PASSION PROJECTS. Andy Harries produces television series including The Crown and Outlander. He is chief executive and co-founder of LEFT BANK Pictures, a multi-award winning independent production company launched in 2007 to make high-end film and television for the international market. He was recently appointed Chair of Film London Executive Taskforce, which works to sustain, promote and develop London as a global content production hub.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Andy Harries, why did you work and make films in London for most of your career?
I try to make things that are intrinsically British because there is a real demand for it. But I like to make British shows for a global market. I try and find projects that people can relate to and have a broader relevance and meaning to the rest of the world.
Is London an important hub for making TV series and cinema?
Yes, there are three things fueling that: the English language, the generous tax break, and the great reservoir of talent that we’ve built up. Within the next 12 to 18 months there will be more studios in the London area than in L.A. We are overtaking Los Angeles as the centre of film and television.
I have worked for over 30 years with Peter Morgan, who wrote the movie The Queen and is the showrunner and writer of The Crown. Initially, we did a small film in the UK called The Deal (2003), about the rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. This is the project where Peter really found his voice. It was obvious that he had a special talent interpreting contemporary British history for a TV audience. We were moving into a new and interesting territory together and once we’d done the Prime Minister, the question was, what next? One of my ambitions when I became Head of Drama for ITV in 2000 was to see if I could persuade Helen Mirren to return to TV in a new series of Prime Suspect. Helen was mostly living in LA at that time and hadn’t done Prime Suspect for 7 years. When she arrived at the readthrough for series 6 people were thrilled really to meet her in person, and I noticed that everyone started bowing to her, I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s like the Queen’. It was like a light going on – then I thought, ‘maybe we should make a film with her as the real Queen!’. Helen was the perfect age for the Queen at the time of Diana’s death, the story that no one had really tackled, and which had made such an impact in 1997. If you were in London at the time of Diana’s death you will never, ever forget it.
“At the centre of it all – trying to keep the family and the country steady – is the Queen. It’s a great story.”
Andy Harries, the film turns around a real story, but how was it realized?
I couldn’t stop thinking about Helen as the Queen all the way through the readthrough and as soon as it was finished I rushed up to her and asked if she fancied playing her! She said yes and I immediately rang Stephen Frears, who directed The Deal, and he thought it was a fantastic idea. Then I rang Peter Morgan and talked to him. He was intrigued, excited by the idea and we started a long process of research to try and find the right way into the story. Peter developed a brilliant script from that research. It wasn’t easy but he found what is now the accepted narrative for that extraordinary week when the Queen hesitated about speaking publicly about Diana’s untimely death, and Tony Blair stepped in to rescue her. Research was a big part of The Queen. Politicians or people involved in the palace would meet us for a cup of tea or lunch in a decent Mayfair restaurant. Detail is really important to these kinds of projects. We are always trying to find new information and new angles for Peter to be able to create the most accurate and the most emotionally truthful scenes. There are now eight full-time researchers on The Crown – they read everything about the royal family to prepare for each season.
The Queen herself is a superstar, and Mirren gave her fantastic interpretation. Did you imagine such success?
I had a sense that it would do well in America, because Americans have a specific fascination with the British royal family, but quite a few American companies turned it down, including HBO who didn’t think it would do any business in America. But that’s just the way of these sorts of things.
How did the royal family react?
Quite early on, we let the Palace Press Office know what we were going to do as a courtesy. We didn’t get an official response, but I did meet the Palace Press informally. The Palace was clearly concerned by the potential impact of the film, and we discovered that we were not going to be able to shoot in any of the real places, like Balmoral, et cetera. All the grand houses and landowners in Scotland who were related in some shape or form to friends of the royal family – all said no to any filming. In the end, we had to approach a very wealthy Dane who owns a lot of Scotland who had no interest in or concerns about us filming something about the royal family on his lands.
How come you then started a much bigger enterprise, The Crown? The whole world is waiting for the new series to come out in November.
The Queen won an Oscar for Helen’s performance in 2007, and then Peter and I did different things for a while. But he had an idea while we were doing the Queen which had always remained with him. He was fascinated by the weekly audience between the Prime Minister and the Queen, and he liked the idea of dramatising it because no formal records are taken of the meetings. What goes on in the Palace between the two of them remains a mystery. This is a perfect situation for a the imagination of a dramatist like Peter. He can write what he wants and Peter decided to create a play which featured her and the 12 Prime Ministers who have served under her during her reign. We contacted Helen who – cautiously – accepted this challenge and this new project became “The Audience” which was staged in London and New York in 2013/14 with much success. And Helen won the Tony for Best Actress.
