Beware the Ides of Boris, warns London’s king of political theatre
by Joshua Neicho
“I don’t want to be unfair on him. My role as a playwright is to see the best in people…” James Graham seems compelled to say when I mention the name Boris Johnson, giving extra bite to his assessment.
At the age of just 36, Graham already has a remarkable body of more than 20 plays, TV and radio dramas and a film behind him. He’s feted for bringing politics and history to life with cracking plots, rich detail and lightness of touch. Politically unplaceable himself, he aims in his work to show tolerance and generosity towards people from all points of the spectrum and walks of life – even Rupert Murdoch in Ink, his acclaimed drama about The Sun.
In the course of an hour, he is commendably balanced about George Osborne – “You can agree or disagree with his response to the financial crisis” – Theresa May – “very exposed in the last election as not convincing enough – that’s not because she’s not either talented, or because she doesn’t have any ideas” and Jeremy Corbyn – “His policies may be best for this country, I don’t know”. But the polarised state of politics is testing him and several times he drops his normal measured tone.
With his TV drama about Brexit starring Benedict Cumberbatch currently in the edit suite, he is nervous he has not matched his usual standards of empathy because, “Brexit is such a poisonous, unhealthy arena”. On anti-semitism in Labour and how “normally reasonable, intelligent people” deny it, he “can’t quite believe in 2018 that that has been the dominant theme. It’s beyond devastating actually”. And he has our tousled would-be PM down as a crass and reckless provocateur, on the same lines as Nigel Farage.
“Clearly [Boris] is an intelligent man, able to translate the national mood into language that feels interesting and entertaining,” he says. “Because he’s a journalist, and because of his natural privilege, he’s able to treat very serious, very dangerous issues to normal people as a kind of sport. He’s treated England like an Oxford debating society.”
“I don’t think he’s got worse but I think it’s become inexcusable, because he may be the next Prime Minister”. He pins the Brexit result on Boris above all, since he gave “legitimacy to what had previously been seen as a bit of a bonkers point of view”.
Graham hopes to explore populism further, suggesting “it’s in the DNA of everything I write, whether it’s explicitly about it or not” – his recently staged play Quiz for instance, about how Major Charles Ingrams may have cheated on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, invokes post-truth and the onset of Trumpism. But he also admits he is “trying to work out my own response in this particular climate”. While he believes we all need to engage in politics and therefore vote, he doesn’t want anyone “guilt-tripped” into going on marches or joining a party, which he sees as another aspect of the “ugly” current mood. He is excited by politicians and pundits becoming fans of his work – Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, David Steele and David Dimbleby were in the audience at one performance of his breakthrough hit This House – but leaves it to other political playwrights to fan the flames of righteous anger. Instead, this son of a Nottinghamshire mining community is more riled by certain MPs’ dislike of theatre as bourgeois, describing the theatre he saw while studying at Hull University as a “working class pursuit”.
He’s disturbed not only by President Trump’s undermining of objective reality, but by the blandness of most modern politicians who are terrified of slipping up. He looks admiringly at politicians of the 1970s and 1980s (including Margaret Thatcher) who he feels had an “ability to embrace complexity and greyness” that is now lost.
Graham confesses to spending too much time on Twitter: “I’m really trying to stop, I don’t think it’s healthy”, he says. But he worries that logging off permanently would cut him off from the “impulses and anxieties of the age”. He’s gleefully embraced innovation in his work – 2015’s election drama The Vote was the first play to be screened live on TV at the same time it is set; 2014’s Privacy sourced data from audience members’ smartphones – but he stresses theatre must have a bird’s eye of humanity, not get stuck in the minutiae.
Graham’s new show, Sketching, which opened last month at Wilton’s Music Hall is both innovative and historical. It’s a modern spin on Charles Dickens’s first book, Sketches by Boz – which the playwright summarises as a Victorian Love Actually – scripted collaboratively with Graham as lead writer. The producers invited submissions from emerging writers, to offer ideas and work out the modern equivalents of 19th century clerks and orphanage owners – some 800 replied. They “unapologetically asked people to tell us who they were”, says Graham, since they wanted diverse perspectives. Eight writers were chosen, working with Graham online and for one week around a table in a room “throwing ideas against a wall, structuring something, then going away,”. It was unfamiliar territory for Graham, who normally works long hours alone, but he feels they managed to capture the strangeness of modern London in a coherent work.
Graham’s Brexit TV drama covers the scheming of the Remain and Leave campaigns, with shades of Mike Bartlett’s The Press. Its glittering cast includes Rory Kinnear (Quantum of Solace, Black Mirror), Kyle Soller (Poldark), Liz White (Call the Midwife), John Heffernan (The Crown) and Rich Goulding (The Windsors), alongside Cumberbatch as maverick Vote Leave strategist Dominic Cummings. Other projects in 2019 include a London transfer for Finding Neverland, the J M Barrie musical for which Graham wrote the book and Gary Barlow was co-lyricist, a workshop for a new musical and a Broadway outing for Ink. Graham once told an interviewer his ideal might be to write “a film in the morning, a TV drama in the afternoon and maybe a play in the evening”. When I ask him if he’s achieved this, he says he’s got “somewhere between 10 and 15” projects on, although some aren’t due for a couple of years.
He’s a film fan and made 2015’s X&Y about an autistic maths prodigy, but he blanches at the suggestion of relocating to Hollywood – “absolutely never. No disrespect to that city, [but] there’s no theatre”.
Graham draws political and media A listers to his shows, from national newspaper editors to Tony and Cherie Blair, to add to his admirers in the critics’ circle. His talent is outstanding in so many directions, yet he’s so low-key and well-mannered it’s easy to forget this.
“James is humble before the work,” says artistic director of the Finborough Theatre Neil McPherson who commissioned his early plays. Graham’s first professionally produced play Albert’s Boy (about Einstein) was recently revived, “and it was fi-ne” its author says, putting emphasis on both syllables. “There was a lot of overly deliberate writing. But there was something in there that I sort of enjoyed”.
He’s recently moved to a house with a garden in Kennington which he bought with the proceeds from Finding Neverland – the third place he’s lived in the area, having moved up the Northern Line from rentals in Balham and Tooting. He loves Kennington and calls it a true London village. He’s a fan of cocktails at Brunswick House, former bookshop turned coffee shop Vanilla Black, the Young Vic rooftop and the Old Vic basement bars; and he can also be found at the Black Dog pub by Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens or at the White Bear pub theatre in Kennington, which is “really suddenly quite dynamic”.
Graham has a community activist’s sensibility about the loss of local amenities and public space nationwide. He sees planning rows as highly significant and symbolic of social divisions, and calls luxury developments along the river “grotesque in a housing crisis”, although he is sympathetic to councils’ financial difficulties. Having proudly put his home town of Mansfield on stage in Labour of Love last year, he laments the extent to which the arts are London-centric, while confessing “selfishly that makes this city really exciting”.
Five years from now, he says with extraordinary modesty, he expects to be “still here. I don’t aspire to do anything else”. Hollywood’s loss is our gain. And who knows where politics will be by 2023?