On James Graham’s ‘This House’

by Barendina Smedley

Whatever dark hints 2016 may have provided to the contrary, conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong. Having seen James Graham’s This House at the Garrick Theatre last night, I can confirm what more or less every professional or casual critic, UK politics geek, old Labour hack, veteran theatre-goer, friend or sundry acquaintance will already have told you, which is that This House is a hugely compelling, satisfying play, and that James Graham’s is a voice to be welcomed with unalloyed enthusiasm.

This is all the more remarkable when one considers the play’s apparent modesty of aspiration. This House takes place not on the floor of the House of Commons, that great expansive theatre of parliamentary democracy with its larger-than-life characters and set-piece battles, but rather in what it describes as the ‘engine room’ of the House of Commons — the offices of the government and opposition whips, hidden down in the badly-maintained bowels of the building, wherein much of the real business of politics is carried out by figures who, at least as far as the general public is concerned, are all but nameless and faceless. Its timespan stretches from the February 1974 general election to the 1979 vote of no confidence that brought down Jim Callaghan and ushered in the age of Margaret Thatcher. During these not-quite-five years, the Labour Party struggled to govern with an unfeasibly small, fragile, continually embattled majority. How the Labour whips made this happen — and at what cost — is the central focus of This House.

Modesty? Imagine, perhaps, trying to sell to a West End Theatre the idea that procedural wrangles mostly carried out by men in suits in sparsely-furnished basement rooms during the late 1970s are actually really, really interesting. Or to put it another way, think of what might have happened if Shakespeare, having decided for whatever reason to cut from Henry V not only the king himself but also all the higher nobility, made the whole play centre on Pistol, the captains and the Boy, always speaking in prose, with the battles invariably taking place off-stage, hence seen only through their impact on logistics.

This, more or less, is the challenge that Graham has set himself. That he succeeds so brilliantly is surprising enough that, two day later, I can’t entirely resist the temptation to try to pick apart his achievement, and see how he managed to do it. Why does everyone, correctly, love This House so much?

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this slyly surprising play reposes in its manifest, unabashed and deeply unfashionable lack of cynicism.

Looking back at This House, it is hard to think of any MP who is presented as a bad person.

Of course, in the best tradition of Shakespeare’s histories, there are character flaws galore. Individual MPs are sometimes egotistical, bolshy, boozy, sweary, blinkered, silly or mendacious — but never, at heart, truly bad. This lack of cynicism is, moreover, astonishingly non-partisan. Graham doesn’t succumb to the lazy allure of portraying the Tories as a bunch of venal, callous snobs any more than than he gives in to the equally lazy allure of presenting all Labour MPs as idealistic, down-to-earth or uncomplicated.

So it is that Bernard ‘Jack’ Weatherill, a suave yet ultimately kind-hearted Tory whip, is endlessly teased by Labour MPs about his family’s rather humble origins in tailoring, while Audrey Wise, hard-left firebrand and habitual rebel, emerges as both impossible to dislike yet simultaneously, in practical terms, a bloody nuisance. Stepping back from This House into the present-day world of politics, wherein tribes of faceless Twitter-warriors shout past each other into the echoing abyss (and yes, I’m as guilty of that as any of the rest of you), wherein nuance is swiftly crushed under the imperatives of habitual shrillness, split-second condemnation and a lot of weird rhetoric involving fascists and cucks and snowflakes, is it a wonder that Graham’s alternative, eirenic vision at once shocks and attracts?

This is a play, let us not forgot, that asks us to sympathise with, of all unlikely things, parliamentary whips. Surely, most British theatre-goers harbour background assumptions regarding whips sourced less from political memoirs and close readings of Hansard than from the spectacle of Ian Richardson giving the performance of a lifetime in the television version of Michael Dobbs’ well-informed, waspish House of Cards — another 20th century political drama that is hard to imagine without reference to Shakespeare’s histories. In House of Cards, Francis Urquart, the Tory chief whip is amorality, cynicism and personal ambition personified. And indeed, even in more sober histories, it isn’t uncommon to find whips exploiting personal foibles with a degree of ruthlessness in order to enforce the party line, leaving idealism, perhaps even democratic integrity bruised and battered in their wake.

