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‘It’s been a crazy five years’: Abi Morgan on surviving cancer ... and giving Benedict Cumberbatch his most monstrous role yet
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‘It’s been a crazy five years’: Abi Morgan on surviving cancer … and giving Benedict Cumberbatch his most monstrous role yet

“I’ve always had a real fetish,” says Abi Morgan, “for films where New York is a character in the drama.” The playwright and screenwriter reels off Taxi Driver, Kramer vs Kramer and Tootsie as examples – films so evocative of their time and place that they could be identified by shades of 1980s New York carpet alone.

There is something similarly magical about Morgan’s new show, Eric, that goes way beyond nostalgia. It conjures New York with the romantic intensity of the teenager she was when she first set foot there in 1986. “I was 18,” she recalls. “It felt like Starsky & Hutch. It felt like Cagney & Lacey. I couldn’t believe how New York New York was.” Fresh out of Camp America – where older, international teens help out in summer camps – she went on to au pair one of the kids for a while, and after that returned to the US often. “I was so crazy about America, I remember what I ordered the first day McDonald’s came to Stoke.”

Eric is about a misanthropic puppeteer called Vincent who works on a kids’ show called Good Day Sunshine. Creative, crotchety and chaotic, he is played perfectly by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose distracted, otherworldly mien couldn’t fit the role better. His wife, Cassie, is played by Gaby Hoffmann, who famously lived full-time in the Chelsea Hotel until she was 11. The couple fight, a lot, with their nine-year-old son Edgar caught in the middle. When Edgar goes missing, Vincent starts to unravel, believing that the best way to find him is via a 7ft-tall monster puppet (the titular Eric) that lurks under Edgar’s bed.

‘I didn’t earn any proper money from writing till I was 30’ says Abi Morgan.View image in fullscreen

Morgan has a tendency to tell her career as a white-knuckle scramble out of chaos – “I didn’t earn any proper money from writing till I was 30. I had to do every other shitty job in town. I was constantly pretending to market research and then writing in a noisy office” – but her hit rate is remarkable. She won a Bafta in 2004 for her first commissioned show, Sex Traffic. Other primetime dramas followed – Tsunami: The Aftermath; River, a classy police procedural. Wherever a classic ensemble gathered (Dominic West, Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw in The Hour), it would be a Morgan script that brought them together. Whatever the book was that seemed to be crying out for a screen adaptation – Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong – she was the go-to. Shame, the film she co-wrote with Steve McQueen which was nominated for a Bafta in 2011, was penned in a Manhattan hotel room. If Morgan is elementally attached to New York, you can also sense her powerful feelings around watching her parents – the actor Pat England and director Gareth Morgan – break up. They split when she was a teenager, and she and her sister led a peripatetic life after that, following their mum round repertory theatres. “My parents divorced in the early 80s, and that was such an incredible period in terms of women finding their feminism,” she says.

In the show, this is expressed through Cassie. “You just feel that she’s on the edge of a huge explosion,” says Morgan. “Her needs and her desires and her agency is getting absolutely squashed into a box.”

Vincent and Cassie’s imploding marriage is refracted through a city that seems to be changing so fast you can’t tell whether it’s gentrifying or disintegrating. Morgan saw a lot of parallels between the US in the 80s and today: “So many things about the period have huge resonance now. There was the HIV epidemic, we’ve gone through this huge pandemic. Institutionalised racism, gentrification of cities. It felt like this was near-history.” At its core, though, Eric “is about a breakdown of a family in the middle of a city also breaking down. I could actually have set that up anywhere.” She toys with that idea for a second, then changes her mind: “Rainbow wasn’t the same cultural icon as Sesame Street. And we didn’t really have that sense of booming capitalism.”

If Eric starts like a homage to Kramer vs Kramer, it changes pretty swiftly when Edgar disappears on his walk to school. But while the show becomes about Vincent cascading into crisis, it’s also about walking a tightrope which is universal: “Vincent says: ‘I want to believe in a world where my kid can walk to school and come home safe at the end of the day.’ That, to me, is a cry for any parent. We want to believe our kids will be OK. But we also want the illusion of control, because at least if it’s your fault, you can work out how to not make it go wrong again. There’s always that question: can I leave this to the gods, or do I have to affect change? I think about it a lot, having gone through a crazy last five years.”

‘We want to believe our kids will be OK’, Cumberbatch with the 7ft-tall monster in Eric.View image in fullscreen

In 2019, Morgan had already had quite enough of the gods and their bullshit. Her husband, the actor Jacob Krichefski, had developed encephalitis and spent six months in an induced coma. When he came out, he had Capgras syndrome – a psychiatric disorder in which you’re convinced a family member is an imposter – and couldn’t recognise her (he has since recovered, and they’re considering writing about this episode together: “It would be a really nice way for him to understand the story”). When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the midst of all this, she realised that “you just can’t control every element of your life. You can do your best. It’s the old adage, it’s not what knocks you down, it’s how you pick yourself up. It’s such a fucking challenge. I realised that’s going to be better armour than being constantly vigilant about what’s going to knock me down.”

This all fed into Eric. “There’s a genuine quest at the heart of this show, which is to go out there and find a resolution,” she says. “The cops are doing that, the father’s doing that. It’s about resilience. Taking someone in the heart of the crisis and then have them pull themselves out of the mud.”

Morgan says the thing that surprised her about her own crises was “the old-fashioned Greek idea of being humiliated. I’ve never felt so humiliated, humbled down to my absolute roots. If you have breast cancer and you have your breasts removed and you have that scar: it’s writ large on me, and now I look at it and I both love it and hate it. It’s the absolute mark of my vulnerability and then the absolute affirmation of my survival.”

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Morgan wrote a book, This Is Not a Pity Memoir, about this time, and she talks with the same buoyant self-mockery. “When life really knocks you down,” she says, “you absolutely understand yourself. I thought: ‘I wonder if I’ll get an obituary?’ That’s the thing – you are the most important thing in the world and you’re the least important thing in the world.” That experience informed Eric, as characters battle delusions, addictions, the morphing threat of the world: “That grapple,” she calls it. “I understand that thing where you’re fighting something that you feel at any point could kill you.”

What saved Morgan, she says, was her ability to keep communicating, whether through writing drama or just chatting to the barista in her local coffee shop. “When you’re telling stories, you’re bridging yourself back to yourself, but also to other people, to the world.”

Gaby Hoffmann with Cumberbatch in Eric.View image in fullscreen

Morgan is currently in Barcelona – she’s video-calling from an Airbnb in the city – working on a spin-off to The Split, her juicy BBC drama about a family of divorce lawyers. She knows that getting things made these days can be hard work. She worries about the state of the streamers and their impact upon the TV writing ecosystem. “I really feel a concern for young writers coming through: broadcasters have stopped taking some risks, the budgets have got so big.”

Morgan breaks into a refreshingly “sod this” reflection: “The bottom line is I’ve done 10 projects in America and not one of them’s got made. I’ve been in those studio meetings where I’ve written what I think is my opus. It’s the next Schindler’s List. As I’m walking in, I can see another writer waiting in reception and I realise they’re doing the rewrite and I’m out. I am never far away from that feeling of humiliation.”

In fact, Morgan worries about a load of things, from the place of the arts in education to the creep of the hourglass structure, which means only micro-budgets and massive ones get through. But she’s also come out of a stark reminder that “life is fatal” with a palpable zeal. “I feel like the job of work for me now is both to live as best as I can, but also to totally understand and talk about death. I’m a woman who works to deadlines. So I’ve just been reminded that there’s a deadline.” Out of that came Eric. “I think more than any time in my career, I thought: ‘Fuck it, let’s do something really fun’.”

Eric is on Netflix on 30 May.

Source: theguardian.com