Abi Morgan opens the door to Hornsey Town Hall with a plastic swipe card. Through a marble atrium, down a long, green corridor, we turn into a small room hung with negatives that leads to a newsroom. Desks are piled with paper, empty bottles, dirty ashtrays, notes sheathed messily in wire trays. For a journalist’s habitat, it is authentically untidy. In fact, it’s a perfect fake – the disused 1930s hall in north London, near Morgan’s home, is the set for her BBC drama series The Hour, a seductive take on broadcast news in the 1950s. Morgan poses for photos and talks about the surreal consequences of writing: during the series (“An exercise in structure – I hadn’t written six hours before”), people held The Hour-themed dinner parties. She seems genuinely surprised by how thoroughly her imaginary world took hold.
Two decades ago, Morgan had graduated from Exeter University having identified writing as something she “was good at”. In particular, she had been praised for what she now describes as “poor man’s Alan Bennett”, a monologue about a woman eating a lettuce. It was inspired by a moment from real life. “I was going to university on the train. This woman came on with an iceberg lettuce and she ate the whole thing. I remember thinking, ‘that is the weirdest thing ever’.”
In her play there has been “some terrible, tragic story and she’s cut this lettuce from someone’s garden. It’s really about the relationship between a father and his daughter.”
The surface lines of Morgan’s work do not necessarily follow what really interests her in her subjects. Her latest film, Shame, co-written with artist-director Steve McQueen, depicts a New York man, Brandon, trapped by his taste for internet porn, experimenting unhappily with real sex. “It’s an incredibly intense, powerful love story in a way,” she says. Brandon, a compulsive masturbator, could easily be a Bret Easton Ellis anti-hero, but he is, as Morgan perhaps wanted, a romantic lead – damaged but reparable. It is a beautiful, emotionally inquisitive film.
And then there’s The Iron Lady, the biopic of Margaret Thatcher’s life, released in January. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with Meryl Streep as Britain’s first female premier, it has already caused flutterings of panic from Thatcher’s supporters.
“The starting point for me was looking at an interview with her daughter [Carol Thatcher], realising that she was acknowledging that her mother’s mind was slipping,” Morgan says. “I liked the contrast between this politician who had such absolute conviction in her beliefs and such a clear line of thought versus a period in her life where that was fracturing.”
Morgan’s Margaret is a suffering, conscientious woman. The death of her husband Denis has not been fully reconciled, and his “ghost” returns to talk to her, by turns companion and tormentor. Morgan said she had King Lear in mind, with Denis as the Fool. “For me, it’s a little bit like the scene on the moors … it’s the moment where someone’s mind is shifting and so a flickerboard of images and memory is coming back to them.”
Thatcher’s “flickerboard” is famously dramatic. Through the Irish conflict, the poll tax riots and any number of times where she is held in high hate, Margaret is shown ruling with immaculate certainty – a quality that fascinates Morgan. Though adamantly a “Guardian reader” Morgan believes Thatcher’s ballsiness inspired a generation of women, whether they like her politics or not: “She had come up through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, when the level of sexism was evident on a daily basis, in a way that we just don’t experience as modern women.”
In her own career, women have been “absolutely instrumental”, from Vicky and Jane Featherstone (“Jane runs Kudos Film, which does The Hour. Vicky’s the director I started out doing theatre with”) to Tessa Ross at FilmFour.
Her writing life is solitary, buffeted by little rituals like the coffee and almond croissant she favours at her local café: “It’s just my complete addiction.” With so many different eras on the go, she has been “a bit of a time-schizophrenic”. She is working on the second series of The Hour; writing a film about the suffragettes; another set in the 1980s. Next year also sees her film adaptation of Birdsong.
“It has been a really incredible year. It wasn’t planned that way. It just so happened that I was working really hard and things got made.” On TV projects, she is also involved as an executive, but with cinema the pecking order is different: “A lot of the time, you’re serving the concept of the director and you just don’t have the same power.”
When Morgan first moved to London, she worked as a waitress. One evening took her to the National Portrait Gallery, for William Whitelaw’s birthday party. Margaret Thatcher was among the guests as Morgan handed out canapés. “It’s heartbreaking when you’re trying to get somewhere and you can’t. You’re watching everyone around you doing great and you just think, I’m going to be a waitress forever.”
She had every incentive to ensure that miserable eternity did not happen: “Writing is how I keep myself healthy and sane. The periods when you’ve got time to reflect and to properly absorb and work out a knotty problem; those are the times I hunger for.”