In This House, however, the whips are shown in a rather different light. Faced with a problem that is framed as technical rather than ideological — the need to win votes, whatever those votes might be about and whatever their real-world significance — the whips on both sides, complex people with their own back-stories, flaws and talents, have to make use of what they’ve got, but in fact do so rather gently. Where are the scenes of virtual blackmail, the genuinely nasty threats, the MPs in tears or worse, that are manifestly part of the real-world experience of whipped party votes? No, in This House, when a whip steps out of line (I’m avoiding a spoiler here) it’s because he cares not too little, but rather too much; in the end, the only victim is himself, and we’re all genuinely sad to see him go.

But then, This House is a place where the obvious things that might go wrong virtually never happen. In the 1970s, the Commons was even more of a boys’ club than it is now, and not a place over-taxed with political correctness, either. Yet in This House, the sole female whip, Ann Taylor (who, in Lauren O’Neil’s skillful portrayal, can be seen growing into her sometimes thankless job) apparently escapes not only any form of sexual harassment but more or less avoids even casual sexism. True, her colleagues apologise for swearing in front of her, but later apologise for apologising, so supportive, kind and sympathetic are they. Later, an MP attracts some comment for breastfeeding her new baby in the whips’ office, but the problem here is really shown to be more of a generational one (the discussion of ‘the war’ in the Tory whips’ office is the obvious cognate) than a sexist one. (Although, having said that, the response of one gravely ill MP is both hilarious and, to anyone who’s tried this breastfeeding thing, recognisable in equal measure.)

Similarly, in this dreamlike version of 1970s politics, Norman St John Stevas’ mannerisms attract not the faintest whisper of homophobic discourse from anyone at all, any more than do the colourful circumstances of the downfall of Jeremy Thorpe. In mentioning the Grunwick dispute, no one uses racist language. Much whisky is consumed yet no one ever behaves badly as a result of drink. Alan Clark is represented only by a funny story about cars, nothing worse. Again, whether people come by their knowledge of the 1970s through reading political autobiographies, or watching Life on Mars — or, indeed, by having lived through that curious decade — all of this may come as some surprise.

This is, I should add, by no means a complaint. Rather, it is here to introduce a theme: the idea that much of the real genius of Graham’s achievement here lies in his brilliant editing of his bulky, unwieldy, sometimes intractable source material, and his concurrent unwillingness to sensationalise any of it.

Although there are disclaimers galore in the programme notes, to a large extent, the outlines of Graham’s play coincide with known history. The many good stories in This House are, as far as I can see, basically all true. If anything, Graham must have struggled to select, curate and in places even tone down the sheer Gothic oddness of the political facts, memories and legends out of which his tale is spun.

Anyone who thinks, for instance, that the quite remarkable story of the Member for Wednesbury must be largely fictional, so strange and improbably are its details, really must read up on the real-life John Stonehouse — I’m avoiding spoilers here, but once one realises that actually Graham left out the bits about Stonehouse being a paid agent of the Czechoslovak government and also the very real Lord Lucan connection, the sharpness of focus here becomes evident. What Graham has added to the Stonehouse material, though, is in some ways even more remarkable, and indicative of the often unshowy, below-the-radar brilliance of the play.

Again, avoiding spoilers, there’s a conversation between Stonehouse and a Labour whip that is at once poetic, dark, sad, very funny and glisteningly surreal — and then, slightly later, a beautifully-staged essay in magic realism that ends up taking theatricality per se, the ‘let’s pretend’ conventions of staged drama, and turning them back upon themselves, with a bit of Ziggy Stardust content augmenting the layering of fictions. What’s real here? What’s made up? When the story is one about a government surviving on a sort of political meta-fiction — surviving through convention, but without the ability to ‘get things done’, in contrast to the Tory government that will follow — the metaphors are at once complex and convincing.

