The terrible actress turned terrific screenwriter, on creating the ‘British Mad Men’ and admiring Thatcher

Having only ever seen a photograph of Abi Morgan before, I find her height comes as something of a surprise. I’m not sure why I imagined she would be a bit taller – something to do with the strength of her voice as a scriptwriter perhaps – but it is only when she sits down, perching on a seat in a London brasserie, that the rules of perspective seem to apply and she looks like she is occupying a space commensurate with her reputation.

She has alert and watchful eyes, a full mouth and cropped hair. And though she is 42, she has the speech habit of a much younger person, raising the intonation at the end of a thought, making her sentences sound like questions. She talks quickly, meanwhile, as if trying to keep up with the activity of her mind.

Morgan first came to prominence with Sex Traffic, her gruelling 2004 drama about prostitution. It won eight Baftas. A number of successes have followed, including Royal Wedding and Brick Lane, and now she is back with The Hour, a six-part Cold War espionage drama set in a 1956 television newsroom. It follows a love triangle between a glamorous producer (played by Romola Garai), a smooth anchorman (Dominic West) and a maverick reporter (Ben Whishaw). And, with its retro stylishness and exploration of sexual politics in a competitive workplace, it has been billed as Britain’s answer to Mad Men.

No pressure, then.

“Yes, I’ve heard of the Mad Men comparisons but I like to think The Hour has its own distinctive voice,” says Morgan. “Although it is set in 1956, I have tried to give it a contemporary edge, and its themes of love, passion, romance, fury, professional jealousy and personal failure are universal, I think. I was particularly keen to give it quick-fire dialogue. For inspiration, I watched His Girl Friday and The Apartment again, films where the dialogue is so elegant and heightened and yet quick-fire. I also wanted to write a group of characters who could return week by week.”

Before she discovered her talent for writing stage plays as well as multi-award-winning screenplays for film and television, Morgan had ambitions to be an actor, like her sister. But she was told to forget it because she was too short. She was also told, by her mother, the actress Pat England, that, even if she were taller, a career as an actor wasn’t going to work out. “My mother came to see me in a play when I was a student,” she says, “and afterwards I asked her what she thought. She said: ‘Honest opinion? No.’”

She was reading drama and literature at Exeter University at the time and the brutal-but-honest assessment proved a blessing. “I wrote a monologue and had a few people come up to me and say: ‘Have you considered writing for a living?’”

She had done little writing up to that point. “Just one rubbish poem when I was 15. But I was an appalling liar as a child, so I think I did have an active imagination. Something interesting may have happened to me, but I would always have to exaggerate it. If I got a bargain for £3, I would have to say I got it for two. I would say my dad was a policeman when he wasn’t. Or that we had a swimming pool at home.”

Clearly, the BBC has high hopes for The Hour; as Morgan says she’s already started work on the second series. In some ways the series is about the BBC itself, the moment it decided it needed more independence from the government, especially in its news coverage. “That was one of the main reasons I chose 1956,” Morgan says. “It was the year of the Suez Crisis. I wanted it to reflect the end of British imperialism and colonialism and show the transition of power between the old establishment and the new order.”

When doing her research, was she surprised by the casual sexism of the Fifties? “That was the hardest thing for me to write because I couldn’t quite believe how bad it was. I know that half the world today is still very patriarchal but, as a relatively independent woman who has been able to combine a career with raising a family, I couldn’t relate to it. I did my research but kept thinking: is this too much? Were they really like that? I asked my mum and she said it was normal to be felt up by your boss in the lift and nothing would be said about it.”

In The Hour, Bel Rowley, a spirited and ambitious television producer played by Garai, encounters sexism on a daily basis. Has Morgan ever experienced it herself? “Of course I am aware that there is a level of sexism in any large institution, but I find in television and film most of the producers are women. The producer on The Hour was a woman, the director was a woman, the script editor was a woman and the writer was a woman. And the head of BBC Two is a woman. But I think that may be about being in an arts community. It may also be I don’t acknowledge it, I don’t allow it to exist in my world.”