Did The Crown somehow come out of that?
Yes, it was an evolution of projects. At the time, Peter was also writing a lot of single films and he was looking for a bigger canvas. I felt that Peter was a very similar talent to the great American writer Aaron Sorkin. I knew Peter had a great TV show inside him and I really wanted to encourage him to write it.
Why do it as a series for TV rather than a movie?
About ten years ago there was a real shift in how people viewed TV. People began to realise that television was going to be even bigger in the future with the introduction of streamers. The interest, the focus, the hipness of film started to move into television. But initially, The Crown did start as a movie idea. Peter’s first thought was to sketch out a movie idea about the young Queen in 1953 and her complex relationship with Churchill, then her aging Prime Minister. But – typical of Peter’s immersion in a subject – once he started to develop it – he thought it might be better as a 6 parter, then he flipped it a week or so later to 3 series with a broader look at her reign and then another week later he came up with the blueprint we still have today: six series of 10 shows each, the whole of the reign and I was listening to one of the most ambitious and most exciting pitches I have ever heard.
Surely that would be a very big investment?
Yes, we knew it was going to be very expensive because we were really interested in looking at the whole of British history after 1945, i.e. what happened to the UK after winning the Second World War with the economic devastation that followed. We were fascinated by the decline of the UK from the 50s through to the 90s, and the desperate attempts by the country to redefine itself in the post-war world. And what was the one consistent element across these decades? The remarkable reign of Queen Elizabeth!
How did he plan to manage that?
Peter’s big idea was to have three different queens, three different casts, and produce two series with each one. So we would have a young Queen, the middle-aged Queen, and the old Queen. That was the concept right from the beginning. This is incredibly unusual, I can’t think of any other series where the total cast change every two years. Then Peter wrote the pilot script. This was essentially the story of how she became Queen and it’s a very dramatic start to the story because she was on her honeymoon in Kenya with Philip when her father King George suddenly died. She became Queen at just 24. She was amazingly young to face the realities of being a monarch.
“If you were in London at the time of Diana’s death you will never, ever forget it.”
Andy Harries, how were you able to set such a series up?
The Crown was clearly going to be an expensive series and Peter did not want to do it unless we could get good money, and nor did I. The ambition from the start was to create a show that could compare in scale and ambition with all the big shows coming from the likes of HBO. And the US proved to be the perfect place to sell it when Peter and I, along with the attached director Stephen Daldry, went to pitch the show to Netflix. We went to all the big US networks such as HBO, Showtime, FX etc. and Netflix was the last pitch we did and Ted Sarandos was in the room. At that time Netflix was only about 18 months old as a streamer. It had success with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, but not much else. The Netflix Team immediately understood what we were trying to do. They understood the ambition, they were excited by it, and what we didn’t know as we pitched was that a long running drama about the British ‘royal family’ was the perfect brand for their planned global rollout.
Ted bought it in the room there and then. It was an incredible moment. The best pitch I have ever been involved with! We proposed a commitment to 60 hours of television and it needs someone with big pockets and big boots to say yes to that. Netflix gave us a guarantee that they wouldn’t interfere – no notes they said, and they have kept their promise. They also guaranteed a really big budget to make a show that would compete with the very best of American television, the very best of HBO, which was a sort of benchmark for us. We wanted to compete on a global level with a proper budget and a great British story.
In which the Queen herself comes out rather well.
Who doesn’t love the Queen!
Whereas some other the members of the family, like the Prince of Wales for example, come out not quite so well?
Peter’s vision for The Crown is that it’s an epic family drama series, and he has created compelling and emotional truthful characters based on real historical events. The facts are simple and real – the royal family generates unbelievable amounts of stories. You couldn’t make it up. We have never scrabbled for stories. Over the many decades of the Queen’s reign, each one has presented us with an endless array of scandals, marital breakdowns, and often crazy behaviour by different members of the family. And at the centre of it all – trying to keep the family and the country steady – is the Queen. It’s a great story.
Did the Palace ever complain about your depiction?
