Abi Morgan on Suffragette: “These were voiceless women. We gave them a voice”

The screenwriter Abi Morgan explains why Suffragette spurned the story of the Pankhursts to focus on working-class activists.

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When she finished her first draft of Suffragette, Abi Morgan had a sudden realisation: she had written the wrong film. “I originally started out with this idea of Romola [Garai]’s character, an upper-class, aristo­cratic woman who was bored and suppressed,” she says, when I meet her in central London a few weeks before the movie’s release. “There would be a scene at an opera . . . This young maid was going to come in and convert her in every way. And they would, you know, possibly fall in love.”

Already uneasy with the idea of a relationship causing her lead character’s feminist awakening (“Isn’t it enough just to have your activism activated on your own terms?”), Morgan started to read about the laundries in east London, where working-class women carried out hard, repetitive, dangerous labour. Then she went to see the film’s director, Sarah Gavron, and made her confession. “I went back to Sarah and said, ‘You know, I think I’ve done completely the wrong story. Can we start again?’ And so we threw that script away.”

This is typical of Morgan’s approach, which she has honed over 17 years of working across film, television and theatre. For her, writing really is rewriting. She hammers out a script, then peels back its layers, discarding version after version. If you feel that her characters have a hinterland, it is usually because they do, spelled out in draft three and discarded in draft four.

Because of this approach, she is happy to work collaboratively. She surrounds herself with people she respects and then shows her “mess” to them. Working through so many drafts also demands a lack of preciousness – darlings are not just killed but mown down without compunction – which has served Morgan well when working in film. Normally, if you gather more than two screenwriters in a room for ten minutes, one of them will start complaining about all the people who have interfered with their work. The film industry has a reputation for treating writers with a reverence lower than that reserved for the dolly grip and the person who makes sure no animals are harmed. But Morgan is not bothered. “I got dumped off The Iron Lady a month before they started shooting and then they brought two new writers on. Then I was brought back on again,” she says, with undimmed cheerfulness. “I’m just a bit of a rubber ball. I just bounce back.”

The final version of Suffragette refocused the film on a character called Maud, played by Carey Mulligan. She is a laundress, a mother, a wife and a foot soldier of the movement, rather than one of its generals. Making her the lead character foregrounds class and the material conditions of life as a woman in the early 20th century, showing how they affected the struggle for the vote. It’s an approach reminiscent of the way in which Hilary Mantel chronicles the build-up to the French Revolution through the mounting cost of bread in A Place of Greater Safety, or how Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are shot through with an awareness of the simultaneous power and fragility of the female reproductive system.

In Suffragette, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) wants to be an activist but is constrained by frequent beatings from her alcoholic husband and the strain of endless pregnancies. “Some of the accounts that were really heartbreaking were [of] those women who would say something like, ‘I’ll be in again tonight ’cause he’s in and I’ll be sore in the morning,’” says Morgan. “And we know those issues are relevant today. What is it, two women a week are murdered by their partner or ex-partner?”

Many histories of the suffragettes focus on middle-class activists such as the Pank­hursts, as working-class women were often illiterate and unable to record their stories. “One of the things that’s very moving when you hear the testimonials of these women is you realise that someone else has taken them down,” says Morgan. “They’re not going to write their own memoir. It’s an aside they’ve said to a journalist or a police officer, or it’s that finally somebody took down their testimony in front of Lloyd George. So, for me, there were these voiceless women and we were able to give them voice.”

The film also includes more well-to-do female characters (Helena Bonham Carter’s pharmacist Edith, whose husband supports the struggle, and Romola Garai’s lady of leisure Alice, whose husband does not) and examines the reactions of men. It has some sympathy for Maud’s husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), who is left to care for their child while his wife goes to prison and who has to endure the gibes of his workmates, who say that he can’t control her.

For Morgan, it was important to include men in the story, though several agents rebuffed the film-makers, saying that the parts were not big enough. She hopes that men will watch Suffragette, too. “On one level, we want to go, ‘This is for us birds, get together and watch it,’” she says. “But this is a two-sex war. We need the guys onside.”

That will also help in the quest to get more female-led films made, in an industry where 93 per cent of directors are male and 88 per cent of lead roles go to men. “If it doesn’t prove itself at the box office, then that guy who does the algorithm at that studio in America will go, ‘You see? The algorithm now affirms that women’s films don’t make money.’”

 

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An interest in gender and relationships has been present in Morgan’s work from the beginning. Her 2000 play Splendour, revived at the Donmar Warehouse in London this summer, acutely observed a dictator’s wife, her friend, a journalist and her translator waiting anxiously for the tyrant’s return to the presidential palace during a civil uprising. The play felt newly relevant in the age of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and was unusual in providing complicated, morally nuanced roles for four women, two of whom were over 50. Since then, she has tackled forced prostitution (the Channel 4 series Sex Traffic); arranged marriages in Britain’s Bangladeshi community (a film adaptation of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane); the glass ceiling in the 1950s (the BBC drama The Hour); and male sex addiction and alienation in present-day New York (Shame, co-written with Steve McQueen).

