Ayes to the playwright: James Graham interview
Written by Cultureon 28 January 2013 in
This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics
Looking rather forlorn, a gentle and impish James Graham shuffles into the National Theatre press office – a pokey workplace crammed with costumes, worn scripts and cerebral mugs, which peeps apologetically out over the Thames and austere north bank opposite.
Wheeling in a suitcase, with the appearance of a nonplussed student-cum-Apprentice candidate, he bemoans his nomadic existence due to some fault in his flat, before gratefully accepting a coffee. Smoothing down his rumpled jumper, he manages a boyish grin.
“I’ve just turned 30.”
This age means it must be remarkably difficult for Graham to recall 1970s Westminster’s minority Labour government – the subject of his sell-out play This House. So successful has this new political production been that it’s leaving the National Theatre’s intimate Cottesloe for an upgrade to the Olivier at the end of February, almost tripling auditorium capacity, due to intense demand and rocketing ticket sales.
But how did this recent drama graduate come to write about a period his youth prevents him from being naturally au fait with? Didn’t anyone in spectacles and a grey suit ever tell him to ‘write what you know’?
Clearly not, considering his earlier theatrical endeavours. Tory Boyz covered homosexuality in the Conservative Party, Sons of York grappled with the Winter of Discontent, a youthful Margaret Thatcher was his Little Madam, and he even wrote a play about the Suez Crisis: Eden’s Empire. His first play, which he took straight to Edinburgh Festival in 2002, was called Coal not Dole! Something tells me it probably wasn’t a modern exploration of shallow 21st-century cultchah.
“I’m technically not a ‘young playwright’ any more,” he diffidently points out. “If you’re 30, you’re just a playwright.”
Still, not exactly a veteran of the blood, sweat and financial fears of the ‘70s...
“You do feel a bit presumptuous,” he nods.
“I was 28 when I pitched it [This House]; quite young compared to other people, and I was saying, ‘Can I write a big political play for a period that I wasn’t alive in?’
“I think there’s something inherent in writing culture which makes younger writers feel they have to do smaller, box-studio family dramas. They’re great as well, and are really important, but some people are unnecessarily wary of writing these big political plays. Either we feel we don’t have the right, or that it’s something that you do when you’re in your 50s or 60s, which I think is bollocks.”
Perhaps Graham’s proposal wasn’t as precocious as he first feared. His childhood had been inextricably linked to the government of the day: he grew up in a mining town, Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, and suggests these surroundings ignited his affinity with politics.
“I suppose the world I grew up in was political because my town was changing so much over the ‘80s and ‘90s with the industrial changes and decline. Politics never felt lofty, alienating or London-based. It felt very real.
“It felt like my family, my aunties, my uncles, the people were all involved. It was about real people, real life and I saw my town change so much in the course of 10 years, and the reaction to that. Politics was always pubs, working men’s clubs and being around the table arguing.”
His first play used real miners’ testimonies from the villages he grew up around, and in This House, he has taken this zest for detail and historical research to the Labour and Tory whips’ offices of the 1970s, up until the ‘No confidence’ vote of 1979 that threw Jim Callaghan and Labour off the government benches for 18 years.
Although, notably, his production betrays no political leanings or didacticism, his party persuasion should be easy to guess from this background. Graham, however, is as closed as a copy of Erskine May seems to have been in the period he picked as his subject: “I don’t have a clear ideology. I certainly don’t like to align myself with left or right. I have very passionate principles and beliefs, but I face each individual issue as it comes.”
So it makes sense for characterisation to be his prime focus. The play is a slick investigation into the tricks, tactics and trip-ups of wily whips on both sides of the House, under the immense pressure of a Labour minority government ruling by a twitching northern whisker.
Akin to more modern political dramas – The Thick of It springs to mind, God rest its soul – the main players are missing from the action. In this case, Callaghan and Thatcher (only ever referred to darkly as the “member for Finchley”) are shafted for “the people who generally kept the system going who nobody knows”; a delightful array of burly Yorkshiremen and slippery Cockneys on one side, contrasted with louche publicly schooled smoothies on the other.
In the midst of today’s snobbery renaissance, jokes born of these opponents clashing particularly resonate. For example, an attempted rapprochement early into the new sickly government sees a Conservative whip, upon entering his rivals’ office, remark, “Doesn’t anyone from the north know how to sit on a chair? It’s very simple, just imagine it’s like a hay bale or coal sack.”
Another fashionable touch is the production’s refusal to focus on policy, always prioritising personalities and interaction – rather masterful, considering it is ultimately a show about exhausted politicians trying to corral enough votes to push legislation through Parliament. “How sexy or funny can that be?” Graham laughs, recalling his gravest fears in bed the night before reviews were due.
But there are more traditional devices that place the play above the morbid fascination and cynicism of many of today’s political dramas. The script is liberally peppered with fluent and knowing epigrammatic dialogue containing echoes of Yes, Minister and even Michael Frayn: “A Conservative government always eventually falls because they believe themselves entitled to power, and Labour governments always fall because they don’t” evoked a big, wry laugh from the audience, who were seated either on government or opposition benches in a set almost perfectly replicating the Commons chamber. Another favourite was, “Labour Britain: it’s shit, but it’s equally shit for everyone.”
But colourful writing aside, it’s surely the poignancy of a hung Parliament and its obstacles that so enraptures a coalition-led audience, subjected daily to Tory grumbles and Liberal whimpers from modern-day Westminster. Graham insists he had been harbouring the idea before 2010.
“I’d done a BBC Radio 4 play [How Are You Feeling, Alf?, 2009] about the very end of James Callaghan’s government. I just found that so amazing, and I started to pick up little stories of the lead-up towards ‘No confidence’. It just really excited me – and I’ve always been fascinated by the Parliament building as well, how it works and how it operates. This period seemed to place that building under the greatest amount of strain – all the rules went out of the window, and it felt inherently dramatic from the off.
“I’m not going to lie. When the 2010 election happened and we found ourselves in a hung Parliament again, it felt like the perfect opportunity to look at when we last had a hung Parliament... You can see the coalition and all the daily dramas of how two parties work together. So I just thought, why not look at it when it was even more ridiculous in the ‘70s?”
Graham was meticulous in his research, carrying out interviews with whips from the period (including the recently resurrected Sir George Young), devouring memoirs, biographies, diaries and talking to constitutional experts. He had to be picky with interviewees and curb his enthusiasm for political minutiae for fear of having too much content. He explains through an apologetic smile, “I had to protect myself, because I find everything really interesting.”
The fruit of such hands-on investigation is undoubtedly the anecdotal structure underpinning his approach to scriptwriting. The ‘Nobody dies in the Palace of Westminster’ trope is repeated as members are dragged in on wheelchairs, stretchers, by aircraft and boat, often followed by frantic, exasperated wives. The no confidence vote is eventually lost by one vote due to Labour’s whips shying away at the last minute from calling in Alfred Broughton, the Labour MP known as ‘Doc’, from his deathbed. And the more ludicrous the scene, the more factual.
“I can’t take much credit for it,” says Graham. “The legend of Walter Harrison [Labour’s deputy chief whip, 1974-79] trapping his leg in the committee room door, passing a piece of legislation by 22 and ¾ is absolutely true. The fact that Big Ben’s clock stopped halfway through this Parliament, during the time when the usual channels between the whips had broken down and the system wasn’t working, is also completely true. That’s a gift for a writer, that symbol is amazing. I couldn’t believe it.
“The more I researched it and the stories came up about wheeling sick people in and the things that the whips would get up to, it felt like a no-brainer – it was something that absolutely had to be told.”
One scene sees Labour’s only female whip, the ballsy Ann Taylor, handed a screwdriver to “flush out” government members from the loos in the crucial eight minutes following a division bell. Discussing the play with Labour peer Peter Snape, whose first government job was an assistant whip from 1975-79, I discover this wasn’t just a boorish chief whip’s one-off whim. The job was a pseudo-official position. “I discovered, to my chagrin really, that my first job was to act as a lower-deck flusher on a three-line whip, a post in the whips’ office,” he tells me dryly, “so at 10 o’clock, you voted first and then you had to go around all the lavatories with a screwdriver and find any old Labour MP sleeping in the bog. If it said ‘Engaged’ and nobody answered, you used the screwdriver to flush them out.”
So is Graham just an imaginative historian who struck lucky, or will his playwriting career elevate him to the upper echelons of Britain’s established political dramatists? Both The Independent and The Telegraph have compared him to David Hare, who he cites as an inspiration for his political pieces alongside the work of Michael Frayn. Having already reached the National, Graham is beyond waiting in the wings.
“I didn’t even know there was a National Theatre until I was about 18. I think the first play I saw in here was The Permanent Way by David Hare, which was about the decline – or not – of the railway system in Britain. I thought it was so exciting, it was more of a journalistic theatre; a lot of it was verbatim. It was so romantic, epic and cool.
“Frayn’s Democracy premiered here, so, yeah, it feels like joining a club of people who seem bigger, cleverer and more amazing than me. It was thrilling to get a stab at it. It feels like you’re walking on hallowed ground when you come in here, because this was the place to do political plays.”
And if he is to join this consecrated club, he will do well to remember his almost childlike joy in the political process, and not allow the population’s creeping disillusionment – particularly among voters close to his age – to sully his evocative writing style. There seems little danger of this, however:
“Theatre has to be important. If you’re going for a night out obviously it has to entertain, to move people and make them feel something, but it’s a wasted opportunity not to talk about something that’s important in a play. I do find political history particularly exciting and really useful. It’s always useful to be able to reference or talk about what’s going on now by looking at an event in the past.”
Geeky luvvie and lovely geek though he is, Graham acknowledges that politics as a theatrical subject is not necessarily universally appealing. “I was scared,” he admits. “I completely appreciated that making your main protagonists politicians and needing people to love them and empathise with their situation is a bit of a mammoth task... But that was part of the excitement.
“I didn’t want to write something that was cynical or too negative. I wanted to write something that hopefully had a bit of affection for that building and its quirks, weirdness – and utter stupidity sometimes – and for the people running it.
“My belief gets battered a lot, but I still believe that most people, certainly in the ‘70s and hopefully now, do go into politics for the best of intentions and for the right reasons.” He pauses, and then – perhaps because he has sounded too saintly, or more likely with the inevitable relish of a political writer – adds, “And then of course, things can go wrong.”
And if we are to be offered up theatre like this on a regular basis, let’s hope they do.
This House opens at the National Theatre’s Olivier from 23 February, following a sell-out run in the Cottesloe