No, they claim they don’t watch it, but we have a lot of evidence that many of them do – the younger ones especially. I suspect there are some episodes they will like a lot and some a little less. But that’s life. Everyone likes to enjoy the good times – no one enjoys seeing the bad times dramatised for world consumption. It’s inevitable that what drives the dramatisation is the clash between their public lives and their private ones. That is what fascinates people. What are they really like? And when you join all the dots and see the big picture – it’s very compelling and dramatic. Peter’s great strength is undertaking and illuminating the big themes of a show through small but detailed stories.
How long does it take to put a series together?
We’re editing Series 5 right now. It takes about eight months to shoot a series, and another six months or so to edit it, mix it and finish it.
Will the next Series – number 5 – be mostly about Diana?
Not just about Diana, but Diana is a key part of it. It’s the marriage with Charles and the 1992 annus horribilis, when part of Windsor Castle burned down, and other things happened to the Queen. There was the break-up of the marriage of the Yorks. Politically John Major’s Tory government was starting to fall apart, and there was the rise of the New Labour with Tony Blair.
“Not just about Diana, but Diana is a key part of it.”
“It’s the marriage with Charles and the 1992 annus horribilis.”
“I think we provide a definitive take on this extraordinary story.”
“I can’t make television that doesn’t interest me.”
Andy Harries, where is your biggest audience?
Only 12 percent of the viewing of The Crown is in the UK. The Crown is very heavily watched in America, where they have taken the series to their heart and it has really broken through. They are very generous with the Emmys and Golden Globes.
Do people go back to watch earlier series of The Crown?
Every time a new series comes out the old series are reactivated, and the figures have gone up and up and up again, which is very unusual for a television series. It reflects that we’re moving to times that people remember, and also the continuing fascination with Diana; and to some extent, more recently, with William and Harry.
Haven’t many different films already been made about Diana?
Yes, there are a lot. But I think we provide a definitive take on this extraordinary story.
Who is going to be your new Diana?
Elizabeth Debicki, an Australian actress who is quite well-known and rather wonderful. She’s doing a fantastic job.
Do you also have a new Queen?
We do. That’s Imelda Staunton, a national treasure in the UK. She’s a brilliant, wonderful actress, and loving being Queen.
What about Prince Charles?
The new Prince Charles is Dominic West, who is a wonderful and very charismatic actor. He is 20 years older than our previous actor Josh O’Connor, so it’s a more mature and confident Charles in the new series.
Do the children appear?
Harry and William are in Series 5 and 6.
Do you reflect the Duke of York’s recent legal issues?
The Crown is not going to come up to present day. Peter likes a historical distance of at least 10 to 15 years before writing about events. When The Crown ends in Series 6 it will end after 2000 but before 2010. The trick is to give some indication of events that we won’t be covering. Peter has added in elements around the Duke of York, who is not a big character in our series anyway, but there are small scenes that feature him.
Are you also working on other projects?
I’m doing a big detective series for Amazon, and we are filming a new female-led action show in Spain for Netflix. We’ve also got a comedy drama series about a teenager surviving an eating disorder called The Fuck It Bucket in production. At any one time, we are producing five or six series.
Is series the future of cinema?
No – but it is a place where work of scale and depth can be made. I’m working on a series about the Rolling Stones, an iconic band and also an iconic British brand. Everyone in the world is familiar with the Rolling Stones. It’s not easy – I’m trying to do a series that looks at the early days of how the Stones came together, what they represented, where the music came from, the relations that the band had with the girlfriends and the manager, and the impact on America, how the band changed, how the band influenced other music, how American politics and culture influenced them.
How do you work?
Happily, I have boundless enthusiasm and energy, which I hope will remain with me. I get incredibly excited very quickly by ideas that interest me. I can’t make television that doesn’t interest me. I don’t mind if someone else in my company makes something that I wouldn’t watch, that’s fine, but my passion projects must be something that I would like to watch. That’s my starting point.
Does The Crown appeal to young people?
Largely, The Crown has an older audience, but younger people who are interested in British history also find it very absorbing. It has a broad audience across the scale, but obviously it’s a long way from a show like HBO’s Euphoria, a gritty but glossy look at late teenage life in Los Angeles. The Crown is what it is. We can’t pretend. It’s about the British royal family.
Being British you do British things well. Are you also now jumping into other worlds?
No, you have to understand and define what you do. I’ve always wanted to make global shows; ambitious, top-end shows. Shows that will be broadcasted around the world, but with a specificity that comes from the UK. That doesn’t mean to say they have to be set in the UK, but they have a sense of the UK. That’s what I understand. That’s what I can make.
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