Modern Democracy: The Prequel – An interview with James Graham

Written for Spoonfed:

Walking across Waterloo Bridge towards National Theatre there are, as always, tourists taking photos of themselves artfully posed with the Houses of Parliament in the background. As exemplified by these tourists, in the global image of modern democracy, those buldings have epic connotations but playwright James Graham (writer of The Man, Caught In A Trap and Tory Boyz) looks at the inside of that building he tells me, when I meet him at National Theatre to discuss his latest play, This House

It begins in 1974 and covers the five year period of the last hung parliament prior to this one. The period formed a tipping point in Britain which James describes as “a country at a cross roads not really knowing who it is or what direction to take. I kind of think of This House  as a prequel,” he says “a bit like Star Wars before you get to Darth Vader – not that Margaret Thatcher is Darth Vader – but before we get to what we know to be the beginning of our modern story. That feels like it starts from 1979 when modern capitalism took over the city and we saw the end of socialism as we knew it. This is a country in which the tension is mounting and a choice is imminent and I think it’s important to know where that choice came from.”

Director Jeremy Herrin adds an economic word about this tipping point: “What’s most interesting” he says, “is these two teams, two tribes if you like, who compete for power knowing that there’s this prize on the horizon which is North Sea Oil” [a huge oil field found in the North Sea on October 19th 1970]. “Everyone knew that whoever was in power when that oil came online would be in power for years because at that point, the economy would turn around.”

But if James or Jeremy were to get too bogged down in the actual policies and economic moves of the era, the play would easily spiral into the all too familiar cynicism surrounding coalitions. “Although being cynical could mirror the tone of what’s happening in the country at the moment” says James, “I wanted to show a little bit of affection maybe, towards that building; towards its history and the fact that it was one of the world’s first parliamentary democracies. It’s by no means perfect but I didn’t want this to be an attack.”

The more he tells me, the more unlikely it seems that This House could be seen as a cynical way of looking at parliament. In fact James’ lack of cynicism is striking. “The simplicity of the system in theory”, he explains, “is something really beautiful. The idea that we can decide on a neighbour to represent our interests in the House of Commons is something really sensible that gives us all a voice. Of course the questions to ask around that are to do with how that theory really works in modern democracy but the simplicity and the honour of it I found quite….affectionate.”

And that’s what’s at the core of This House: the daily grind, the drama and the non sequitors that amount to the passing of laws. It’s a depiction of what James calls, “the people in the engine rooms with their sleeves rolled up getting the bills passed. These guys in Westminster and parliament” he continues, “are the ones who do most of the work, the people in Downing Street make all of the decisions, but a lot of the graft is about numbers, about making sure your side has more MPs in the house on the night of the vote than others. It means whips carrying very sick people in to vote, bribing, blackmailing, manipulating figures, making pacts and alliances with different parties within the house. It asks the question: How can a government last five years when it has no majority? It’s about how you can survive under those circumstances when you don’t really have enough power to do want you want to do.”

As far as getting things done goes, the period of the last hung parliament was an insanely awkward one to navigate politically. A period of increasing sexual liberation and gender and racial equality was growing outside parliament while inside, the policy makers were still wrapped up in an overly traditional system that required them to vote with their bodies. “There’s something archaic, old fashioned and fucking stupid about that” he says, “but there is something simple and honest about it too. Because you have a number of men who are illafter what they suffered during the war and they have to make it onto the grounds where someone can confirm that yes, they are here. On one occasion, Shirley Williams [the then Secretary of State for Education and Science] had just flown to China, she’d just got off a plane and they called her to say you’ve got to come straight back because we need your vote, and you think, in what system can she not just phone it in?”

The personal stories like these account for some of his reluctance to be cynical. He talks about his research (“it just kept getting madder and madder and more brilliant than I had hoped for. I worry that it’s so dramatic and so unbelievable that people with think I’ve tampered with it more than I really have”) and finding examples of real grace and dignity in a game that is essentially two sides trying to gazump each other.

“The reason I find some political theatre unsatisfying” he explains, “is that it doesn’t put the human being at the heart of it. And that is what it’s all about: your ambition or your flaws or your greed, or your desire to do good, ot not. That’s the heart of drama, that’s people. People who are falling in love with the wrong people, who are sleeping with the wrong people, people who are ill or whose marriages are breaking down, it’s about getting them in to vote the way you want to vote. And the ethics that come into it are ethics of power, and how effective our democracy is, the ethics and morality of the Houses of Parliament and how it really works, the level of coercion that may be involved and whether there is a better system.”

“Questioning forms of democracy” he concludes, “is the most important thing we can do as a people in a democratic country”

This House runs at National Theatre until 1st December

Images: Top James Graham, bottom: Jeremy Herrin. Both by Johan Persson 

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