By the same token, it’s worth understanding not only what Graham included in his account of the Tory whip Jack Weatherill, mentioned above, but also what he left out. As this beautifully-written obituary by Edward Pearce makes clear, Weatherill was, among other things, at one time one of three Urdu speakers in the house (the others were John Biggs Davison and Enoch Powell). During his distinguished wartime service in India, Wetherill had taken up meditation and had become a vegetarian. Thatcher’s dislike and distrust of him would define the latter part of his career. None of these things is explicitly present in This House, and yet having watched the play, on the basis of Nathaniel Parker’s enchanting performance, absolutely all of them seem not only possible but perhaps unavoidable. There is a good passage in Henry V:

Vouchsafe to those that have not read the story,

That I may prompt them: and of such as have,

I humbly pray them to admit the excuse

Of time, of numbers and due course of things,

Which cannot in their huge and proper life

Be here presented.

In a way, this could almost stand as an epigraph of Graham’s play. The ‘huge and proper life’ is all very much here, even the bits that Graham pruned out of the narrative.

One could spend all day listing the distractions that have been excised from raw history in order to create a play that works properly — Irish paramilitary violence, foreign or economic policy challenges, the actual referendum on EC membership, the thriving civil war within the PLP, etc, etc — but in the end, it’s the tightness of focus that makes the result so involving. And it really is involving. Although pretty much anyone must surely realise how the play is going to end — and this time I won’t spare you the spoiler: sorry, guys, but the government doesn’t last its full five years — by the last half hour or so I found myself, quite bizarrely, willing the Labour whips on, hoping against hope that they’d somehow keep the show on the road for just a little longer. Again, the way in which the government falls turns out to be ‘true’, in historical terms, but at the same time, also provides a final piece of evidence that basic human decency knows no party allegiance.

There is another major theme in This House that I haven’t mentioned yet, but that turns out to matter a lot, if only because it balances what might under other circumstances become a slightly saccharine insistence on human goodness — the idea that nothing lasts forever. Mortality — not just in terms of individual lives, but the mortality of ways of doing things, of political eras, maybe even of parliamentary democracy itself — hangs heavy over literally everything in this play.

The huge, looming clock-face presiding over the set is just the most obvious aspect of this, although in a pleasantly recursive touch, even this clock suffers an age-induced failure and, for a little while at least, stands still.

Time is everywhere in this play. The surreal monologue directed at the Labour whip by erratic Stonehouse — incidentally, one of the stand-out best passages in the play, but perhaps also one of the few in which Graham departs substantially from the historical record, although I may be wrong about this — is all about the sadness of passing time. Twice during the play, the on-stage band, Acoustic Jim & The Wires, perform excellent covers of David Bowie songs. These are presumably employed both to inject an effective dose of 1970s period style — but also, in each case, to borrow someone else’s haunting poetry on the subject of imminent mortality, now rendered even more poignant by Bowie’s own death last year, when he so clearly realised that time was running out for him.

And then there are the deaths — so many deaths. This House is an extremely funny play, but it is also a very black one. At times, the mounting death toll is, again, Shakespearean, approaching the Titus Andronicus end of the spectrum, if not moving on towards John Webster. So precarious is the Labour government’s tiny majority that by-elections must be avoided at all costs, with the result that desperately ill MPs have to be wheeled in for every important vote, particularly once the convention regarding pairing breaks down. Quite a few simply die on the job. There’s dark humour in this, but at the same time, there’s that same insistence that politicians are in fact human beings, complete with families, normal human emotions, even plans for retirement that might never actually happen. They aren’t just abstractions. They feel the stress of long hours, deselection battles, doing their job as so many people have to do, not just in parliament. And when they die, it hurts.

Graham is absolutely never callous about this. Some of the deaths take place in a poignant surreal dance sequence set to Bowie’s apocalyptic Five Years (a real anthem for 2017, incidentally: ‘the news guy wept and told us / earth was really dying / he cried so hard his face was wet / then we knew he wasn’t lying’), some die individually and semi-realistically, while one death very near the end hits so hard that quite a few in the audience took advantage of the dimmed lights immediately afterward to wipe their eyes. No, it really wasn’t just me.

