James Graham: “It can’t just be journalism that speaks truth to power. Stories and art have as much responsibility”

Posted On: 
15th February 2018

As his play, This House, embarks on a national tour, James Graham talks to Sebastian Whale about the surprising mainstream success of his political drama – and how after recent events life has indeed begun to imitate art

Playwright James Graham photographed by Johan Persson
Credit: 
Johan Persson

James Graham noticed a peculiar phenomenon as This House played on the West End at the Garrick theatre. Five years since his critically-acclaimed production first graced the stage at the National Theatre, some of the more preposterous aspects of life at Westminster suddenly didn’t seem quite as nonsensical.

“In a strange kind of way, the knock about fun and farce and ridiculousness of some of those events and actions felt weirdly less fun than they did back four years ago,” the playwright says.

The backroom dealings of a hung parliament felt less like “light-hearted” entertainment because the audience are aware of the impact from when “people can’t govern or can’t work together”, Graham continues.

“People still laughed in the West End, there was still comedy in essence. But there was a second wave of edge to it which I think was really interesting.”

This speaks to the seemingly boundless prescience of This House, which captures the operations of the whips’ office during the 1974-79 parliament. With the Labour government holding on by a thread, it documents with great humour the skulduggery, backroom deals and lengths travelled to prop up or attempt to bring down an administration whose survival was calculated in days, rather than years.

This House, which first ran in September 2012, is set to embark on a national tour beginning at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds at the end of February. It marks yet more good news for Graham, 35, who is established as the doyen of political playwrights. His back catalogue includes last year’s hit play Ink, which covers the early years of The Sun newspaper under Rupert Murdoch, which again received rave reviews and a stint on the West End after premiering at the Almeida Theatre.

How does he feel about This House touring the country? “Thrilled, almost more excited than I was about it going to the West End,” he says. Graham believes a play full of the different accents, regions and characters means it “should be a play that travels across the country”. “Fundamentally, I hope it’s a play about our democracy and shouldn’t be exclusive to Westminster.”

Graham says he was surprised by the popularity of a play that focusses on the machinations and quirks of the UK’s parliamentary democracy. “I knew I found it interesting. But I had no idea it could get a commercial audience,” he says. “We know that for whatever reason – thank God – we are in a golden age of political plays and political drama. The prejudice was that there wasn’t a mainstream audience for politically engaged word, because people were too disenfranchised. I never bought that. I thought people were disillusioned and probably disillusioned still. But that doesn’t mean they’re disengaged. People want to see entertaining political theatre.”

The public’s awareness of these hitherto secret political operatives – whips – has grown thanks to the success of House of Cards, tarantula-carrying Gavin Williamson’s meteoric rise up the ministerial food chain and, though Graham is perhaps too modest to admit it, his own contribution through This House.

Graham says there is an expectation for the public to be more “au fait” with political terminology and processes. “Just look at what’s happening at the moment with Brexit and the passage of this complicated policy from the Commons to the Lords and back again, and the different political constituents that are involved in this complicated process. The average guy or girl is having to learn the terminology in order to understand and be engaged with it,” he says.

“I hope that This House does that, whether it’s pairing, amendments or committees or whatever, I hope that is done in an entertaining way.”

Times have changed since Graham first put pen to paper in the early days of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, and if anything, the play feels more relevant today. “It didn’t feel like every day the government may collapse or not survive a vote or lose a vote of no confidence. So, weirdly, even though it was born out of that hung parliament, it feels more relevant for this hung parliament in terms of the vulnerability of the government, the games, an element of sabotage and mischief that backbenchers can play and all those kinds of things,” he says.

Researching the play took a long time, Graham recalls. “That world, not just the House of Commons but the whips office within that is famously closed off to journalists and particularly young playwrights.”

Reading books by former whips Joe Ashton and Gyles Brandreth provided initial insight for Graham, but the doors opened upon talking to the former Labour chief whip Ann Taylor, now Baroness Taylor, who made it “more real”. It was through these channels that Graham met Walter Harrison, a former Labour whip who is a key character in This House.

“The fortune of meeting him just before he died in 2012 transformed the play in terms of both him letting me come up and see him in his Wakeford home and show me his letters and diaries and just having the generosity to talk to me about what it felt like, not just what it looks like on paper but what it felt like.

“The surviving day-to-day in that testosterone-fuelled, smoke-filled, drink-fuelled world. It was vital and I was very grateful.”

Harrison’s relationship with Conservative MP Bernard ‘Jack’ Wetherall is central to This House. The two agreed the convention that if a sick MP from the government could not vote, an opposition MP would abstain to compensate.

“Today our politics is defined by definitions and tribalism, and all the language being used at the moment about traitors and saboteurs and enemies, it’s so unhealthy and so toxic,” Graham says.

“We obviously show elements of that in the 70s, quite brutally in the war between the two sides, [but] fundamentally for me it’s also a story about people trying to be good in a system that doesn’t always allow them to be, taking as the central story the really touching relationship between Walter Harrison and Jack Wetherall across party lines and the way that they in the end try and save each other which is a story that always incredibly moved me.

“I’m hoping that serves as an example of the way that across party lines we all be slightly better than we currently behave.”

Graham combines with profound effect fantastic stories with an overarching theme. In Ink he used the backdrop of Murdoch’s takeover of the Sun in 1969 to explore the emergence of populism. With This House, he rewound the clock forty years to make sense of our democracy as we see it now.

“I’m a firm believer in the power of story and narrative in plays to unlock those themes. Which sounds like an obvious thing to say, but actually that’s not a particularly mainstream thought sometimes in British playwriting. I think we do through a post-dramatic period in recent years when story wasn’t the key driver of plays. It was about form and style and language,” he says.

“Narrative is what excites me, it excites me as a writer and it excites me as an audience member. So yes, you know that you have these anxieties and these concerns politically in your mind and you need to find a narrative vehicle through which to explore them.”

And it’s acting on these instincts that is partly behind Graham’s volume of output. At time of writing, he has a new play heading for the West End in the shape of Quiz, about the major who allegedly cheated to win Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which premiered in Chichester, replacing his outgoing play Labour of Love. He will spend most of this year focussed on his new Brexit TV drama, while also formulating plans to explore a play around the UK’s intelligence services. Is it a case of taking advantage of these “anxieties” while they fuel to such success his creative instincts?

“In a way, yes. Either take advantage of or feel responsible towards doing that, because we are living through a political moment in our national life which is unlike anything I have ever experienced and I don’t know how long it’s going to last for,” he says.

“As long as it does last, I feel like we do need stories to make sense of it, whether it’s TV dramas, films or theatre – it can’t just be journalism that tries to unpack this or to speak truth to power. I think stories and art have as much a responsibility because it’s fundamentally human. We need that prism through which to view these very chaotic and complicated times.”