Lemonster: a sculpture of a giant lemon made out of lemons at the 2013 Fête du Citron in Menton, France. Photo: Getty
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It was the slice of lemon in my whisky that started it all

On the scale of outrages this ranks fairly low but I am driven to complain by a desire for simplicity and purity.

I am in a pub in the middle of town, taking my first sip of a whisky and soda, and it is all about to go horribly wrong.

It’s one of those pubs that you now find all over central London near the major tourist attractions: gussied up and overlit, faintly reminiscent of how it used to be but overlaid with a kind of corporate blandness so that no one going in there, from any nation on earth, need feel overwhelmed or in a place that is not like millions of similar places around the world. They serve fat chips with little tubs of mayonnaise and tomato sauce; the staff are young and foreign and wear tight black shirts.

This one is popular with people spilling out – after either work or pleasure – of the Royal Opera House, which is close by. You can tell that once upon a time (but not for about 60 years), it was a very nice place indeed.

The night is getting on. I want to go home but the person I’m with wants to do some catching-up with others and quite understandably so. When she gets up to get a round in and asks me what I want, I say, “Just a small whisky and soda, please,” as I was full from the beer I’d had while waiting alone, with a book, at the originally agreed venue, the Lamb and Flag. I take a sip of the whisky and notice that there is something wrong with it and I see a slice of lemon bobbing about.

The point of whisky and soda is that it is one of the safe, easy and universal drinks. There’s a gag in one of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books that goes that every civilisation in the cosmos has a drink with a name sounding exactly like either “gin and tonic” or “whisky and soda”; it’s the kind of drink, moreover, whose instructions of manufacture are entirely included within the name. And yet, here it is, with a lemon where it has no place to be.

On the scale of outrages that can be perpetrated against the self, this ranks extremely low, I have to admit. So what perhaps moves me to go to the bar and ask for a replacement is not just the unwelcome taste of the thing but a desire for simplicity and purity to be protected. I wait for one of the little blackshirts behind the bar to notice me. I have distinguished myself from someone just standing at the bar with a drink, which isn’t going to get me served any faster, by taking the lemon out and holding it between pinched finger and thumb, like a small, wet, severed ear.

“I’m afraid someone has put a lemon in my whisky and soda,” I say.

“Who served you, sir?”

“No one served me,” I say. “Someone else got it for me.”

I am beginning to get a bad feeling about this. That “sir” was one of those “sirs” that serves just as well as an insult.

There is a bit of faffing about behind the bar as the drink is taken away from me and my small Gauleiter returns to ask me again who served me. I repeat my answer and there is some more faffing about and when he comes back to ask me the question a third time, something in me snaps, for I am tired, I’ve already had more to drink than even I strictly want, the past three months have been shit, this whole business of making a fuss about a lemon is getting me down and, to tell you the truth, I am beginning to get very tired, in a big-picture kind of way, of life’s boring party trick of giving you a bit of happiness and then taking it away again and there is something ugly within me that needs to be let out, so I say, “I’ve told you, no one served me. I just want to know what a slice of fucking lemon is doing in my drink.” I waggle the lemon in an offended manner. At which point he plonks down a couple of two-quid coins and tells me to leave his pub.

“His?” I ask myself, irrelevantly, as I go back to the table and say that, for the first time since I can remember, although it must have happened before in 35 years of pub-going, I have been thrown out of a pub and the faces of the company are suddenly doused in embarrassment and I realise very quickly that no one is going to be on my side for this one and I wonder if my mini-Mussolini realises that, because of a simple slice of lemon, events are going to be set in motion that will possibly have momentous effects on at least two unsuspecting lives.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.