The Confessions of Gordon Brown

The Brown with whom I had slight journalistic dealings 20 years ago was kind. Turning him into a giant felled by demons (not all of them his own) adds grandeur to a short and undistinguished reign.

The Gordon Brown currently bouncing off the walls at Trafalgar Studios is not so much the confection of the writer Kevin Toolis and the actor Ian Grieve as their great big, sweating pudding. Usually actors fail to match the stature of the originals when they play wellknown people but Grieve is a larger-than-life Brown, whose introversion is one aspect that this powerful yet in the end unsatisfactory show fails to capture. This is the former PM as a foul-mouthed bull, caged and ranting in his Kirkcaldy home, madly plotting his return to power – so madly that sometimes he believes he is still in office, waiting for his lackadaisical staff to arrive at 6am.

The supersized approach to Brown has its pay-offs. Turning him into a giant felled by demons (not all of them his own) adds grandeur to a short and undistinguished reign. He compares himself with a deposed Egyptian emperor and the global economic collapse to a biblical plague. The play’s grand theory is that he was burdened by a sense of destiny bestowed by being born the son of a Presbyterian minister who “spoke the word of God and devoted his life to the community” – but that his origins also doomed him. The granite Scot was incapable of wooing “Southland”, as Brown apparently renamed Middle England.

Yet by playing him at one bad-tempered pitch, Grieve makes intimacy, let alone sympathy, hard to achieve. Brown’s failings are hammered home: his paranoia, jealousy, indecision, untidiness, his inability to manage his diary and his micromanaging: “Do I have to do everything myself?” To these is added, on dubious authority, xenophobia, marked in a near-racist and near-libellous speech invoking “small brown men”, “Krauts” and “feckless Greeks”. If the play has one great insight, it is Brown’s dependency on focus groups, the mirror on the wall that never tells him he is the fairest of them all.

Toolis does not explore where this insecurity came from. The accident in a school rugby match that leaves him with a detached retina is awarded a metaphorical significance – the Samson-like blinding of a strong man that leads to moral myopia. It was surely more likely a cause of his pathological caution. As for family drama, Brown almost breaks down at the thought of John Smith’s death and just stops himself calling him a “real father”. Yet his real father outlived Smith and was often invoked by Brown. To the death of his first child and the disability of another, no reference is made, though it is hard to believe such personal sorrows did not seep into public life.

Brown’s Scottish exile is explicitly compared with Napoleon’s on St Helena. Taking comfort where he can, he points out that he is considerably taller than the Corsican, as well as Tony Blair. His hair cheers him: baldies such as IDS and William Hague had as much chance of the premiership as a bald man has of reading the news on TV. Here, the BBC’s Nick Robinson, seated in the audience ready for a post-show panel discussion, laughed dutifully. Vanity is added to Brown’s sins: hair gel in his desk and a dressing mirror in the corner of the room. He is not only a tragic hero brought down by hubris, but Narcissus.

The Brown with whom I had slight journalistic dealings 20 years ago was kind. Friends tell me of his courage. Power must have curdled the milk of his human kindness. Robinson told the audience that by Brown’s final year in power, relations were so unpleasant, he found them personally upsetting. I have a horrible feeling that, like so much else, Brown brought this play on himself.

Until 28 September. trafalgar-studios.co.uk Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Former prime minister Gordon Brown. Image: Getty

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

Show Hide image

Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear