What’s next for the UK’s hottest political playwright?
James Graham discusses his latest play and reveals plans to put the Labour party on to the stage next. He is also developing a TV drama that may – or may not – be a British West Wing…
At first glance, James Graham’s latest foray into British politics looks a bit more whimsical than his previous efforts.
Graham made his name in 2012 with This House, a critically-acclaimed play about the wheeling and dealing that underpinned Harold Wilson’s mid-1970s minority government. He went on to delve into David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s horse trading in Coalition, the Westminster village’s favourite TV docudrama of 2015. But for his latest party trick, Graham has turned his attention to a character who left a rather different mark on the political landscape.
Monster Raving Loony premiered at Theatre Royal Plymouth earlier this year and it transfers to London’s Soho Theatre on 14 May. It tells the story of David 'Screaming Lord’ Sutch, a man who ran unsuccessfully for office some 39 times over a 40-year period. Usually wearing his signature undertaker’s top hat and leopard-print jacket.
"On the surface it’s all quite wacky and zany, you come in and you get given a party hat,” says Graham. “But actually what we’re trying to do is represent in quite a serious way a question of what democracy means and who has the power. Is it the politician or the voter?"
Graham believes that Sutch is the perfect vessel upon which to explore such questions. The London-born singer’s political journey began in 1963 when he decided to contest the Stratford-upon-Avon by-election sparked by the departure of John Profumo. It ended when he committed suicide in 1999, aged 58. The play details Sutch’s highs and lows through a series of sketches inspired by inspired by British comedy greats.
"For any writer, he’s a fantastic, complex, character, both in terms of who he was psychologically but also in terms of what he represents,” says Graham.
"His lifespan covered the entirety of post war history. So in terms of those great big, whacking, political and socio-economic changes throughout 60 years of history, he lived through them all - but in a really crazy, wacky way. He was this observer who stood at the back of prime ministers from Wilson all the way through to John Major, in a sort of Forrest Gump way of observing history. He didn’t contribute anything, he didn’t ever win, he was one of history’s great losers. He was there.
"And as a way to talk about a democratic system that feels increasingly irrelevant - who it’s accessible to, who it’s open to, how fair it is - he’s an enjoyably bizarre British way into it, I think."
As Monster Raving Loony begins its London run, Graham is already busy working on other projects to add to the 16 plays and one TV drama that he already has under his belt.
Unsurprisingly, one politician who has not escaped his attention in recent months is Jeremy Corbyn. But Graham is even more fascinated by the Labour leader’s most fervent supporters and the way that the party appears to have transformed since Corbyn arrived on the scene.
"I’m completely obsessed with the Labour party at the moment in this transitional period,” he says. “I want to do something about the current conversation that’s happening within that party at the moment, but also about the left, who it should stand for, who it should represent."
As a result, Graham is currently working on a play about Labour, set at the local constituency level. Inspired by the current tremors rippling through the party, it will explore wider questions about what is a political party is for, who is welcome and how it should function.
He explains: "I grew up in a community that was not traditionally left wing, but it was working class – a mining community in Nottinghamshire. There was a big difference between those separatists who fought their own union in Nottingham and went back to work and those who didn’t.
"I suppose that’s always interested me, the idea of people in the same side of the political spectrum who have very different ideas about what the movement should be doing, what the party should be doing, and this idea of a broad church with everybody welcome. Because during the leadership campaign I was surprised at the level of aggression on social media, even from friends and people I respect, towards people who consider themselves Labour or on the left, who were being told they were no longer welcome or they were closet Tories, or that the party had shifted and they needed to shift with it and get out."
With that in mind, Graham says the new play will explore a number of questions about political parties: "The idea of what is a party, how should it function and who is welcome in it? Is it all encompassing and embracing different types of ideas? Or is the only way to function to be very single minded?"
Graham hopes that his play about the Labour party will be done and dusted soon - and hitting the stage in around ten months’ time.
In the meantime, there is the no-so-minor matter of writing the British version of The West Wing to contend with. Or as Graham prefers to call it “a new TV series set in Downing Street”.
The project has been in the pipeline for some time but with little progress to report. Until now.
Graham reveals that he has teamed up with director Roger Michell, whose filmography includes Notting Hill and the Oscar nominated 2006 film Venus. Michell most recently directed the political play Waste, which was showing at the National Theatre earlier this year. The pair are currently busy developing the script for the new TV drama and they have already started talking to actors.
"Other people would say it’s attempting to be a British West Wing. I wouldn’t say that, because that’s a kiss of death. But we’re trying to find a big British sweeping political story to talk about, set in Numbers 10 and 11 and 12 Downing Street, set today with a fictional prime minister looking at all of the issues that a modern day prime minister would face in that bizarre building."
The West Wing’s central character, President Bartlet, has been described by political commentators as the most popular Democratic president in recent memory. Graham acknowledges that there are significant challenges to overcome when it comes to doing something in the mould of Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed political drama over here. But he and Michell are doing their best – despite the political and cultural barriers.
"I think it’s difficult in this country because as an audience we’re less used to seeing our political figures as sympathetic characters on screen.
"Also under our system, if you are leaving office it’s because you’ve failed – either you’ve voted out or your party has kicked you out. But in America… you can leave with a higher rating than when you arrived. There is a regeneration in American politics that we don’t have. We’re constantly disappointed by our leaders here, because the system demands that you stay until you disappoint.
"So maybe it’s quite hard to have a sympathetic prime minister character, but that’s the ambition – to build a character who might be inspiring and nuanced, rather than do a political drama where everybody is wicked or evil or Machiavellian.
"It will still be brutal, it will still be sharp, but hopefully it will be more interesting that what you might normally get from a political equivalent on British TV."
Sorkin has said he took some of President Bartlet's characteristics from his own father. But according to Martin Sheen, who played the president, the character was drawn largely from Bill Clinton: "He's bright, astute and filled with all the negative foibles that make him very human," Sheen once told the Radio Times.
So will the British series have a central character based on Tony Blair or David Cameron? Graham resists being drawn into a direct comparison with either leader, but says there could certainly be elements of the challenges faced by the current prime minister in the mix.
"I think one of the biggest crises a prime minister might face today is how much power is being outsourced from that building and actually David Cameron is doing more of that himself. He’s been delegating authority and decision-making, whether it’s to local councils or quangos or elected officials like politics commissioners.
"So speaking to politicians or special advisers, when they arrive at Downing Street on that first day they think they are going to change the country… But it’s very hard now for an administration to make a decision that impacts on a local level or national level or an international level.
"So I’m interested in outsourcing power how a character might – not in a fascist way, in a democratic way of course – claw some of that power back to a democratically accountable body, rather than it being spread across different bodies."
After that exposition on how the new TV series will explore the nature of power and democracy, Graham pauses for breath, smiles - and lays down a crucial amendment.
"That all sounds very dry. It will probably have jokes and sex as well."