Idi Amin and Elizabeth II. "He has the ability to write about powerful relationships and make them human," says Stephen Frears, who directed The Queen and Morgan's Blair-Brown drama, The Deal.
The irony is you could still walk past him in the street. Morgan loathes being photographed and rarely reads reviews. People often assume from his name that he is Welsh. But Morgan is German-Jewish, the son of two refugees. His father's real surname was Morgenthau. He grew up speaking German and was, charmingly, nicknamed Fritz at school, "because the English are so broad-minded about that kind of thing". He believes this outsider status has helped him write incisively about those on the inside. "If you don't belong somewhere, it gives you perspective. Of course, another word for outsider is exile and that's not fun at all."
His father died of a heart attack when Morgan was nine. It's noticeable how many of his characters are looking for surrogate parents (the Queen and Tony Blair is a classic mother-son relationship).
Actors queue up to work with Morgan because he creates such juicy roles. But unlike other contemporary satirists, he has a romantic streak. He calls all his scripts "love stories". His characters are complex human beings. He is fascinated by the way people reconcile their own morality behind closed doors. In lesser hands, The Queen could have been a hatchet job. Even Amin, played by Forest Whitaker, has a dazzling charisma in the early scenes of The Last King of Scotland.
Passionate, theatrical, Morgan speaks with a precise European intonation. Friends say that, for all his journalistic instincts, he's a sensitive creator who needs a lot of support and gentle handling. He's an academic who reads pulp fiction ("the storytelling is so good") rather than proper novels and is known for going into posh cafés and telling them they can't bake strudel properly.
But he has a waspish sense of humour and loves gossip. When I interviewed him about working with Helen Mirren, he dwelled on her transformation in appreciative detail: "A woman about whom any red-blooded man would immediately have sexual thoughts had become somebody about whom one just would never have sexual thoughts."
Peter Morgan was born in 1963. His father was a German Jew who fled the Nazis; his mother, a Catholic Pole who fled the Soviets. They met in London, "trying to reinvent themselves", and settled in Wimbledon. In 1981, Morgan went to study at Leeds but found the English department's approach suffocating and switched to fine art. He became involved in student theatre, where he played opposite the impressionist Alistair McGowan (the two still play tennis).
But one night, playing the king in a production of Love's Labour's Lost, he suffered debilitating stage fright. Switching to writing, he and fellow student Mark Wadlow came up with Gross, a play based on Wadlow's summer job at a call centre. At the Edinburgh Festival, they were noticed and asked to write training films. Later they collaborated on the script of John Schlesinger's movie, Madame Sousatzka. Wadlow is a senior writer on Coronation Street. Morgan wrote the Rik Mayall TV series, Micky Love, the thriller Metropolis and The Jury, a drama. His script for rom-com Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence was praised for its unconventional male heroes. And his screenplay for Henry VIII, starring Ray Winstone, won an Emmy. But 2003's The Deal put him on the map. He spent months researching the background to the dinner conversation between Blair and Brown at the Granita restaurant in Islington.
Morgan is a Labour voter, but is not a political person. What gripped him about The Deal, he says, was the struggle between two "brothers". He knows two people arguing in a room is the basis for great drama. And he doesn't rest on his laurels. His next script, a play based on the TV interviews David Frost conducted in 1977 with Richard Nixon, was genuinely risky.
The idea had been buzzing in Morgan's head ever since he watched a TV biography of Frost in 1992. "I was driven by this image I had of these two men," he has said. "The glamorous Frost, going backwards and forwards over the Atlantic on Concorde. And Nixon, a man really living in a cave."
Morgan is a classic method writer: whether learning about Downing Street machinations, talking to butlers, or renting a cottage in the grounds of Balmoral. He has researchers filtering the correct speech patterns for a character, and the script for The Queen was rigorously fact-checked. For Frost/Nixon, he employed an American politics tutor whom he would visit for two hours every Friday and quiz on the difference between a governor, a senator and a congressman.
For such a provocative writer, Morgan has a steady private life. He lives with his Austrian wife, Lila, and their four children, aged from seven to eight months, in Vienna. They plan to return to London, but Morgan has a passion for the Alps, where he wrote the script for The Queen.
He specialises in writing about the unwritable (no one knows what went on at Granita). But his prescience is spooky. "He's a fish swimming along and the plankton just goes in," says the broadcaster James Naughtie, who advised him onThe Deal. "There's a poetic quality in the way he can distil it all down to its essence."
Also on the way is an adaptation of Philippa Gregory's novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, pitting Natalie Portman against Scarlett Johansson. Rumour has it he's reuniting with Frears on a screenplay about Brian Clough - based on David Peace's novel The Damned Utd. And he plans to wrote a personal love story - his first non-factual piece for years.
But first we have the Oscars. Who knows which way it will go but one thing is for sure - if Mirren and Whitaker repeat their Golden Globe successes, they will both be thanking the same man from the podium.Reuse content