This insistence on mortality isn’t limited to the writing, either. The staging and direction (by Jeremy Herrin) of This House are both strikingly effective. This is a very fast-moving play, in the sense that something else is always happening, someone else is always appearing from a different corner of the set, the Speaker is about to call another member, every conversation or revelation is immediately succeeded by something else. This sounds as if it might be hectic or even annoying, but while it’s true that a few strong lines end up getting slightly lost when the next incident takes over just a moment before it probably should have done, in fact the cumulative result is a sense that time is passing, that things won’t stay still, even a sort of anxiety that something special and important is slipping away — or perhaps that although we think things escalate quickly today, even back in the 1970s, yesterday’s news was proverbially the stuff of tomorrow’s wrapping around the (perhaps Cod War-afflicted) fish & chips.

There are several ways of reading this.

James Graham, now in his mid 30s, was born a few years after the events depicted in the play take place. The author’s note in the programme acknowledges that his understanding of the period has been informed not only by the books he has read, but by actual conversations with, inter alia, Joe Ashton, Bruce Grocott, Sir George Young, Ann Taylor, Walter Harrison and many others. In other words, his own first encounter with these extraordinary events, his understanding of the language and texture of the political culture of the time, must, in many cases, have come to him by way of long conversations with funny, wise, passionate old people — ‘old men forget, and all will be forgot, but we’ll remember with advantages what deeds we did that day’ — bringing with them simultaneously the intimacy of first-hand experience and the gently mythologising power of long perspectives and 20/20 hindsight.

But there is also so much sympathy in Graham’s treatment of the characters that one suspects he feels a real sympathy, respect, even genuine affection for their real-life originals. Many of that generation have already gone. Others won’t last forever. Much more than most plays or other depictions of recent historical events, Graham brings to This House a terrible poignant sense that the present slips away very quickly to become an increasingly-distant past, and that there is something both very human and also hugely sad about this.

All of which makes This House sound miserable, which is all wrong. Most of the time’s its irreverent, profane, antic, evoking its subject with hilarity and a sharp eye for the surreal and ridiculous. But as with Shakespeare’s histories, the dark is always there, shadowing the flare-ups of laughter. And that’s no bad thing.

This insistence on the passing of time, though, also reminds us that the events of 1974-1979 marked the end of an era. In an elegant touch, no actor This House ever pronounces the dread name ‘Thatcher’, although on a few occasions it can be heard in snatches from news bulletins. No, the woman who would reshape British politics for at least a generation is referred to as ‘Finchley’, or simply ‘she’, with an audible shiver of fear, generally with the Tory whips doing the shivering. This fastidiousness, needless to say, only increases the apprehension of impending doom. Yet there are moments when even the Labour whips seem semi-seduced by what they can discern in the near future. Having governed for so long without the ability to ‘get things done’ — barely hanging on to office, bereft of much power — can it be that they, too, are ready for another kind of fight?

Or perhaps, as an audience, we are simply very much attuned right now to the idea that eras have endings — ‘they have their entrances and exits’, to quote Shakespeare’s line that was used, in part, as the title of Airey Neave’s wartime memoir — and that right now, we have passed through the exit door into another landscape, and are struggling to get our bearings.

It is yet another of the subtle and effective features of This House that the author, James Graham, although clearly aware of parallels between then and now, refuses to lecture us about them. The play was written in 2012, and in a very thoughtful interview about it at the end of 2016, he points out that at the time, the main obvious parallel was coalition-building. Yet with the passage of even a very few years, he notices that audiences are latching onto different facets of the story: Audrey Wise, for instance, attracts and repels as a sort of proto-Corbyn, romantic but wrong. When he wrote the play, Graham struggled to spell out for audiences what Reg Prentiss meant about ‘deselection’ by the left wing of his party, whereas in 2017 this is hardly an unfamiliar concept. He calls the play ‘accidentally resonant’.

