Abi Morgan is used to being in control of a story. One of the most respected screenwriters around, she isn’t afraid to tackle the big stories, map out clever plot twists and dig deep with emotionally complicated characters. She took on Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, sex addiction in Shame and women’s struggle for equality in Suffragette. BBC One’s The Split has just had viewers hanging on her every word. But, in 2018, the drama of her own life rivalled anything that she’s ever written.
It’s the subject of her first book, This Is Not a Pity Memoir, out this week – which follows Morgan’s family life after her partner’s sudden illness. It’s hard to imagine that she’s been through hell and back, as she rushes up to me cheerfully, putting her hand on my arm.
“Hi, I’m Abi,” says the 54-year-old, who won an Emmy for the period newsroom thriller The Hour in 2013 and a Bafta for Channel Four’s 2004 gritty Sex Traffic. I’d spotted her miles away, donning large round tortoiseshell glasses and a canary yellow cardigan. We’re meeting in a private members’ club in central London to discuss the book. It’s billed as a love story. Not that it’s particularly fun reading – even if, like Morgan, it has a lightness about it. Page by page, it’s full of urgency and pathos, written in a staggeringly frank, intimate voice.
In June 2018, her long-term partner of 18 years, actor Jacob Krichefski, who had been diagnosed with MS seven years earlier, suddenly collapsed in the bathroom of their north London house. He was rushed to hospital, where his symptoms suggested a brain injury. Along with seizures, he developed erratic behaviour: “He shapeshifted daily – from being mute, catatonic, to talking, talking, talking…” Morgan tells me.
As his condition worsened over the next two weeks, he was put into an induced coma. He woke up seven months later, in January 2019, but, alarmingly, he was convinced that Morgan was not his partner, nor the mother of his two children, Mabel, and Jesse, then 14 and 16, but an imposter.
By then, doctors had diagnosed him with Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis – a type of brain inflammation – caused by a reaction to the trial drugs he’d taken for his MS.
Could it get any worse? Sadly, yes. Morgan was at this point, writing the second series of The Split – the addictive divorce drama about the complicated professional and personal lives of the Defoe family of solicitors, starring Nicola Walker as the high-end divorce lawyer Hannah Stern, wrestling with a marriage in turmoil.
By the time series two was being filmed, when things seemed like they couldn’t possibly get any worse, Morgan found herself going through chemotherapy for breast cancer – and had a mastectomy.
She had felt something “wasn’t right” for some time and ignored the symptoms of chest pain before being forced to reassess her relationship with herself and focus on her recovery from cancer.
“I suddenly realised that for so long, I’d been trying to keep Jacob alive, but when my own mortality was threatened, and at the same time, he didn’t recognise me and my identity was threatened, that is when I thought, ‘I’ve got to start to really have a bigger vision than this man, Jacob. I’ve got to stay alive.’”
She adds: “The thought that my children would be two parents down was overwhelming on every level, you know, physically, financially, emotionally, practically… they weren’t quite cooked. So, that became very a real focus.”
The Welsh-born writer, who had a nomadic childhood travelling the UK with her rep theatre actor mum, Pat England, who appeared in Eighties BBC sitcom, First of the Summer Wine, somehow managed to survive the heartache. It was on Valentine’s Day 2019 that Morgan realised “absolutely 100 per cent” that Jacob didn’t know who she was any more.
“I presented him with a really cheesy red heart balloon in the hope that it would make him smile,” Morgan tells me about one trip to the hospital.
“And I said, ‘Happy Valentine’s’ and he looked at me blankly. When asked to acknowledge me, he said, ‘That’s not my wife.’ And, in a way, technically, I wasn’t at that time. As I talk about in the book, we weren’t married yet. So, I kind of kidded myself for a moment. But I very quickly realised he didn’t know who I was.”
When Jacob finally went home, he needed round-the-clock care. “We are taking home Jacob, but not Jacob. A stranger who is strange and yet no stranger at all. And I’m scared. I’m really scared,” she writes.
It took until January 2020 – about 18 months after his collapse – for tiny signs he was starting to recognise her. “He just put his hand in mine, and he said, ‘Well done, babe.’ And babe was the word he used to use.”
