Abi Morgan: The extraordinarily versatile writer of Suffragette is a polymath armed only with a pen

The woman behind The Hour, Birdsong and The Iron Lady is discovering the power of her words to further the feminist cause

Ian Burrell
Media Editor
Friday 09 October 2015 18:19 BST
Screenwriter Abi Morgan holds her Emmy for best screenwriter for The Hour
Screenwriter Abi Morgan holds her Emmy for best screenwriter for The Hour

Abi Morgan wrote her first play about a woman eating an entire iceberg lettuce. Her latest television series is partly inspired by her tendency to argue out loud with herself while walking the dog, or riding the Tube.

Those wishing to follow the example of one of Britain’s finest scriptwriters might struggle to identify where she gets her inspiration. Her path to success, taking in a drama and literature degree at Exeter University, has always been less than conventional.

This is a woman who came to London as a graduate, took a job with a catering company and found herself serving canapés to Margaret Thatcher. About 20 years later, she was writing the Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep.

Morgan, 47, is both prolific and extraordinarily versatile. Her new film Suffragette (also featuring Streep, as Emmeline Pankhurst) opened last week and River, her six-part detective series exploring the subject of mental health, begins on Tuesday. It tells the story of a London detective, played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, who undergoes psychotic trauma. “I felt that writing this was a way to explore my own mental health. I talk to myself all the time – it’s something my children have observed in the car. I’ll often have the argument with a person that I really want to say to their face,” Morgan told the latest Radio Times.

“I wanted to say, ‘In police departments, in hospitals, in newsrooms, in the banking industry, we have people who are dealing with emotional situations that fracture their minds’, and so that’s what made me start to write this.”

Sketch of Abi Morgan by Lauren Crow
Sketch of Abi Morgan by Lauren Crow (Lauren Crow)

Morgan has never been afraid to tackle big subjects. She made her mark in 2004 with the meticulously researched and Bafta-winning Channel 4 drama Sex Traffic, about the fate of two Moldovan sisters unwittingly sold into prostitution. Her next television project will be about divorce.

That’s something she saw up close as an 11-year-old, when her father – Gareth Morgan, a theatre director and alcoholic – walked out on his wife and three children, taking the furniture with him. Morgan’s mother, the actress Patricia England (who recently appeared in the Specsavers ad featuring an elderly couple on a roller coaster), brought up the children while working in repertory theatre.

It was a peripatetic existence. Although she was born in Cardiff, Morgan grew up in locations as far apart as Stratford-upon-Avon, Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and was educated at seven different schools. The girl with theatrical parentage was bullied for being well spoken.

She imbibed the theatricality of her parents’ existence, both in their working and domestic lives. “I literally grew up in drama. I used to watch drama, the catharsis of the play, then see drama at home,” she told The Sunday Times. Even her mother’s decision to divorce was a source of energy – “[It was] one of the greatest gifts she gave me. Watching the complexities of her marriage, how you survive.” But it was also Patricia England who told her daughter she wasn’t cut out to be an actress with the blunt review: “No, darling.”

Instead, she determined on a career as a scriptwriter, which she figured would give her greater control over her income than a life of auditioning. She is now in the front rank of British writers, alongside Paul Abbott, Jimmy McGovern, Simon Beaufoy, Tony Marchant, Tony Jordan and Mark Gatiss. It’s a male-dominated world.

When working on Suffragette and previous projects such as The Hour (a 12-hour drama set at the BBC during the Suez crisis), Morgan has worked alongside women in the senior production roles. Suffragette reunites her with the director Sarah Gavron, with whom she adapted Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane for the cinema in 2007. And speaking at the BFI London Film Festival this week, Morgan has suggested that she will – for the next “four or five years” – focus exclusively on films and television that are based on the experiences of women.

Her work has won sheaves of critical acclaim. Her 2001 play Tender won her the “most promising playwright” prize at the Laurence Olivier Theatre Awards. The Hour, despite being dropped after two series, won an Emmy. The Iron Lady and Shame, a dark 2011 film about sex addiction, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender, were both nominated for Baftas.

Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan in 'Suffragette'
Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan in 'Suffragette'

Shame, Morgan told The Observer, had made her conscious of how, in the 21st century, “the quest for love and sexual intimacy swims against the tide of a therapised world that deconstructs love and a cynical internet world that commodifies sex”.

She described Brick Lane, an adaptation of Monica Ali’s 2003 novel, as covering “20 years of marriage, and two kinds of love – young passionate love that takes your breath away and the love that is like a grain of sand that rubs and rubs until it produces a pearl”. The Bangladeshi community in London’s East End, which was the subject of the film, was less impressed and claimed it had been shown in a negative light. Protests were staged to prevent filming in the neighbourhood.

It’s not the only controversy Morgan has endured. Before its release, The Iron Lady was dismissed by the Thatcher family as sounding “like some left-wing fantasy” because it was set in her final years. But Morgan, who looked up to class warrior writers such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh in her youth, said: “I think Thatcher fans will be pleasantly surprised.” Some reviewers felt she was more than kind to the former prime minister.

I literally grew up in drama. I used to watch drama, then see drama at home

&#13; <p>Writer, Abi Morgan</p>&#13;

The Hour, which was originally billed as Britain’s Mad Men because of its attention to period detail, was not authentic enough for some. She was accused of “linguistic anachronism” for including modern expressions such as “note to self” and “going for a Chinese” in a drama set in 1956. “It is aesthetically offensive to anyone who cares about accuracy,” harrumphed the cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht. Morgan was contrite in her response. “When a line of dialogue jars and is seen as an anachronism, one holds one’s hands up. But more because it has taken an audience out of the drama. The Hour is escapism and for that moment the escapism hasn’t worked.”

Her screenplays attract the finest acting talent. Birdsong, her BBC One adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel set in the First World War, starred Eddie Redmayne. The Hour featured Dominic West, Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw. Suffragette was unusual in that Morgan was able to create what she called an “ensemble female cast”, including Streep, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff.

Despite arguing with herself in public, she now has a happy home life in Crouch End in north London with her actor partner Jacob Krichefski and their two children, a boy and a girl. Writing calms her and she works from nine in the morning until seven at night, at a desk covered in paper and pieces of chocolate.

Those who meet Morgan are sometimes surprised by her 5ft 2in stature. It’s not that small, yet it was another reason why she elected not to act, but to write instead. We are all the richer for that.

A life in brief

Born 1968, Cardiff.

Family Daughter of actress Patricia England and director Gareth Morgan. Two children with actor Jacob Krichefski.

Education Seven schools. Drama and literature degree, Exeter University. Postgraduate writing course, Central School of Speech and Drama.

Career Skinned was first professional play in 1998. TV and film credits include Sex Traffic, The Hour, Birdsong, River, The Iron Lady and Suffragette.

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