James Graham: dramatising British parliamentary life
13th December 2012
James Graham’s deftness at dramatising post-war politics has earned him a smash hit with This House at the National. First published Dec 13, 2012, Daily Telegraph.
What memories do you have of Jim Callaghan, or the Winter of Discontent, or Margaret Thatcher’s first prime ministerial address outside Number 10? Or the Seventies, full stop?
James Graham has none whatsoever. Born in 1982, how could he have? This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy were it not for the fact that, aged 30, he has written the most absorbing account of the crisis-ridden period from 1974 to 1979 ever to have hit the London stage.
This House, a sell-out smash at the National’s Cottesloe theatre about to transfer to the Olivier in the new year, disproves the adage that you should write about what you know. An enthusiast for the finer points of post-war political life, Graham has been a rising star in this field for a while. Tory Boyz touched on the sexuality of Edward Heath, Little Madam charted Thatcher’s formative youth, Sons of York revisited the Winter of Discontent and Eden’s Empire examined Anthony Eden’s career up to the Suez Crisis.
But in delving into the activity of the House of Commons whips during the era of wafer-thin and evanescent Labour majorities and the short-lived Lib-Lab Pact, Graham has secured a landslide mandate to make British parliamentary business his stock-in-trade. Well-researched and yet keenly imagined, rife with eye-opening titbits about behind-the-scenes battles, This House would have impressed us from a playwright as mature as David Hare. Coming from a young upstart like Graham, it’s almost a coup d’état.
In person, Graham looks absurdly younger than his tender years – boyish, coltish, sharp as a pin. He was filled with trepidation, he says, about taking on a period of recent history at a venue as prestigious as the National, knowing that many of those involved in the events described are still alive and would also have their assumptions about what “mattered” during those times.
As he explains in a soft Nottingham drawl: “I was nervous that people would come in and say: ‘I remember that, I lived through that, these are the things that interest me about that story and you’ve not focused on them.’
“I’m aware that This House doesn’t dwell on the parties’ policies,” he continues, “and I thought that might be something people found to be a wasted opportunity. But for me that was never the point. It was about the people and something more timeless – I wanted to look at the strange, ridiculous brilliance of the system in that building, either side of the lobby.”
The play grew out of the 2009 Radio 4 Afternoon Drama How Are You Feeling, Alf? which explored the remarkable demise of the Callaghan government in the no-confidence vote of March 1979. Had Labour MP Alfred Broughton been brought from his deathbed to Westminster – an action not beyond the realms of possibility in those desperate times – the government would have hung on by one vote.
Researching the play, Graham became aware how pivotal the deputy chief whips were in ensuring Broughton was spared the almost- certainly fatal trip. On the Conservative side, Bernard “Jack” Weatherill kindly offered to withhold his vote, thereby removing the need for Broughton’s attendance. His Labour counterpart, Walter Harrison, was so impressed by the gesture that he refused that offer. Broughton, kept unaware, stayed put – but died shortly afterwards anyway. The rest, as they say, is Thatcherite history.
“I knew I had the end of the story,” Graham recalls. “I was fascinated by how on earth it could get to the point where one man’s physical presence in the lobby could save or destroy a government.”
The onset of the Coalition in 2010 gave him the spur to pitch the idea, but he insists he’d have ploughed on even if the Conservatives had won. “It’s a story that should be relevant at any point because it’s about how our democracy works.”
Although he spoke to a number of figures, including Harrison, who died days after the play opened, Graham resisted the temptation to go interview-crazy: “There were hundreds of people I could have met who would have given us amazing stories, but in the end I had to remember that I didn’t want to learn everything about the IMF crisis or the oil crisis. I wanted to know what it was like to eject a really p—– Member from the Strangers’ Bar at 11 o’clock at night.”
Despite the focus of his research, though, he found it tough going. “The process of writing the first draft was the hardest I’ve ever experienced. It took me about two months to get through the first 20 minutes of the play.” Finally something clicked. “It felt as if I put my head down and charged along a corridor, not looking back once.” He finished the first draft a week later.
Having made his mark swiftly since moving to London in 2005, Graham clearly possesses a prolific talent, but despite the lure of TV and film – he’s now adapting the best-selling memoir Gypsy Boy for BBC Films – it’s the niche he has carved out for himself that animates him. And he doesn’t care how unfashionable that makes him: “I must be the only playwright fascinated by Edward Heath,” he jokes. Though he studied drama at Hull, he raves about history: “I stole from Shakespeare the idea that you can examine what’s happening today by looking at events from the recent past. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?”
He grew up near pits in the village of Annesley, his father a local council worker, his mother a barmaid. “Politics never felt like something that was alien to me, or Westminster-based. It felt very real. Nottingham famously broke away from the NUM during the miners’ strike to form their own union. I wouldn’t say my background was Left or Right but a dialogue between the two, and maybe that’s why I can tell a story like this without feeling like I have an axe to grind politically.”
Will there be more of this type? For sure, he says, without going into too much detail. “I’ve long since stopped worrying about what a young writer should be writing about. I want to encourage my peers not to feel they have to reach a certain age to tackle this type of subject.”
He beams, and issues a rallying cry. “I think that as young writers we have to take responsibility for our own history!” Unlike many politicians today, when it comes to the vision thing, James Graham has got it licked.
Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice
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