Graham says that he considered altering the text to firm up some of these parallels, but decided against it. That was surely the correct decision. Just as Henry V still resonates even with those of us who didn’t experience the Earl of Essex’s rebellion as breaking news, This House may well have something to say for as long as people gather together in to solve factional disputes peacefully within formal political structures.

And yet one cannot help watching the play through a filtering lens of present-day anxieties. The 1970s in Britain were, by most standards, a pretty bruising, traumatic time, not least for the Labour Party. With the things that happen offstage in This House, not all of them even glimpsed by way of passing mentions — endless conflict with trade unions, genuine concerns about infiltration by Soviet agents or possible military coups, inflation sometimes as high as 20% and rarely below 10%, unemployment well over 1 million, pressure for Scottish and Welsh devolution, a low-grade civil war in Northern Ireland, an unhappy exit from Rhodesia, a corrosive sense of national decline and ultimate irrelevance — no, it cannot have been easy to have lived through the late 1970s, a time of existential challenges to consensus beliefs about the merits of corporatism, Keynesian economics and an ever-expanding welfare state. This fin-de-siecle weirdness made for some some decent comedy, admittedly, but may have been less fun in practice.

Yet for all that, another of the undeniable attractions of This House is surely that of nostalgia.

This isn’t, by the way, the fault of Graham’s text, which is broadly unsentimental. No, we bring nostalgia with us to the narrative. We do so, some of us anyway, because there are days on which it’s hard not to yearn for an authentic, heroic yet vaguely effective version of Labour uncontaminated by the naffness of Cool Britannia or the guilt of Iraq, just as it’s suddenly easy to see the appeal of Tories who are not only decent people but also pragmatic, non-ideological centrists. Through what it edits out by making our vantage point the relatively mature and thoughtful one of the whips’ offices, This House perhaps inadvertently makes this easier: Wedgewood Benn’s name elicits rolled eyes and shaking heads, while over on the Tory side, Powell’s erratic behaviour, Keith Joseph’s comments on Grunwick, the wilder shores of the Monday Club and Western Goals are so marginal as to feature not at all.

How do we return to these pre-lapserian, possibly rather rosy-tinted politics? We can’t, not only because we live in a strange airless bubble of memes and truncated attention spans and limitless information that at the same time can’t really be trusted, but also because the lost paradise we seek is itself only a projection of the government by sane grownups that seems so desirable at the moment. Well, as we have seen, This House is nothing if not respectful of the grownups. But then it’s also respectful of politicians, or at least their decent aspirations, which may be why politicians seem to love it so much, regardless of party.

It is hard to write about politics without striking a shrill note. Yet another strength of This House lies in Graham’s decision to keep the big names safely off stage. In doing this, Graham frees us all from the tyranny of the reflexive response. It’s hard, even now, to mention Thatcher without getting some sort of visceral response. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, regarding Wilson or Heath. So this is a decision that keeps partisan dog-whistling out of earshot, allowing the audience to focus instead on the messy, contingent, very human side of politics, a zone of grey areas and unclear allegiances, where we are free to make our own judgements, and to treat people as people rather than as over-arching archetypes of good versus evil, which is never really all that interesting anyway.

The lack of shrillness also says a lot for the quality of Graham’s writing. By way of example, there’s a scene in which a relatively brash young Tory whip, whose suit and posture attract a degree of censure from the older whips but who, like his opposite number Ann Taylor, can be seen growing into his role as the play progresses, says something thoughtless to an MP who is an ex-military man and who talks a lot, often to general amusement, about ‘the War’. In other hands, this would have been an excuse for the Tory retired colonel to go full General Sir Walter Walker, pompous and ridiculous, as he tells the younger man off. Not for Graham, though. Instead we are given a dignified speech, reminding us gently of something it’s far too easy to forget, despite oblique reminders in our own time — that those retired officers who used to be such a mainstream feature of parliament (not just on the Tory benches, either) shared a private history of fear, damage and real loss, which forged a bond amongst them but must sometimes have exposed a real gap of experience between themselves and their junior colleagues. The young whip, allowed the last word, is actually quite chastened. In summary, This House creates a situation in which Tories are shown not to be identical, to make mistakes but also to regret them, and in which youth and brashness don’t necessarily trump age and a stiff upper lip. Not everyone could make this scene work. Graham makes it stick in the memory, almost painfully.