Is that to do with being raised by a mother who was liberal-minded? “I think so. I try to be a liberal mother, too. I have a son who is nine and a daughter who is seven and I am often struck by how much spirit and independence my daughter has. She plays football and drums and has no sense of inequality in the way I might have done.”

Although she likes to write on trains and planes, Morgan works mostly from her home in north London. “The children are around, but I have a wonderfully supportive husband [Jacob Krichefski]. He’s an actor so is often at home. I think my children understand that when Mummy’s door is closed, she is working.” She must have a strong work ethic. Mental discipline and all that. “I can be really disciplined and I can be really lazy. I can be walking around M&S at three in the afternoon and take a call and say ‘Yeah, I’m just working on the script now, just looking over the last third,’ while actually I’m looking at what vegetables I’m going to buy. I never get writer’s block, but I do have days where I crawl under the duvet.”

Morgan’s parents met at drama school. Her father, now dead, wasn’t a policeman but rather the director of the Gulbenkian Theatre in Newcastle. After they split up when she was 11, it was acrimonious, with her father taking the furniture. She was raised by her mother, who was always moving around the country in repertory theatre, from Wales to Stoke on Trent. “It was a bohemian life, certainly,” she says. “We were always broke. My mum would find work where she could. It gave me a sense of how powerless an actor is. That is one of the reasons why I wanted to be a writer instead, to have some control over my life, some security. My memories of my mother are of her arriving home at midnight with actor friends and saying: ‘Come on! Get up! Let’s have a party!’ As a sleepy child I would observe these actors and admire their vitality but also think: don’t they get tired? I appreciate actors more now than I did then.”

As one of the most in-demand scriptwriters in the country, Morgan has quite a few other projects in the pipeline. Indeed, she is booked up for the next seven years. She has two stage plays on this year, a film about the suffragettes and an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman, about Charles Dickens’s secret lover.

And finally, after numerous failed attempts by various scriptwriters, a BBC adaptation of Birdsong. It will be in two parts, 90 minutes each. Shooting starts this summer. “I’ve been working on it for a long time. Birdsong has certainly had a journey.” Does Sebastian Faulks approve? “I think so.” She sounds cautious, as well she might, given that the novelist once said: “I would be happy if Birdsong is never made into a film.”

Her other big project, due out early next year, is The Iron Lady, a feature film about Baroness Thatcher (who is played by Meryl Streep, no less). Already it is swirling in controversy, not least because Thatcher’s children, Mark and Carol, have said: “It sounds like some Left-wing fantasy.” When I ask about it, Morgan says quickly: “For contractual reasons I can’t talk about it, I’m afraid.”

There were rumours that it had to be rewritten a lot. “Yeah, it did a bit.” Because it was too much of a “Left-wing fantasy”? “I’m not going to comment on it.” The stills from the movie look great, I say. Thanks to a skilful make-up artist, Streep’s eyes have been made to look downturned, exactly like Thatcher’s. It’s uncanny. How did Morgan feel when she heard Streep had agreed to take on the role? “So delighted. Dream casting. She was my first choice. Look, all I will say about it at this stage is that I think Thatcher fans will be pleasantly surprised.”

Morgan – a Guardian reader – once said she qualified as a “Thatcher youth” because she grew up in fear of poverty. She also said: “If there was one thing I admired about Maggie, it was her certainty. But that was also what I disliked about her.”

So what might we expect of The Iron Lady? Well, her drama Royal Wedding might give a clue. Set in 1981, it examines the effects of Thatcher’s policies on a small working-class community in south Wales, contrasting the fairy-tale fantasy that was the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer with the grim reality of lay-offs at the local factory.

Is it fair to say there is often social realism in her writing? “I think I’m always interested in the relationship of the personal and the political,” she says carefully. “I was very inspired, growing up in the north, by Ken Loach, Jack Rosenthal and Mike Leigh.” All the usual right-wing suspects. She laughs. “Yeah, right.” So she could be described as a left-winger? “Yes, in terms of my influences, but actually I think I’m a chameleon.”

It is time for her to be photographed. As we go in search of the photographer, there comes an uncharacteristic hint of vulnerability, but also the “control” of which she has spoken. “Please don’t make me sound like an idiot,” she says. She need not worry on that score.


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.