The Queen of British TV: Producer Suzanne Mackie Reflects on Her Road to ‘The Crown’
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and in many ways, that would be British producer Suzanne Mackie. As an executive producer on “The Crown,” she has spent the better part of the past 10 years working on the hit Netflix series, taking on her share of controversy along the way. But you’d be hard pressed to find a cooler head: never mind Claire Foy or Olivia Colman, Mackie is the only queen who will see the whole show across its six seasons.
Mackie, who is this year’s recipient of Variety’s Achievement in Intl. TV Award, has shepherded the royal family period piece from the earliest seedling of an idea — pitched when the streaming giant’s eye-watering originals drive was still in its infancy, riding high on “House of Cards” — to the Golden Globe, SAG and Emmy-winning, agenda-setting hit it’s become, both for Netflix and the U.K drama landscape.
In pandemic times, the producer is found every morning on a Zoom call with indefatigable “Crown” creator and showrunner Peter Morgan, where a small editorial team reads the Season 5 scripts, which won’t be lensed until July, aloud.
“It just comes alive, however badly we’re reading it,” Mackie enthuses. Mackie is most closely associated with the royal behemoth, but her bona fides span both film and TV — a balance that’s deceptively hard to get right. Her career before and around “The Crown” includes everything from the award-winning film “Calendar Girls” to the Gugu MbathaRaw- and Keira Knightley-starring “Misbehaviour.”
“Drama-obsessed” growing up, Mackie went through the motions of a “rather unremarkable” academic career before eventually attending drama school.
“I left drama school and actually had a quite profound realization that I needed to work; I didn’t want to be sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. I needed a job. So I went to the BBC,” she says.
At the corporation, Mackie learned the craft under late commissioning editor Michael Wearing, best-known for seminal dramas “Boys From the Blackstuff” and “Edge of Darkness,” whom she calls one of the “greatest influences” of her life. “He was a very complicated man, but he was also one of the greatest drama commissioning editors of all time. He was so instinctive.”
Then a young secretary who was “wanting more, but not quite sure how to do it,” Mackie ultimately left the BBC to join production company ABTV and its film arm Harbour Pictures. It was a good time to join an independent outfit: the 2003 Communications Act paved the way for the U.K.’s iconic Terms of Trade agreement, which allows producers to retain rights for their work.
At Harbour, Mackie came upon a newspaper article that would change her life. After reading about a group of Yorkshire women raising money for cancer research by posing nude for an “alternative” calendar, she wrote to them.
“I looked at them [in the calendar] and thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s really something touching and tender and real,’” she recalls.
When the film went into production, “I was the least experienced person on the set by a country mile, and yet I was the producer,” says Mackie. “I was a custodian of the story; I knew and understood it on a very deep, emotional level and that, as a producer, is your most important thing, as far as I’m concerned.”
She next tackled the innovative 2005 feature “Kinky Boots,” about the owner of a British shoe factory who teams up with a drag queen to save his business. Directed by Julian Jarrold, the film starred Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and was adapted into a smash musical that, in some ways, has upstaged the movie. But its success, says Mackie, is something she’s learned to take as a compliment.
Later, the producer struck a first-look deal with Buena Vista Intl., but the 2008 financial crisis saw the deal go south. As a single mother, Mackie was keen to get a job and “just work,” never mind at what. At this point, producer Andy Harries had just set up Left Bank Pictures and, at Christmas, offered Mackie a job.
“I remember walking out [of the meeting] thinking, ‘That is the best Christmas present I’ve ever received,’” says Mackie, who notes that Harries has also been hugely significant in her life. “He saw something in me and gave me my breaks, and I love [him] dearly.”
Around 2011, Mackie was asked to oversee Morgan’s efforts on “The Crown,” which became, she says, “the big one in my life, the one I’m most proud of.” The series, which was inspired by Morgan’s play “The Audience,” was pitched to the BBC and ITV and to Showtime and HBO. “All the usual suspects,” quips Mackie. A presentation to upstart streamer Netflix came late in the game.
“At the end of it, [I was told] Ted Sarandos turned to Cindy Holland and said, ‘Great, we want to do this,’” says Mackie. But the “big, amazing thing” that sealed the deal, “after which there was just no question that we wouldn’t go with” Netflix, was a 20-episode pact.
Mackie acknowledges that “Americans, particularly, and the rest of the world are just endlessly fascinated by the royal family” — most recently evidenced, of course, by the blockbuster Oprah Winfrey interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But the team “knew very early on that what Peter wants to do is go through the keyhole of the door,” beyond the splendor and privilege, and into the intimacy of the story.
Morgan famously said in January 2020 that “The Crown” would end with Season 5, only to make an about-face in July and commit to a sixth season. Of the decision, Mackie explains that there was an attempt to wrap the “propulsive stories” of the Princess Diana, Tony Blair and John Major years into one season, but it was ultimately decided to let the stories breathe across two. She holds firm, however, that “The Crown” will have a “suitable end” in the early 2000s.
Recently, the introduction of Diana in Season 4 has breathed new life into the show, which grabbed headlines when U.K. culture secretary Oliver Dowden suggested that Netflix add a disclaimer ensuring viewers know the show is fiction. Indeed, “Fictional truth can often take you closer to the reality than historical accuracy,” reflects Mackie.
The executive found herself in the eye of a media frenzy when she confirmed in 2018 that Foy, who played the queen in Seasons 1 and 2, wasn’t paid as much as “Doctor Who” star Matt Smith, who portrayed Prince Philip. Mackie chalks the pay gap down to “the agents who drive the deals in many ways,” but notes she had a desire to “be honest.”
“I’m glad we fronted that out,” says Mackie. “Everyone said, ‘No, we shouldn’t do that. We should say nothing, do nothing.’ But sometimes, you’ve just got to say [it]. A lot of actresses wrote to me after and said, ‘You’ve literally changed my deal overnight.’”
Three years later, Mackie has struck out on her own with Netflix-backed Orchid Pictures, whose output will land on the SVOD — a proposition that “forces you to think about human stories on a global level,” she says. Having secured its first major book option, the outfit is scouting writer-driven stories and looking for voices from everywhere, ranging from the world of poetry to the music industry.
“I don’t see myself as a very sort of canny businesswoman that’s going to take over the world, but I just want to make great shows,” says Mackie.
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