Graham would hardly spend his time writing about politics to such great effect if he had no views of his own. His politics are probably detectable in This House. Leaving the play, I’d have guessed that he was by instinct a Labour supporter, traditional but more a centrist than otherwise, with no great love for the hard Left, which is of course exactly what one might expect from someone who’d spent a lot of time talking with Joe Ashton, Ann Taylor and Bruce Grocott. The interview mentioned above adds the information that Graham grew up in Mansfield during the Miners’ Strike, and furthermore that he plans to write about this experience soon: the play apparently runs through from Kinnock on to Corbyn. And indeed if it’s humanly possible to write about the legacy of the Miners’ Strike without being shrill, Graham is probably the man to do it.

Having said that, it would also be a joy to hear what he has to say about more recent conflicts within and around the Labour Party. Parenthetically, it never ceases to amaze me that no good art has yet been made about the build-up to the Iraq War, in which a prime minister previously considered to be the abject and spineless slave of focus-groups and opinion polls nonetheless stood up not only to much of his parliamentary party, his cabinet and to huge public demonstrations but also to some of his closest advisors’ strongly-articulated protests — advisors who were also amongst his closest friends, too — in order to involve the UK in an unpopular, costly and apparently totally open-ended conflict. So much material, though, and so little time!

Finally, Graham is apparently also now writing a television drama about Brexit. This fills me with hope for the future. Here is what he said about the process in the interview cited above:

“I want to speak to the national and international mood and feeling towards power and orthodoxy and economics and populism. That’s the real story: a move into a kind of politics that wants us to smash and burn and bring things down and start again and the sloganists’ appeal to our worst selves and our worst natures, which we’ve seen throughout history.”

This, from later in the same interview, is also good:

“I think accepting that you might not always be right, and that your background and experience and bias makes you seen through a prism, that’s what’s really hard, that’s what’s really difficult. Just accepting things like articles of faith is very easy, and clearly quite seductive.”

Graham also rejects ‘false binaries’, in which we are all forced to be entirely for something or against it, as in the referendum on membership of the EU. This doesn’t surprise me.

Having started out by trying to understand why it is that everyone loves This House so much, let me end on a personal note, in examining why it is that I love it so much.

Regular readers will know by now that, in the wake of Brexit, my own political landscape has changed quite a lot, with the result that it’s tempting to check the recent past for warning signs. We somehow have more hindsight to work with, now — so who, from the point of view of the Tory party, were the good guys and who were the bad guys? When should we have realised that something was going wrong? When should we have made our excuses and left?

If Graham’s ad-hoc formulation of the problem of Brexit as set out above lacks the intricate elegance of his written work, it nevertheless sums up as neatly as anything I’ve seen in print what it is that I’m instinctively against — ‘a kind of politics that wants us to smash and burn and bring things down’ — as it does, indeed, the thing that scares me most right now, ‘the sloganists’ appeal to our worst selves and our worst natures’.

And yet Graham writes from a Labour perspective, while the party from which I extricated myself last summer was the Tory party.

Under our feet we feel the ground moving, the plates shifting with a queasy sort of wrench, shrieks of protest seemingly rising from the earth itself as habitual associations, ingrown patterns of allegiance, comfortably worn-in friendships are casually ripped apart, strangely mephitic sulphurous smells arising from the depths of chasms suddenly and alarmingly unblocked. Or to put it another way, these are rather dud, unnerving times. Lots of people have been rather disappointing. So to catch the sound of a voice that is fresh, clear and yet also sane and kind means more than it perhaps ought to do.

All the same, genuinely, there is something hugely special about James Graham and This House. What’s more, it is heartening that so many other people have recognised this too. It’s a play that, through lack of ego and strength of heartfelt, optimistic humanity, transcends its immediate circumstances. History will perhaps regard the fact that we all loved it, as we all did, trembling here on the edge of the abyss, as a rare point in our favour.