In January, I saw two Abi Morgan-penned films in one week: the controversial Margaret Thatcher biopic starring Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady, and Shame, the artist-turned-film-maker Steve McQueen’s elliptical study in urban isolation. If Morgan is not yet a household name, her work has reached many British households, with two television series (The Hour; Birdsong) and two stageplays (27; Lovesong) in the past 12 months.
Morgan started out writing for the stage, her 2001 play Tender earning her an Olivier Award nomination for “most promising playwright”. Wider recognition came in 2004, with eight Baftas for her hard-hitting television drama Sex Traffic. And the terse exchanges of Shame and cracking one-liners in The Iron Lady display her craft.
Setting off to interview Morgan at her PR team’s Soho office, I expect charged silences, withering looks (à la Streep) and a sharp wit. I needn’t have worried: Morgan is witty, yes, but in a chatty, self-effacing way. She’s 43 but looks younger; she has cropped hair, large brown eyes, and is wearing a black leather jacket. Unlike her characters, she has a habit of speaking in long sentences that wind in and out of parentheses and trail off with “you know?”, as in “I always feel like I turn up for photographs and interviews and I’ve never quite got my shit together, you know?” The disjunction between her writing and speaking styles is puzzling. “Writing is the way I focus my mind,” she says, as if by way of explanation. “It brings form to chaos.”
I begin by asking if she had anticipated the reaction to The Iron Lady. The film portrays Britain’s longest serving prime minister, now battling dementia, remembering her rise to power and the defining events of her rule. Critics on the left said the film gave Thatcher too much humanity, or that it wasn’t political enough; those on the right said it shouldn’t have been made in her lifetime.
“Being a writer is such an introverted, quiet profession,” Morgan confesses, “that you do forget, when you’re sitting alone in your pyjamas writing, that it is going to resonate globally.” Yet she seems unfazed by criticism: “The thing I hold on to is I feel it’s a study of power and loss of power.”
This concern with power and powerlessness – particularly that of women – recurs in Morgan’s work. Her first feature film, Brick Lane, adapted from Monica Ali’s novel about a young woman sent from a village in Bangladesh to an arranged marriage in London’s East End, is a story of loneliness and survival. It is shot mostly in a cramped flat, with the outside world of tower blocks and teenage gangs seen through net curtains. Now Morgan is teaming up with Brick Lane director Sarah Gavron for another film, Suffragettes, about a cell of militant women.
“‘Feminist’ has become a dirty word,” Morgan says, passionately, “and really, in the 21st century, it shouldn’t be – we need it more than ever.” But she shies away from calling herself a feminist writer: “I’m intrigued to write for great women and great actresses,” she explains, acknowledging the influence of her mother, a stage actress. In Morgan’s work, “great” women range from pioneers – Britain’s first female prime minister and first generation of female television producers, as seen in BBC’s The Hour, whose second series has just finished shooting – to those whose struggle is more private. She recently finished the script for Ralph Fiennes’ second directorial outing, The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens’ mistress.
“I was drawn to this very private love affair and what it means to be a mistress in that period, and how lonely that is,” Morgan says. “I’m drawn to those characters – to their self-possession.” She cites her play 27, which was critically acclaimed at Edinburgh’s Lyceum theatre last year. “It’s about a nun wondering whether there’s a God or not; an isolated woman.”
Shame, too, is about isolation, its central character a “self-obsessed, self-possessed man”, as Morgan puts it. “I think that’s the basis of a lot of good drama – people who are struggling with their interior world.”
But while Morgan’s characters are introverted, her writing process is resolutely collaborative. “There are some writers who won’t let a comma be changed, whereas I really need that interaction.” She goes through her script with every director she works with to find “a common language”, which often means “distilling things”. She works closely with actors, too: she had written only two episodes of the second series of The Hour when it began shooting and, as she was writing in the same building, “I could hear scenes going on outside. The actors really knew their characters, so when they felt that something didn’t sound truthful I tried to accommodate it.”
Writing for the stage is different, I point out. Most playwrights write alone and the director receives the script once it’s finished. “I think the original thought is purer [in a stage play],” she says. “It gets less tampered with. I find writing plays a lot harder [than screenplays], which is funny because they were really my sanctuary at the beginning.”
Does she prefer writing for the screen then? “I feel like film and television are a game of maths,” she enthuses. “It’s about structure and I really enjoy finding the right structure for a film.”
She looks worried for a moment. “Theatre is about that, too, but it’s more elusive to me. I don’t think I’m a natural playwright, I really don’t. I think my home is in television and film.” Despite her theatrical upbringing, she came from a house where the television was on from Saturday morning until Sunday night. “I just don’t get to as many plays as I used to, with having children,” she adds (she and her partner, the actor Jacob Krichefski, have two). “I watch a lot of movies on my iPad.”
Does she have time to read? “I used to read masses,” she sighs, but now it’s mainly research material and books she’s been asked to adapt. Her most recent adaptation was Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong for the BBC in February. She was the “10th or 11th” writer to attempt a screenplay since the novel was published in 1993. Did she feel the weight of expectation? “I just chose not to engage with that,” she replies firmly. “There are very few books that grip me by the absolute heart, as Birdsong did. That became my compass. It was about one man who taught another man how to love. So that’s the version that we did.”
Aside from two films (The Invisible Woman; Suffragettes) and the six-part television series (The Hour) this year, what else can we look forward to from this prolific writer? “I find it quite worrying when I’ve got time off,” she says with a glint in her eye. “In five years’ time I’m going to have a year where I do nothing except cook and garden and read. But at the moment I’m writing Little Mermaid for [the director] Joe Wright, so I’ve got my head very much in the blue planet world of the underworld.” Sticking with the marine metaphor, she admits: “I feel like I’ve just come from a period porthole – the next thing after this will be something contemporary.” No plans for the garden yet, then.
‘The Iron Lady’ is released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 30