Interview: Abi Morgan

Abi Morgan Abi Morgan - © Rob Greig
Posted: Mon Jan 9 2012

As her play 'Lovesong' arrives at the Lyric, Abi Morgan tells the story behind 'Shame' and 'The Iron Lady'

When Abi Morgan first started writing, it apparently took five years before she had the nerve to show her work to anyone. She's making up for lost time now. Bright, warm, and astonishingly fluent on this chilly early morning in Crouch End, she has nipped out for a cuppa from Hornsey Town Hall where the second series of her BBC hit, 'The Hour', is being filmed.

It's only January, but it's already been a busy year for the 43-year-old writer. The bookies are giving even odds on Meryl Streep winning a Best Actress Oscar for her uncanny portrayal of Thatcher in 'The Iron Lady', which Morgan scripted. Her acclaimed collaboration with Steve McQueen, 'Shame' will probably be too explicit for the Academy - but it has been more roundly praised. And there's a weepie play to see too: 'Lovesong', for physical theatre company Frantic Assembly, comes to the Lyric Hammersmith after a UK tour where it made regional audiences look like sniffling intergenerational Kleenex conventions.

'Lovesong' is so moving - and has so many echoes of 'The Iron Lady' in its poignant portrait of a sick elderly woman called Margaret, her husband and the romantic ghosts of their younger selves - that it's tempting to view it as the fine piece of work that Morgan's Thatcher film could have been, had it been about some ordinary Maggie instead.

Left-leaning British critics found the film unforgiveably sympathetic and apolitical. When I put that to Morgan, she points out that writers are merely 'bottom-feeders' in the film process: 'My script was just the starting point,' she
says. 'It was then picked up by a phenomenal actress and a unique director ['Mamma Mia!'s Phyllida Lloyd]. The film isn't hugely political. It's quite partisan. But we didn't sit there going, “Oh gosh, we don't want to be annoying the right.” Nor did we want to be just reviling her, which is the natural chorus of the left and my natural chorus too. I was much more interested in humanising what it would be to be a political leader in that way.'

But you just can't make a neutral film about Margaret Thatcher, still a love/hate figure more than 20 years after she was forced out of Downing Street. 'Everyone brings their expectations to the table,' Morgan says. 'There's a fury that one has been moved by her.'

Morgan's starting point for 'The Iron Lady' was, she says, 'an article Carol [Thatcher] had written about her mother's dementia. We wanted, in a Lear-like way, to look at what happens if your reality is in another world.' Morgan wrote the Thatcher script and 'Lovesong' at around the same time. 'The sense of mortality is prevalent in both,' she concedes. 'I'm 43, and when you hit this decade you're at the midpoint.'

'Lovesong', which is performed by two young actors and two older ones, playing the same couple at different ends of their life, asks how lovers survive a long marriage - and the prospect of one outliving the other. 'It came,' says Morgan, 'out of watching my father die in his sixties and seeing how brave he was. It was shocking and fascinating and so sad and oddly hopeful as well. I was in awe of it. I think it's the moment where everybody becomes a hero. Even if you've been a coward all your life, death is a heroic act. His death has been a touchstone for me to live my life more vividly.'

Morgan is nothing if not vivid: emotional, open and as prolific a talker as she is a writer, her conversation is littered with half-sentences, dropped in pursuit of a more interesting idea or a more appropriate phrase. She talks about 'the metronome of domesticity' and how her tremendous creative output fits in with her family life ('I have a fantastically supportive partner and I live five minutes away from where we shoot “The Hour”,' she explains).

And she is clearly buzzing from series two, which is set in 1957/'58 against the background of the arms race abroad and commonwealth immigration at home. 'Writing “The Hour” is like an old Hollywood studio system,' she enthuses. 'They'll be shooting a scene where I'm still writing what's happening.'

2012 will be mainly about 'The Hour' - and two Brit historical projects: 'The Invisible Woman' - directed by Ralph Fiennes, who also stars as Charles Dickens - examines the author's affair with Nelly Ternan and will hopefully be out in his two-hundredth anniversary year.

Still on the desk is 'Suffragettes', with 'Brick Lane' director Sarah Gavron. 'I do want to take time to digest though,' reflects Morgan. 'I didn't take into account the critical tsunami that comes with having work going out. I've gone
from being a complete narcissist, someone who googles my own name, to someone who has to work separately
from that to avoid creative paralysis. Telly in production is such high turnover. I keep on thinking of “All My Sons” and it's like: “I'd better send that pipe out even though it's cracked. That's the showbiz industry.'

So how does Morgan deal with the pressure, and the worry that it's not good enough? 'Most good work is a combination of parts you love and parts you could do better,' she says. 'My constant mantra is “Next time, next time, next time.'