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Interview: Abi Morgan, screenwriter

THE 1980s impacted on the award-winning screenwriter Abi Morgan in many ways – not least in the stains left on her bedroom wall by a boy called Duncan Maitland. "I was never cool as a kid," she says, "but Duncan was. He was this goth lad with amazing hair who got me into the Smiths. We'd listen to them in my room, sitting on my bed a suitable distance apart, our heads against the wall, and the marks left by all the gel he used were there for years afterwards."

And the most significant year in the nostalgia decade du jour was 1981, when Charles married Diana and the nation got a holiday, put out flags and subscribed to the fairytale. "I really got into the royal wedding," says Morgan.

"I had a mug filled with sweets with Diana's face on the side. But did I want to be the princess? No, I don't think so. I was a pretty heartbroken 13-year-old. That was the year my grandmother died and my parents split up."

Now 41, and having made her name with hard-hitting telly dramas such as Sex Traffic and White Girl, both Bafta-acclaimed, Morgan always knew she would write about this period.

The opportunity came when the BBC announced a 1980s season; the 37th such retrospective this year alone (joke) but at least the Beeb's comes with the prestige of a dramatisation of Martin Amis' Money and new work by Morgan, called Royal Wedding.

"There's a sweetness to this film which is unusual for me," she says. It's not out-and-out autobiographical but, watching it again after our chat in London's Soho, she's obviously used elements of her own story to colour at least three of the female characters.

The colour of Royal Wedding, by the way, is spot on. The hues perfectly match those of real 1981 Britain glimpsed on news footage of street parties. And every woman seems to be Di blonde.

"I went blonde and I also had a Di flick," says Morgan. "Before that I had a bubble perm. Later I was blue, a bit Marc Almondy, then black to cover up my hair having gone green." She doesn't remember requesting the Di look; probably every hairdresser of the era trimmed on automatic.

In Royal Wedding, shot in the Welsh village of Blaengarw, near Bridgend, teenaged Tammy has a flick. She's into Spandau Ballet before a Duncan Maitland clone (Johnny) teaches her the error of her ways. And, as the great day dawns, she's readying the female populace with curling tongs for a Di lookalike contest.

Leading contenders include her mother Linda, who had Tammy at 15. She married a layabout rock-dreamer pothead but is carrying on with the local sticker-factory tycoon and dreaming of a life beyond Cardiff, a place she's never visited. Another contender is the tycoon's nouveau riche wife Sherry who regularly trollops off to Cardiff for highlights.

Morgan insists she's not Tammy, although she's given her the name of one of her favourite comics.

"I wanted to write about the royal wedding, about divorce and also about a rites of passage. I made the transition from Tammy, Bunty and Misty to Jackie, My Guy and Just 17 but, in changing from an idealistic child to this less naive young woman, there was a lot of hurt along the way.

"When I told a friend I wanted to put something of this into the film, she cautioned me against it. But I think that as a writer, while it's your job to construct stories, you have to navigate your way through them with your heart.

"I can identify with the confusion, jeopardy and pain of being a teenager that Tammy experiences. The royal wedding was this wonderful day for the whole country and yet I was living in a flat stripped of furniture because my father had taken it all. I'd lost a dad and yet for that day I was buying into the concept: 'Your prince will come too.'"

Morgan's parents worked in theatre, her father as a director and her mother as an actress. "The break-up was acrimonious and I definitely felt the repercussions down the years. But we handle divorce better now – I've seen some excellent ones!"

Despite the trauma, and being shunted around seven different schools, she didn't rebel. Now married with a family of her own, she adds: "The secret to having kids who grow up straight seems to be a liberal mother." Mum – Pat England – is still working. "She's the lady off the Specsavers ad. Dad died two years ago but I had a friendship with him."

Morgan contemplated following in her mother's footsteps but was told she was "too small" to act. "In any event, with a big sister already in the profession, there wasn't much room for me. Writing suited me better. I was very beige at uni and blended into the background. That way I could observe."

As a writer she was more in control of her own destiny. "Actors have to wait for jobs and they must feel quite powerless. I need to be in charge and that comes from when I was growing up and money was always an issue. I didn't want to feel the fear of poverty again and I suppose in that way I qualify as Thatcher Youth."

Maggie is the other notable blonde in Royal Wedding. The acquisitive Sherry is impressed by Thatcher's insistence that any woman who can run a home can manage the country.

"If there was one thing I admired about Maggie it was her certainty. But that was also what I disliked about her. A lot of young women bought into her belief system but someone like Jordan has missed the point. She's become rich and successful for all the things that feminism was against."

That said, Katie Price has part-inspired Morgan's next film. "It's going to be about celebrity. That stuff is pretty corrosive. I tell my husband it's research but I'm curious about my addiction. It's really, really seedy."

Royal Wedding is on BBC2 on 17 May at 9pm

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, May 2, 2010

 
 
 

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