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Screenwriter Abi Morgan on the dramas in her own life that rival anything she’s written

The screenwriter responsible for The Iron Lady, The Split and many others has incredible tales to tell from her own life

Abi Morgan lived a nomadic existence while growing up, and didn’t ever feel she fitted in wherever she was. But theatre and storytelling was part of the family business, and that and her love of television led her on the path to where she is now.

The BAFTA winner has penned hit films such as the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, Suffragette and Shame as well as TV hits like Sex Traffic and recent hit The Split.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, she talks about how her incredible career came about, and about her and her husband’s recent health battles.

I spent my childhood going from one area to the other. I went to seven schools because both my parents were in the theatre, so we moved every few years. When I was 16 I lived in Stoke-on-Trent, and the Potteries has many brilliant things about it, but I never thought I really fitted. So I was floundering. I hated school with a vengeance and I didn’t do well.

About seven years ago I was diagnosed with adult ADD, and that was revelatory for me, to suddenly understand why I found processing and systems and institutions incredibly difficult. Most of my memories of school involve sitting on the swings in the playground eating KitKats. After I signed in I just walked out again. So I found school very hard but I had no idea what I might do next. I guess I just took a long time to grow into myself. 

One thing I did know I loved when I was a teenager was television. The beautiful little box in the corner of the room that transported me to other worlds. Having a mother who probably played every Shakespeare part there was, I saw a lot of plays in the theatre – Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett, David Mamet. But what I loved about TV was the control I had – I could turn it off, I could move around the four channels. I loved Grange Hill then Brookside and Coronation Street, then Jimmy McGovern and Ken Loach. I guess that was my great escape really.

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If you’d met the 16-year-old me you’d find her painful, gauche, trying to cope with having huge boobs. Desperately trying to fit in but clearly incredibly awkward. But what I did do was, I chatted, I couldn’t stop talking. I think you would have probably told me to shut up.

Abi Morgan and family
2001: Morgan and husband Jacob, who she met in 2000. Photo: Courtesy of Abi Morgan

In terms of what I might do with my life, theatre and storytelling was the family business. I grew up with playwrights and actors and directors. I knew very quickly that I wasn’t going to be an actress. I wanted something that gave me some sense of control, and as an actor you always need someone who can give you a job. What I realised with writing very early on was that it was something I could do totally on my own.

As a teenager I didn’t yet know what I was going to do, but I knew I loved the world of storytelling. And I had to find a way of being part of it without being in front of the camera or on stage. When I went to university writing became this incredible escape, and I had the realisation that maybe this was how I could create and communicate with the world.

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I still remember the first thing I wrote that got a real response. I loved the way Alan Bennett created characters and the way he owned the screen for 30 minutes, so when we were asked at uni to write a monologue I thought, “I can do this.”

I wrote about a woman I’d observed on a train one day. I’d been really fascinated because she’d taken a whole iceberg lettuce out of her bag and spent the entire journey eating it. So I created a story in which she’d silently cut this lettuce from her father’s vegetable garden. You realised it was about a woman escaping an abusive relationship and the eating of the lettuce was an act of defiance, a liberation.

We had to perform the monologues ourselves, and while I’m no actress, one of the things I felt powerfully was the silence of the audience. It was exhilarating and surprising. I had this profound sense
of finding my North Star.

If I could go back and tell my younger self what happens in her future, I think she’d be surprised that she’d survived. She would be surprised that she had a currency beyond physical beauty. And that she’d grow into her ears and her boobs. And that one day she would lose one of those boobs; I had a mastectomy a couple of years ago. That, more than anything, reminded me of that desire to live.

And I guess she’d be surprised that she’d raised a teenage daughter of her own, who she tried to teach the lessons she’d learned in the hope that her daughter would have more confidence and more self-belief in the world.

When I think of some of the men I worked with on those gig economy kind of jobs in my late teens, and all the sleazy innuendos and sexual hassles that ran parallel with just being a young woman, I wish I’d learned to look those men in the eye and tell them to piss off. I wish I’d had more courage and the strength to know my own power.

One of the things I’ve realised is that I’ve been guilty of just ignoring misogyny. Silence is compliance in a way. So if I could go back to my 20s I would walk up to that sleazy pizza delivery boss I worked for and say, go fuck yourself.

My book [the autobiography This is Not a Pity Memoir] has been one of the hardest things to release into the world. It was both a solace and a refuge, born out of a desperate need to communicate not only to myself, but to my partner who was in a coma and then for a long time, very absent from themselves [due to complications related to his MS medication, Morgan’s husband, actor Jacob Krichefski, was in a coma for several months, after which he struggled to remember her. She revealed in 2020 she was recovering from breast cancer].

I had a real compulsion to describe what it’s like when you are in one of the loneliest places in the world, how you find yourself behaving in intense moments of crisis and how you survive them. When the life of the person you love most in the world and then your own life are put in jeopardy, the ability and the desire to swim as far away as you can from the current trying to pull you back is incredibly powerful.

Abi Morgan and family
2022: With daughter Mabel, Jacob, son Jesse and their dog. Photo: Lorna Milburn

I was surprised how humiliating I found vulnerability. I was surprised by how defiant my need and desire to live was. And I was humbled and moved by how essential it is to be vulnerable and to lean into other people helping you. I was blown away by the NHS. Each one of those components was absolutely essential. And not only to Jacob’s survival, but also my survival and the survival of our family. So yeah, I guess at a very simple level I learned how strong I was. 

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If I could have one last conversation with anyone I would choose my father. I would say, “I forgive you.” And I would say, “I hope you forgive me.” If you come from observing a toxic divorce, you realise that actually, the repercussions of that go on throughout your life. Now that I’m in a marriage of my own and I have children on my own I have more understanding and appreciation of the complexities of divorce. So I have a desire to build bridges rather than break them down.

The Split
2022: Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan in The Split, the hit BBC show penned by Morgan. Photo: BBC

If I could go back to any time in my life it would be to when my children were little, to the festivals we went to on those long summer holidays. I just want to bottle that feeling because my children are getting bigger and they’re going to have their own life, and while there’s great joy in that it’s a constant reminder that nothing is forever. 

I remember one particular holiday in Costa Rica, in 2015. We went to an incredible beach party on New Year’s Eve with music and fireworks and fire eaters. At one point we broke away from the crowd and the four of us, Jacob, Jesse, Mabel and I, went off on our own to watch the fireworks explode across the bay. And we danced. I especially remember the dancing. It was heady and giddy, one of those rare moments when you’re there, and you’re in it, and you don’t want to be anywhere else.

This is Not a Pity Memoir by Abi Morgan is out on May 12 (John Murray, £14.99)
A special event in aid of the National Brain Appeal will be taking place to mark the release of the book on May 11 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. royalcourttheatre.com
Interview: Jane Graham
@janeannie

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