Jacob might now be “80 per cent” back to himself and Morgan has recovered from cancer – but the experience has profoundly changed her.
“I feel quite fearless,” says Morgan. “But then I also have respect for the fact I have no control, ultimately, of my mortality. And you know, as someone who’s worked to deadlines my entire life, I had forgotten about the ultimate deadline, which is death.”
She adds: “The stuff about googling one’s own name or caring about one’s place in the world – that feels less relevant or important to me.”
This Is Not a Pity Memoir, which began as an “intense diary” the first night after Jacob was rushed to hospital – “as a way to keep talking to him” and “to try to control the experience” – hurtles along poetically, while managing to be funny and ultimately full of hope.
“I’d spent so long writing other people’s lives. And in a way, I approached the experience as if I was a character in it, and as if my life was a drama because it felt like a piece of drama,” says Morgan, whose first TV writing credit was for ITV’s Peak Practice in 1998.
It’s had rave reviews: the Radio Times noted it is “told with brutal honesty and a heroic amount of humour”; The Observer’s Rachel Cooke called it “as propulsive as a thriller”. Among the A-list stars Morgan has worked with, Streep, who won an Oscar for her performance as Thatcher in 2011’s The Iron Lady, described it as “heartbreaking”; Carey Mulligan, who starred in both Suffragette and Shame, says it is “profound and exquisitely written”.
They are right: the shock she’s in is described brilliantly – “as if I am underwater, my life passing me by in a kind of muffled blur”. But what got her through was that people cared – “I was well-supported,” she says about her family and friends rallying around her.
She hopes to turn the book into a film and direct it herself – after making her debut in the directing chair on season three of The Split. Who will play her? That’s something she claims not to have given much thought to – or has she? “Genuinely, I think there are a million actors. And also, practically, I’m not going to tell you one because if that actor turns me down, the other actor is going feel shitty,” she says.
She reels off some of this generation’s star names – Walker, Mulligan, Olivia Colman. “I genuinely haven’t sat there and thought about me because I’m not quite there yet. I’m not quite ready to write that film,” she adds.
“It’s still very live for me this experience. I’m still living this life. I’m still with somebody who’s going through recovery. I’m still processing my own recovery. It’s been really exciting. I put my heart out on the page… but I need some time to reflect.”
The trauma of Morgan’s life has seeped into The Split – particularly the third and final series, which concluded this week. “I think it’s filled with a lot of the pain, a lot of the passion of what I’ve gone through,” she says.
She made the decision to kill off the much-loved James (Rudi Dharmalingam) in the opening episode of series three. His wife Rose (Fiona Button), the youngest of the show’s three Defoe sisters, finds out her husband has died in a cycling accident. It left viewers in shock.
“Having had a brush with my own mortality, and certainly my partner’s mortality. I felt I wanted to put that absolute at the heart of the show,” says Morgan. “I felt like I needed a spike that was going to upend the whole family and make them reflect about relationships on a profound level.”
She’s insistent that it’s the end of The Split – although she doesn’t rule out a spin-off. She’s certainly left viewers with a lot of loose ends. The finale showed the emotionally conflicted and ambitious divorce lawyer Hannah heartbreakingly parting ways with her husband, barrister Nathan, and telling her old flame, Christie (Barry Atsma): “I love you Christie, I do, but I want a life, not a fantasy.” She’s clear: if he wants to be with her, he needs to move back from NY to the UK.
“One of the things I’ve learned, even if I tied up those endings, they can all get thrown apart the next day,” says Morgan. She should know. She ends her book on an optimistic note – she and Jacob decide to get married – but the future remains uncertain. “I wanted to end The Split in the same way with Hannah looking into the camera going, ‘I don’t know what comes next.’ And that’s alright,” says Morgan.
She tells me that there was another ending they shot for The Split – it’s a secret what happened. “But ultimately, we felt it was a really powerful way to end, with hope and optimism – and not to be scared of the unknown. And I guess that’s why we’re ending it at three series – it felt like the right place.”
‘This is Not a Pity Memoir’ by Abi Morgan is published by John Murray, £14.99