In the light of this, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that as recently as 2012 Morgan shied away from being called a “feminist writer”. Now she embraces the term but with the proviso that it doesn’t only affect how she writes about women. In her six-part drama River, currently airing on BBC1, Stellan Skarsgård plays a policeman haunted by hallucinations of people he has failed to help. In gender terms, it is the logical next step after Prime Suspect, which allowed Helen Mirren to play the type of hardbitten detective that had always been reserved for men. If women can be strong, Morgan asks, why can’t men be fragile?

Skarsgård, being Scandinavian, was down with this idea from the start. “At the press thing, someone said, ‘What’s it like to play a man so emotionally vulnerable?’” Morgan says. “He went, ‘It’s great. Why do I always have to play the hero? Can’t I be the one who breaks down for once?’” In the second episode, his character has a speech in which he talks about the strain of coping with grief and mental illness and how “in this world, it’s not enough. In this world, you have to smile and drink a pint and say you’re all right. That’s really what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about men being vulnerable and going, ‘It’s fucking hard being a man in the workplace.’”

 

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Launching two major projects at once is not untypical for Morgan, although she downplays the achievement: “When people say to me, ‘You’re so prolific!’ it’s, like, no, I’m just hopeless with money.”

Perhaps she has a sense of the urgency that comes from starting a career late. She grew up in dressing rooms (her mother is an actor) and presumed that she would become an actor, too, studying English and drama at university. But a two-word review from her mother of an early performance (“No, darling”) quashed that ambition and she spent her twenties living in London, working as a property guardian for empty offices in Belgravia. “It was basically me and a cleaner and a changing turnover of two or three Irish security guards,” she says now. “I changed the flowers and made up the newspapers and was meant to type up a load of old architectural drawing numbers into a file, which I never did, and I wrote a play.”

That led to her first commission, thanks to Lucy Davies, now executive producer at the Royal Court Theatre in London, who read a script that she wrote on a TV-writing weekend course. Her big break was an offer of £500 to write a drama about a Victorian governess and it didn’t come until the age of 29, when she was close to giving up on writing to train as a teacher.

I mention Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis that we too often equate genius with precocity and ignore those who bloom in middle or even old age, such as the memoirist Diana Athill. “Or Mary Wesley,” she replies. “Or, you know, Samuel Beckett, who didn’t have his first play performed until he was 47.” Now, living in north London with her husband, Jacob Krichefski (also an actor), and two children, she has finally begun to enjoy life despite numerous creative knock-backs.

She is honest in assessing her career: “I have shows cancelled, I have bad reviews . . . My greatest films are still on the shelf and no one wants to make them,” she says. “But, you know, all work is a process of failure. Every single thing I write, I look at it and go, ‘Do better. That’s not good enough, do better.’ And so, that keeps me up at night. I just had to fill in a questionnaire that said, ‘How do you relax?’ and my husband said, ‘You don’t, you tense, awkward woman.’”

One repeated criticism is that her work is too dark. Even her most approachable series, The Hour, declined to hook up its two leads, despite the yearning of its fan base. At  the other extreme, Shame is an unflinching look at a cold, joyless, hopeless universe, scarred by addiction. Reviewers largely ­attributed those qualities to her co-writer, Steve McQueen, who went on to direct 12 Years a Slave. That strikes me as partially a gendered assumption, as well as reflecting how far removed Morgan’s demeanour – she has a chirpy curiosity, tilting her head to one side when a point particularly interests her – is from that of a tortured artist.

She has many stories of interviewers who have struggled to reconcile the polite, upbeat woman they see in front of them with the dark worlds she creates. “This morning, a journalist said to me, ‘So, did you find yourself getting really stroppy and cross with the world afterwards, like, were you really cross and, like, really angry in the house?’ And I went: ‘Do you say that to a man after he’s written an action movie? Do you expect him to forward-roll down the stairs, get a gun and shoot his wife?’”

She is fascinated by anger and violence in women – asked which film she would reboot with a female lead, she picks Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas – and the militancy on show in Suffragette might surprise viewers expecting a more rousing bonnet-fest. (It has already inspired direct action: Sisters Uncut occupied the red carpet at its London premiere to protest cuts to domestic violence services.) Maud becomes radicalised by a swirling mix of female friendship, male violence and police brutality and surveillance. Morgan notes that Emily Davidson was force-fed 49 times, a procedure the suffragettes described as “violation”, the same word they would have used for a rape.

In that context, picking an ordinary woman rather than a historical figure as the protagonist was an important decision, because it removes the sense of fated destiny that sucks the drama out of many biopics. Maud chooses militancy; she chooses her own version of a holy war; she renounces society and becomes an outlaw. “I wanted the purity of this woman who had no history, coming up against huge moments of history and then becoming history,” says Morgan. “I wanted this very quiet heartbeat of this very, very normal woman.” 

“Suffragette” is out now.

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy